Blessed James Alberione, the founder of my religious community, the Daughters of St. Paul, had the idea at the turn of the 20th Century that media would play an important role in influencing culture. He was right. Therefore, when God called him to “do something for the people of the new century (the 20th)” he choose to found communities who would evangelize using the communications media. His idea was to make “good” media to counterbalance the influence of “bad” media.
It seems like Blessed Alberione was in good company. At the beginning of the new documentary film, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” director Morgan Neville shows an interview of Fred Rogers of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” In this clip, Mr. Rogers talks about seeing slapstick comedy on television and people getting pies in their faces. It didn’t sound like Mr. Rogers considered that “bad” but he thought that television should be able to do better, especially for children who were just learning how to be, feel, and interact in the world.
Thus was born the idea for his TV show that influenced millions of kids over multiple decades including yours truly. Neville’s documentary is a nostalgic, feel-good look at the public side of Mr. Rogers, not delving into his private life, but concentrating on the way a simple, low-budget television production taught countless young people that they were loved and capable of loving, in an era when showing feelings was seen as a sign of weakness.
Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, didn’t actually have to directly mention God in order to teach Christian values. Treating others with respect, encouraging self-esteem, expressing anger in constructive ways, acceptance and tolerance for those different than ourselves – all these human values are important because each person is a child of God. That is what spurred Mr. Rogers.
Officer Clemmons and Mister Rogers from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" (PBS)
Interviews with Joanne, his wife, and John and Jim, his sons, together with former members of the TV crew, give insight into what made Mr. Rogers tick. At one point, his son admits that it was hard having a “second Christ” as your Dad.
“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” first aired in 1968 and dealt with timely topics that are hard to describe to kids. In June, 1968, the show discussed what assassination was in the wake of Robert Kennedy’s death. A news piece about a white hotel manager putting cleaning chemicals in the swimming pool so blacks wouldn’t swim there prompted Mr. Rogers to invite African-American Officer Clemmons to share his kiddie pool to soak his tired feet. When Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, when the tragedy of 9/11 hit, Mr. Rogers was there with a message of hope.
Neville’s film is a moving tribute that will touch the hearts of any adult who grew up watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” from 1968 through 2001. It was exciting for me to see the set, remember the songs and characters, and hear the impressions of people who actually worked with Mr. Rogers. Most impressive, however, was the fact that we almost didn’t have public television. In 1969, with the U.S.A. in the midst of the Vietnam War, Congress wanted to dramatically slash the budget for PBS. In Congressional hearings, public television supporters read their statements to a bored and unconvinced Senator John Pastore. Then Fred Rogers was given the microphone and in six minutes saved the budget moving the senator to “goosebumps.” At the end of Mr. Rogers’ speech, Pastore said, “Looks like you’ve just earned the 20 million dollars.”
One interviewee mentioned that in today’s culture someone like Mr. Rogers would seem weird and out of place. Sadly, that’s probably true. We don’t often come face to face with such genuine goodness and as a culture we tend to be suspicious of those who do good without looking for some kind of personal gain. Fred Rogers has his critics and the film doesn’t shy away from their mention. He’s also been the subject of much parody. Joanne Rogers said that he had a good sense of humor and when a parody was in good taste, Fred could laugh along with it. However, if a parody was disrespectful and displayed a lack of the values he taught, it made him angry.
If you look around at the world around you today and you feel like there’s no hope for our society, please go see “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and then go out there and be that neighbor for those around you. We may not have an audience of millions like Mr. Rogers did, but we each can be an example of genuine goodness so needed in our day.