It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…Fred Rogers and how he changed TV
WASHINGTON DC, February 20, 2013 – Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood premiered nationwide 45 years ago yesterday, on February 19, 1968. Even for a kid who grew up in South America, Mr. Rogers evokes memories of childhood, wholesomeness, and a time when everything seemed simpler. Despite the countless jokes and parodies, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood endures in our collective memory. Some have even called it “the greatest television show ever made.”
Fred McFeely Rogers (March 20, 1928 – February 27, 2003), a Presbyterian minister, educator, puppeteer, author, songwriter, and television host famously said that he got into television because he disliked the programming that children were being bombarded with. In an era when children’s television was headed in a different direction, Mr. Rogers introduced a show focused on building self-esteem and understanding. His gentle voice spoke directly to each child and made all of us feel special.
A truly exemplary human being, Mr. Rogers was married to the same woman throughout his life, never smoked or drank, was a vegetarian, and swam every morning. Mr. Rogers didn’t judge. When asked to speak against non-Christians or homosexuals, Mr. Rogers would say that God loves each and every one of us just the way we are. One of his most popular songs, It’s You I Like comes to mind. In one of my favorite versions, he sings it with a handicapped friend.
Watching Mr. Rogers as an adult is hypnotic. The years and parodies have not dulled his emotional connection with the viewer as he looks at the camera and speaks in his no-nonsense, matter-of-fact way. He brings us back to the children we were in a genuine and very sincere way. He speaks to you, the child you were; watching him you can almost feel like that child again, if only for a few minutes. Every time I catch Mr. Rogers on the Internet, I feel the urge to call my brother and catch up, perhaps reminded of sitting together in front of the TV after school pretending we weren’t into it but not missing a single episode.
I could write for days about how wonderful Mr. Rogers was, how much I learned from him, and how much his show helped me when I was feeling confused, angry, or scared.
Credited with saving the PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, his unforgettable plea to the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications in 1969 encapsulates who he was and what his show meant, in Mr. Rogers’ own words.
Explaining his show to Senator John O. Pastore, who was not familiar with Rogers or what he did, the always soft-spoken host stated that his show, as opposed to cartoons and other children’s programming of the time, addressed childhood’s “inner drama.” Rogers told Pastore that his show was “an expression of care every day to each child,” and for that reason he ended every show telling each viewer that they had made today a special day just by being themselves because there is no person in the world like “you.”
“I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable,” Mr. Rogers continues, “we will have done a great service for mental health.” Rogers argues that showing two grown men working out their feelings can be much more dramatic that showing gunfire.
Mr. Rogers finishes his testimony by quoting the words to his song, “What do you do with the mad that you feel?” I have provided the lyrics below. When he finished, the notoriously tough Senator, visibly touched, stated, “Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”
In the wake of growingly polarized discussion on gun violence and mental health among young people, Mr. Rogers’ philosophy on childhood education- especially emotional education- is more pertinent than ever. It seems like almost ten years after his death there is still a lot Mr. Rogers can teach us.
By Fred Rogers
What do you do with the mad that you feel
When you feel so mad you could bite?
When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong…
And nothing you do seems very right?
What do you do? Do you punch a bag?
Do you pound some clay or some dough?
Do you round up friends for a game of tag?
Or see how fast you go?
It’s great to be able to stop
When you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong,
And be able to do something else instead
And think this song:
I can stop when I want to
Can stop when I wish.
I can stop, stop, stop any time.
And what a good feeling to feel like this
And know that the feeling is really mine.
Know that there’s something deep inside
That helps us become what we can.
For a girl can be someday a woman
And a boy can be someday a man.