Fred Rogers, known to generations simply as Mr. Rogers, made his debut 50 years ago this week, and many still miss his simple charm.
I’ll admit it: I didn’t fully appreciate Mr. Rogers until I was far too old to be part of his target audience.
Most of my early television viewing focused on game shows, which attracted me with the bright flashing lights and exciting music. I watched a little of Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on the local PBS station, but it was that other programming that really got my attention.
Mr. Rogers — Fred Rogers — always felt like the kind of guy you’d want living on your street. He’d probably always have candy and would probably never yell at anyone if he caught them playing on his lawn.
But somehow, he almost seemed too good to be true.
It was much later that I realized he wasn’t.
Rogers described his program as “an expression of care.” It made its debut on Feb. 19, 1968. And long after his death in 2003, it remains the kind of program many of us wish today’s children were exposed to more often.
Rogers testified before a Congressional sub-committee on proposed cuts to public television in May 1969, six months before I was born. Speaking before Sen. John O. Pastore, the chairman of the subcommittee and a man with a reputation for being something of a tough guy, Rogers might have been thought of as someone with a nearly-impossible task before him: to save $20 million then-President Richard Nixon wanted to take away.
After speaking about his passion for television designed to teach children that each is one is special. Santore said it was the first time he’d had goosebumps in two days. But Rogers didn’t stop there. He recited the lyrics from a song about helping children deal with feelings of anger and frustration in a healthy productive way:
“I can stop when I want to. Can stop when I wish. Can stop, stop, stop anytime … And what a good feeling to feel like this! And know that the feeling is really mine. Know that there’s something deep inside that helps us become what we can. For a girl can be someday a lady, and a boy can be someday a man.”
“I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s wonderful,” Santore, obviously moved by what he’d heard, said. “Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”
Years and many, many episodes later, a college student named Anthony Breznican, who was also well past Rogers’ target audience, told a story about having a hard time adjusting to life.
“The future seemed dark,” he wrote on Twitter. “I was struggling, lonely, dealing with a lot of broken pieces and not adjusting well.”
Days after a random encounter of hearing an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood playing on a television set and being drawn back to a simpler, happier time for a moment, an even more random encounter occurred: when Breznican stepped onto an elevator, he saw Rogers himself. He introduced himself, and when Rogers learned Breznican had been part of his neighborhood, Rogers gave him a big hug.
But he did much more than that.
He made time, on the spot, to listen to Breznican’s problems. And when Breznican apologized for keeping Rogers, Rogers said this: “Sometimes you’re right where you need to be.”
Of course, most adults who admire (and still find comfort) in Rogers’ work might recall the words attributed to him after the terror attacks of 2001: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
But as we take comfort in those words, no matter what tragedy we see unfolding before us day after day, there’s some part of us, I think, who wishes that kind of calm, softspoken wisdom was still being produced for children of all ages.
“All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are … Ten seconds of silence,” he said, pausing to count the time on his own watch.
“Whomever you’ve been thinking about, how pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they’ve made. You know, they’re the kind of people television does well to offer our world.”
Maybe, just maybe, one of those people might have been Rogers himself.
Though Mr. Rogers is no longer with us in person, his message still resonates with those of us who he always made feel welcome in his neighborhood.
And some of us still miss the sense of belonging and the celebration of our uniqueness he brought every afternoon. And we wonder why it has to be so difficult to think of anyone else these days who are doing the same.
A few months before his death, he recorded this message to the adults he’d spent so many years with. I’ll happily allow him to have the last word as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of his landmark program: