With Fred Rogers’ death ten years ago this month at the age of 74, America’s families lost the best friend they ever had. Every parent and every child who bathed in the grace of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, if even for only an hour, benefited from his gentle and loving heart, and his soothing and unhurried disposition. Never preachy or condescending, Mister Rogers was a friendly neighbor from whom we could learn, with whom we could play, and in whom we could trust. When he told us that he likes us “just the way you are”, we somehow knew that he meant it; we cared about Mister Rogers because we felt keenly thathe cared for us.
For over thirty years, Fred Rogers was, quite simply, the most redemptive presence not just on television, but on the entire American popular scene. In the lives of millions of today’s young children, a comforting, hope-filled presence such as that which Fred Rogers offered would do wonders to help assuage the destabilizing effects of contemporary social experience. For countless young Americans violence has become the first language because it is such a dominating theme of so much of popular music, motion pictures, television programming, video games, and day-to-day discourse. With increasing frequency, we have been made witness to the incommunicable experience of fatal assaults within our schools—on students and teachers alike. While few school districts will ever have to deal with an episode of school violence as horrific as the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, Red Lake and Columbine High Schools, and others, most schools must deal with the numbing effects of poverty, family dysfunction, mental illness, gang violence, and bullying.
When he was approached in public, Fred Rogers would often deflect attention from himself by asking well-wishers to take a moment and think about the parents, teachers, and other loved ones and friends who had a positive influence on them. In tribute to him, we might do something similar—allow ourselves more time to think about those who have held, and who continue to hold, cherished places in our hearts.
There is a wonderful section in his book, The Mister Rogers Parenting Book, published the year before he died, where Fred Rogers talks about how to get your child to stay in bed at night. “Your child might find it comforting”, he writes, “to have something of yours to keep through the night, like a glove or a small scarf.” I sometimes think about how comforting it might be if each of us and every troubled child had one of those sweaters that Mister Rogers would slip on at the start of each program (In the thirty-plus years he was on television, his mother must have made about 300 million of them!). Wishful thinking, I suppose. Without the comfort of one of his sweaters, our fond memories of Fred Rogers will have to suffice; not bad in a pinch, for what imperishably warm memories he has left us! Perhaps passing along to every child in need some measure of Mister Rogers’ warmth and grace and encouragement is the best thing we can do in 2013 to hold him in fond remembrance.