First, a confession. I never really got Mister Rogers, at least while he was performing in his children’s television show. Maybe it’s because I was very young when PBS, in the guise of its predecessor (NET), was still a primordial ooze of Physics professors writing long equations on chalkboards, grainy British programming, and a cooking show where a quirky lady taught viewers how to turn a calf’s foot into aspic.
When Mister Rogers launched in 1966, it took a while to understand that he was something different and, once paired with Sesame Street in late 1969, something better for children to watch than Soupy Sales or Bozo. By then I had outgrown my Mister Rogers moment, so only later did I come to appreciate who Fred Rogers (1928-2003) was and his impact on so many people. Now, after reading Maxwell King’s The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers (Abrams Press, 2018), I have come to understand that we need people like Fred Rogers more than ever.
When Mister Rogers was in his prime—and his show ran over for thirty years until 2001--his Neighborhood could reach 10 percent of America’s households, some ten million children. And there were plenty of kids who did get Mister Rogers right away. WGBH in Boston had a meet-the-host event in 1967 expecting five hundred people. Five thousand showed up. Rogers became among the most beloved of children’s performers (a term he disliked), often singing to them, “It’s you, I like, the way you are right now.”
After the 2012 massacre at Newtown, Connecticut, and again after the bombing at the Ariana Grande concert in England in 2017, Americans flocked to the web to hear Mister Rogers'—a Presbyterian minister—most famous words of comfort: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” It’s hard not to think that people were searching for that wisdom this week when tragedy came to the historically Jewish Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill where Rogers lived and filmed his show.
Here are a few of my takeaways from Maxwell King’s excellent biography: