Fred Rogers—perhaps you know him by the title “Mister”—is a cultural icon, a walking meme, a man forever frozen in sweaters and white sneakers, a gentle smile on his face. You can paint him in a variety of hues: as a saint, as a genius, as otherworldly, as too soft and sentimental. Quite possibly he was none of these things, but something infinitely more valuable and complex: a human being, made in the image of God, who had a near crystal-clear view of his vocation.
What makes Mr. Rogers worthy of a detailed biography is precisely how unique this strong sense of calling remains in our world, especially outside of traditional religious institutions or authorities. But early on in The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, author Maxwell King identifies the central miracle of his life: that he successfully married the sense of duty and service to God of his Presbyterian faith with the call of the artist, educator, and creator.
Truthful About Feelings
Fred Rogers was the very definition of bivocational, although I wonder if he would agree with that assessment. He went to college and got a degree in music, but it was his first encounter with the new format of television that changed his life. He recalled watching a man get a pie thrown in his face as the audience laughed. He was incensed. This was supposed to entertain children? Given Rogers’s kindly public persona, it’s easy to forget the simple truth that anger over how the world treated children was a driving force in his life.
Rogers was the first to truly envision a world where technology could be used to educate children, to help them develop a healthy sense of themselves as both loved and safe. He wanted to equip them to play a healthy part in a flourishing neighborhood. “Until television became such a tool for selling,” he once mused, “it was such a fabulous medium for education. That’s what I had always hoped it would be.”
A few years into his career in children’s television, shortly after the advent of public broadcasting, Rogers began attending Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Rushing from theology classes back to the office to work on his first show (called Children’s Corner), he was already beginning to integrate his two great interests: God and the emotional lives of children. As the recent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? makes clear, his ordination was central to his life and work. Only rarely did he explicitly reference God on television, but his deep conviction that people were made in God’s image propelled him through the world.
Raised as an only child—the richest kid in the working-class town of Latrobe, Pennsylvania—Rogers started off miles away from the children who would end up watching his programs. He was nicknamed “Fat Freddy” and bullied in school, and significant health concerns made his mother overprotective—she had him chauffeured to and from public school in a fancy car. Rogers never let go of the wounds of childhood, especially the fears and anxieties. He was one of those rare figures who sees some essential truth before everyone else—in this case, the importance of cultivating social and emotional intelligence in young children.
Reading about his early childhood, one gets the sense that Rogers was a highly sensitive person—something I knew nothing about until my first child was born and I struggled to make sense of how terrifying the world was to her. Together, we learned a lot from watching episodes of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, a program made by Fred Rogers Productions, a foundation that carries on his legacy of educating children in social-emotional intelligence. A brightly colored cartoon tiger helped my daughter learn that other people sometimes feel frightened and angry and don’t know what to do. The show gave her a language for understanding her inner world and taught her steps for addressing her fears. (As one song advises, “When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four.”)
Rogers cut through the trappings of a Victorian-inspired culture that preferred children remain quiet, or at least deal quickly with any unpleasant feelings. Sadly, as a parent, this remains my first impulse—to wave away fears, supposedly to encourage resilience. King’s biography shows that Rogers took his bearings from experts who changed the way we view child psychology—not only Benjamin Spock but also Erik Erickson and especially Margaret McFarland, known as a giant in the field. For 30 years Rogers sought McFarland’s counsel on his shows and scripts, and her famous phrase, “Whatever is mentionable is manageable,” shaped his focus on helping children articulate and process their feelings. He saw all his work as a service for mental health—for creating neighborhood expressions of care.
As always, he grounded this approach in his Christian faith: The book quotes Rogers saying, “I believe that Jesus gave us an eternal truth about the universality of feelings. Jesus was truthful about his feelings: Jesus wept, he got sad; Jesus got discouraged; he got scared; and he reveled in the things that pleased him. For Jesus, the greatest sin was hypocrisy. . . . Jesus had much greater hope for someone like [a tax collector or prostitute] than for someone who always pretended to be something he wasn’t.”
In the preface to a 2016 edition of Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water, author Sara Zarr wrote on the division between sacred and secular in Christian culture. Growing up in an evangelical family, she heard a great deal about what was “secular,” or bad, in popular culture. But she never heard anything Christian called “sacred.” Instead, Christian advertising and media routinely used “safe” or “clean” as an alternative. This, Zarr points out, is miles away from the real meaning of sacred—something holy, worthy of veneration.
Rogers treated children and their inner lives as sacred. His faith convinced him that human beings are capable of great evil as well as great love. As he said at a meeting of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry: “What really matters is whether he [the child] uses the alphabet for the declaration of war or the description of a sunrise—his numbers for the final count at Buchenwald or the specifics of a brand-new bridge.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was based in a world where people “just following orders” had carried out the Holocaust, and its host was in a battle to save souls from that same fate.
The Good Neighbor is full of stories where Rogers’s vision resulted in something great, like his television program. Yet his unwavering commitments also kept in him in moderate conflict with associates and friends. Rogers was always something of a controversial figure, never quite as adored as we would think. He was exacting in his broadcasting standards, with every word carefully chosen to minimize any confusion and anxiety for the children watching. Because he refused to advertise to children, finding it immoral, he lost out on lucrative financial opportunities, to say nothing of the chance to expand his audience. He disappointed people who wished his show were more political. Later, he was routinely criticized for helping create the “entitled” generation. (In 2010, a host on Fox and Friends called him an “evil, evil man” for filling children’s heads with empty self-help phrases).
King’s biography is exhaustive, weaving together the different threads that made Rogers so unique. The word that kept coming to mind as I read was “singular.” Biographies are made for people like this, people who stuck out like a sore thumb in their own time, only to be venerated much later in life. But I wish it had done more to explore the central grief of this uniqueness—the loneliness, the sense of never knowing if he had fulfilled his vocation. The film Won’t You Be My Neighbor? follows much the same territory as King’s biography, with one exception. Rogers’s wife of over 50 years, Joanne, shares with director Morgan Neville that when Fred was dying of stomach cancer, he often read the passage in Matthew 25 about the sheep and the goats. “Am I a sheep?” he would ask Joanne, fearing he hadn’t accomplished enough. “Fred,” she replied, “if anyone is a sheep, then you are.”
This is a haunting story of a man on a mission for God and God’s children, still struggling to know if he matters. The Good Neighbor, the first official biography of Rogers, omits this story, instead focusing on the thousands of other stories that paint the picture of a driven, honest, innovative man propelled by sensitivity and a sense of duty to God.
I no longer think of Mr. Rogers as a saint. Instead, I view him as an antidote to a world that always seeks to justify our lack of responsibility to care for our neighbors. A person gripped by a sense of righteous vocation is dangerous to a society that sacrifices obligations to others on the altars of power, profit, or autonomy. Rogers took very seriously the way Jesus summed up the witness of Scripture: to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. In his life and work, he always sought to remind children not only that they were loved and valued just as they were—but also that their unique thoughts and feelings helped make their neighborhoods places of flourishing.
It’s both compelling and discouraging that this vision remains so countercultural in the world of children’s programming. But if we have ears to hear, we can learn from Mr. Rogers what it means to look for the sacred—the image of God, more valuable than money, power, and influence—in every avenue we pursue. And we can rest assured that our neighborhoods will flourish as a result.
D. L. Mayfield is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith (HarperOne).
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