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Everyone's neighbor


Neighborly
Fred Rogers, 73, relaxes in his Family Communication Inc. office in Pittsburgh earlier this month.  Photo/Gary Tramontina
Photo/Gary Tramontina
Fred Rogers, 73, relaxes in his Family Communication Inc. office in Pittsburgh earlier this month. The last fresh episodes of his TV show were taped in December, to be shown in August, and Rogers has plans for other projects.

ON THE WEB

Two Web sites offer more information on Mister Rogers and his neighborhood, both real and imagined: www.misterrogers.org and www.pbs.org/rogers.

WORDS OF WISDOM

A few of the most familiar lines from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood":

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor, would you be mine?

It's such a good feeling to know you're alive; it's such a happy feeling, you're growing inside.

There's only one person in the whole world like you, and people like you just the way you are.

You always make each day such a special day. You know how - just by being you.

I'll be back when the day is new and I'll have more ideas for you, and you'll have things you'll want to talk about. I will, too.

It's good to talk about things, whether they're good or scary or sad.

RELATED LINK: Stingl: Mr. Rogers helped ease their pain

Mister Rogers' message continues to encourage

By ALAN BORSUK
of the Journal Sentinel staff
Last Updated: May 17, 2001

Pittsburgh - Fred Rogers was a bit perturbed by something that had happened a few mornings before in Mister Rogers' actual neighborhood.

He said, "I swam early this morning" - he does that every day - "and somebody grabbed me on the street. He knew who I was. And he was talking to some co-workers, and said to me, 'Tell these people there's only one way to God.'

"And I said, 'God loves you just the way you are.' "

" 'No, no, no, there's only one way' " - imitating the other man, Rogers switched to the authoritarian voice of King Friday the XIII, one of the characters he made famous in his TV show's "Neighborhood of Make-Believe."

"It really concerned me," Rogers continued, as he sat on the couch in his tiny office on the east side of Pittsburgh. "I've just been living with that ever since I got here, and I don't know how well I handled it.

"But I trust that I was able to help the people that he was in some way excluding to feel that there are. We have a song on 'The Neighborhood' that says, 'There are many ways to say I love you' and I want so much for children to know that that's so. Because each one of us is unique."

Interesting things happen when Mister Rogers goes out in public, even if, these days, you can expect to find him wearing a bow tie and sport coat and not his famous cardigan sweaters, made by his mother.

For example, when he walked into a room packed with about 150 planetarium officials from the eastern United States the evening before this conversation, he was greeted with an enthusiastic standing ovation. Earlier, at a reception, people - all adults - lined up to tell him what he meant to them and their children.

If the crowd at the Marquette University spring commencement today at the U.S. Cellular Arena is typical, Rogers will be greeted with almost childlike enthusiasm - and we mean that in the best way - when he gives the commencement address and receives an honorary degree. Marquette will join more than three dozen universities and colleges that have honored him in that way.

Then there are the people who want to share their pain with him. Or who sing out, "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood," one of his trademark lines. Or, like the man at the pool, want him to tell them or the people they are with how to lead their lives.

Making goodness attractive

It's not just that Fred Rogers is famous. It's that, at 73 and after 33 years as host of the public television children's show, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," he hits such a sweet, strong and emotionally healthy chord with two generations of Americans. He is part of the bedrock of America's common culture.

If God loves you just the way you are, Rogers has made a career of telling children by the millions that people should follow the same principle, and he has dedicated himself to trying to do that.

Perhaps the best way to understand his career is to view it as his ministry. He is, after all, an ordained Presbyterian minister. His is a television pulpit, where he has done all he can to build the self-confidence of children, give them a calm time in their day filled with music and imagination, aimed at bringing out the good in them and letting them see the good in the world.

"It's very easy for some reason to make evil attractive, and it's very difficult to make goodness attractive, but the latter is what we must be about, those of us who care about the future," he said in a 90-minute interview.

One television expert once joked that Rogers was like a singing psychiatrist for children. His response?

"Hopefully, I'm a singing neighbor who loves them and whose only expectation for them is that they have a healthy, happy childhood."

He defined a neighbor as "the person you happen to be with at the moment," especially if that person needs help for any reason.

"Never underestimate the value of the neighbor, the uncle, the aunt, the grandparent," he said. "That's who I consider myself to be in this whole neighborhood scheme, the person who comes and loves you as you are."

Rogers does that in the slow, soft style that makes his show almost painful for many adults to watch and makes him ripe for parody by some of the nation's most prominent comedians.

But the show is for children, and for them, the pacing and gentleness is an excellent fit. Nielsen ratings have shown that in some seasons, Mister Rogers' audience has numbered as high as 9 million people a week.

In person, Rogers is as gentle, as slow in his speech, and as kindly as he is on the air.

"Fred is completely authentic," said John Wilson, a senior vice president of the Public Broadcasting System who oversees children's programming. "He is the man you see on 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.' "

Wilson said that Rogers had set the tone for all children's programming on PBS and called Rogers' neighborhood "a quiet snug harbor where they (kids) can go."

Changing but going on

But changes are under way in "The Neighborhood." The last fresh episodes were taped in December, to be shown in August.

That hardly means the end of the show. It is largely undated and programs shot 20 years ago or more are frequently used on PBS. With almost 1,000 programs on tape, it is fair to assume that the show will keep running - perhaps on PBS, perhaps not - for many years to come.

The end of new shows hardly means Rogers is done with his ministry. He said he feels good about the end of production, but is definitely not retiring. He and and the dozen other people who work for his non-profit company, Family Communication Inc., have numerous ventures under way.

Never underestimate the value of the neighbor, the uncle, the aunt, the grandparent.

- Fred Rogers, host of 'Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood'

Some are in the classic vein of the "Neighborhood" shows. There is the collaboration with Pittsburgh's Buhl Planetarium to create a planetarium program, "The Sky Above Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," introducing sky phenomena to preschoolers through a story line involving the "Neighborhood of Make-Believe" characters. That's what Rogers was presenting at the recent planetarium convention.

But other projects show how Rogers and Family Communication have increasingly tackled some of the heaviest matters a child can face.

Rogers' show over the years has taken on subjects including death, divorce and adoption. Now, Family Communication has created books and videos for children who have a mentally ill parent or who have lived in battered women's shelters. It has put out material on how to sensitize children to racial and ethnic issues. It also has a training program for educators on anger management for children, and is developing programs for law enforcement agencies on dealing with children in crisis situations.

The power of listening

Rogers said that throughout the ages, sages have said the keys to a good life are "silence, solitude, helping others and refraining from consumerism."

"I don't know why more of us don't listen," he said. "We're living the consequences of that." He sees it in the mail he gets each day, some of it from people who are now adults and who write about how he was an island of caring in their childhood homes filled with anger and pain.

Rogers' views on television probably are not typical for someone who was made a star by the medium.

Wonderful things can be done on TV, he says, and it's an enormously personal medium. But he sees many things on TV that are harmful to both children and adults.

"One of the most damaging things that television has done . . . in the spirit of fun . . . is the number of put-downs that some of the comedy programs and some of the other programs have broadcast," he said, a complaint made all the more emphatic when children are the ones dishing out the put-downs.

Beginning with "Laugh-in" three decades ago, television shows have moved increasingly to shows that use fast changes on the screen, zooming in and out, changing scenes quickly. That's not Mister Rogers' style, and he argues that what is known about child development supports him.

"I'm convinced that kids are not served well by quick changes on the screen like that," he said.

His advice for parents when it comes to their children and television:

"This sounds so elitist that I hate to even say it. They will have to be prepared to be the ogre, to set the limits and to say, 'Turn it off.' The sad thing is that there aren't that many, as far as I know, who are able to censor it all."

"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" has always relied heavily on routines and rituals, things Rogers says are both healthy for and appealing to children.

That goes for the little things he is famous for - putting on his cardigan sweater and sneakers at the start of each program, feeding his fish during every show - as well as for the bigger structure of the show. This calls for a song, usually on a theme of emotional development, a visit to the "Neighborhood of Make-Believe," where each week's plot focuses on a theme and message, visits by characters such as Mr. McFeely, the Speedy Delivery Man, and slow-paced monologues by Rogers.

Warm associations

For many now-grown watchers of the show, those rituals stick in their minds - and they still bring out that sense of warmth about Fred Rogers.

Andy Stith, who was president of the Marquette student government this past year and who will be one of the graduates in the audience today, said, "You look back at the parts you remember, like him changing his sweater or changing his shoes or the trolley or the Land of Make-Believe - it's amazing the things that stick with me."

He called Mister Rogers a "kind, caring, gentle persona" who brought him as a child a message that people should be good to one another.

Laura Monahan, an education major from Mount Prospect, Ill., who will be one of the graduates, had an immediate association with the name Mister Rogers: "Sweaters and shoes."

The sneakers thing, which began in the 1950s when Rogers had to rush around behind the scenes of a Pittsburgh children's show he worked on, is still part of him. A pair lies on the floor of his office, right next to the little table where he keeps his laptop computer.

Moynihan said she was glad Rogers would be her commencement speaker. "It's something everybody can relate to," she said. "Everyone knows who he is."

Jessica Navratil, a graduate student in speech and language pathology from the Milwaukee area, said that, just like in one of Rogers' best-known songs, she was afraid as a child that she would go down the drain when she took a bath. His song helped reassure her it wouldn't happen.

Several students said they liked the idea that graduates would reach the end of college with the person who was there when they began their education as preschoolers.

John Hopkins, a spokesman for Marquette, said Rogers was chosen for the commencement speech and honorary degree because he has demonstrated the personal values that Marquette stands for - personal excellence, faith, leadership, service.

"He's got a real commitment to clear ethical values," Hopkins said.

'Sacred business'

In his remarks at the planetarium convention, Rogers used two phrases that stood out: He urged the audience to do what it could to "help children be appreciators." And he said that anything that served that goal was "a holy thing."

Amplifying on those phrases later, Rogers said, "I'm convinced that, for me, God is the great appreciator. That God would look for whatever is best in all of us, and encourage that to be what is communicated in life."

He said he likes the gesture of people bowing to each other and has thought a lot about what it means. His answer: "I'm bowing in appreciation of that which is the best about you . . . We are bowing in appreciation of the eternal within the other."

Showing appreciation of another person in that way is "sacred business," he said.

It's the business in which Rogers has carved a huge niche.


Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on May 20, 2001.