Why We Still Need Mister Rogers

A new documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” offers a timely reminder of the children’s TV show host’s message of kindness and acceptance.

"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" arrived on public television in February 1968, early in a year that oozed with turmoil.

Amid the MLK and RFK assassinations, the violence that roiled the Democratic National Convention and the deadliest year for U.S. soldiers fighting in Vietnam, Fred Rogers created an oasis of calm, for at least a half hour a day.

He tendered an invitation, masquerading as a question: "Won't you be my neighbor?"

That's also the title of a new documentary about Rogers by filmmaker Morgan Neville, who previously directed the Oscar-winning “20 Feet From Stardom.” The new movie opens Friday, during another turbulent period in which neighborliness appears a victim of stark divisions, suspicions and even outright hate.

Long before the no-spin zone, Rogers offered a no-fear zone out of his Pittsburgh studio.

He created a welcoming atmosphere, in part, through the constancy of ritual: changing into his blue sneakers and red cardigan, warbling upbeat beginning and ending theme songs that he wrote.

A toy trolley ride heralded a whimsical visit to his Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Mini-morality tales, touching on topics like trust and friendship, played out there via hand puppets amid production values that never became a threat to George Lucas.

Rogers’ inherent serenity and kindness extended to his treatment of human co-stars and many guests, Yo-Yo Ma, LeVar Burton and Julia Child, among them. He wasn't a journalist, but he asked good questions – he spoke to folks as if they were the most important person in the world.

He transported that feeling to those of us who watched at home as children, and later with our own kids.

Rogers espoused acceptance and the importance of individuality, without being preachy. He never spoke down to his audience: He tackled anger, war and divorce, assuring children they should never feel guilty about their parents’ split. His philosophy: “Anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.”

It's easy to dismiss Rogers, whose TV run ended in 2001, two years before his death at age 74, as a corny relic who was behind even his own times as he sang about making “a snappy new day.”

But Fred Rogers knew that good feelings begin from within and spread through basic human decency. He also knew that, as he put it, “Play is really the work of childhood.”

It’s adults’ job is to help prepare kids for life in an uncertain world – not by sugarcoating the bad stuff, but by providing a base for exploration, rooted in security and honesty.   

“Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me,” Rogers once said.

By his own definition, Fred Rogers was a hero – a role model for his era and beyond. All of us, from the average person to the highest power in the land, could use a reminder of what being a good neighbor is all about.

Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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