Fifty years ago, PBS started broadcasting “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” It was the dawning of a new age in children’s TV programming. “Sesame Street,” which dazzled children—and adults—first caught the nation’s attention. Later in the day, more creative children’s programming would include “The Electric Company.” What chance did Fred Rogers and his gentle, folksy, low-tech program have against those stimulating, visual blockbusters?
In 1972 I was preparing to be the director of a children’s summer camp. I wrote the staff to be watching “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company” to get fresh ideas for having cutting edge, stimulating ways of communicating our faith lessons to the children entrusted to us.
When I shared this with the camp board, Wendy, a mother and board member, said, include “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. He won’t dazzle them the way those other programs do, but he will speak right to them about kindness and gentleness and their inherent worth.” At that time I had a toddler daughter. Sure enough, when “Sesame Street” came on, she was usually transfixed by it, at least for a while. I would watch her watch it. Later we would turn on Mr. Rogers and watch as he spoke to her. She was too young to catch it all, but she slowed down and usually stayed with Mr. Rogers. And so did I. “Sesame Street” helped her learn her numbers and letters through colorful creatures and hilarious (at least for adults) skits, word plays, and all kind of wonderful methods. It, too, was a neighborhood. But Mr. Rogers helped enforce all that my daughter’s parents wanted to model for her: values like kindness, gentleness, curiosity, empathy, compassion, and a deep sense of her self-wort and uniqueness.
Fred Rogers died in 2003, but his manner will never be forgotten by those who knew his neighborhood. It is well known that he was an ordained Presbyterian minister, but he was never preachy or partisan. He let his faith infuse all that he did.
Now I hear that a movie is being made about Mr. Rogers, with Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. If that movie communicates a fraction of what Mr. Rogers communicated to generations of children, it will be a fitting tribute to a humble man with a simple, and large, vision: to assure children that they are loved and valued just for who they are. I want to live in a neighborhood, a nation, and a world, that looks more and more like Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.