At the height of his Emmy-award winning career in children’s television, Fred Rogers received more mail than anyone in America, with the one exception being the president of the United States.
Over 500 letters a day used to roll into the PBS offices of Pittsburgh’s WQED, the longtime home base of the popular show, “Mister Rogers Neighborhood.”
In a world that rewards speed, sophistication and even seems to celebrate cynicism, what would draw so many to a gentle, slow-talking, cardigan wearing Presbyterian minister? And why are we still talking about him 16 years after his death?
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“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the forthcoming movie starring Tom Hanks as the late Fred Rogers, gives hints. It also highlights the seven virtues that endeared the Pennsylvanian to generations and which can still help all of us enjoy happier, healthier and more fulfilled lives.
Like so many middle-aged adults today, I grew up watching “Mister Rogers Neighborhood.” I loved it. Sitting on our plastic slip-covered floral print couch, I probably couldn’t have told you why. It’s likely I would have said it had something to do with the large traffic light and fish tank in his kitchen.
But after attending a screening this past week of the new film with my oldest son, I think I now know what drew so many for so long to the iconic star.
Like the themes on the show, these virtues are simple but profound:
1. His gentleness. From the pace of speech, tone of voice and choice of words, not to mention the warmth of a smile, tilt of the head and the wisdom with which he tackled tough subjects from death to divorce, Fred Rogers had a way of putting the viewer at ease.
Settling in to watch the show reminded me of stepping into our small Central Avenue kitchen. No matter what was happening outside those walls, my parents helped us feel safe. Likewise, Fred Rogers had a knack putting the nation’s kids at ease.
2. His grit. Bullied by classmates who called him “Fat Freddy,” an overweight Rogers was forced to confront cruelty at an early age. Shy and introverted, he struggled to make connections. He never gave up. Forging ahead and finding a few good friends, Rogers was elected president of the student council. He identified his gifts and committed cultivating them, eventually graduating from college with a degree in music composition.
3. His gumption. Devoted to pursuing a life of ministry, Rogers postponed seminary in order to work in television, which was in its infancy at the time. "I went into television because I hated it so,” he once reflected. “And I thought there's some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen.
4. His guts. At a time when the culture was going one way, Rogers was unwavering, sticking to his calling. When comedians or critics mocked him, he smiled and kept going. He was comfortable in his own skin — and sweaters, which his mother made for him each year.
Although an ordained minister, Rogers rarely if ever mentioned God or Jesus on his show. Instead, he let his actions preach the Gospel. He didn’t isolate his faith to one day or one building but made sure it was part of everything he did.
5. His graciousness. Viewers might be surprised to learn that “Neighborhood” isn’t so much a film about Fred Rogers’ life as it is a journey about the way his life touched others, specifically Esquire magazine writer Lloyd Vogel, a central character in the film played by Matthew Rays. Rogers overwhelmed the writer with his generosity of spirit, helping him make peace with the past by treating him more graciously then the grouchy writer deserved.
6. His gratitude. Cicero wrote that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of all virtues, but the parent of all the others.” During Fred’s daily swims he would pray for others by name. At the conclusion of the workout he would simply say, “Thank you, God.”
7. His love and faith in God. Although an ordained minister, Rogers rarely if ever mentioned God or Jesus on his show. Instead, he let his actions preach the Gospel. He didn’t isolate his faith to one day or one building but made sure it was part of everything he did. He liked to quote the line often attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.”
By the time the movie was over, I felt like I was five again and wished my parents were alive so that I could give them a call or hug. Instead, I headed home and sat on the edge of our boys’ beds and thought of all the nights when my folks did the same for me, especially when fear grabbed hold.
"Mister Rogers" lasted for so long and still means so much to so many because he provided his young viewers what their hearts long for and still do – love, unconditional acceptance, respect, kindness, forgiveness and an unjaded wonder-filled approach in a world seemingly gone wild.
Fred Rogers was medicine for the mind then and a prescription we desperately need now — and not a moment too soon.