2003: Mr. Rogers

“Credulity is the man’s weakness, but the child’s strength.”
— Charles Lamb

The first impression you got — after he zipped up the cardigan and slipped on his sneakers — was the slightly stooped posture and the glimmer-eyed smile. And a peculiarly brave singing voice: nasal, benign, conversational, yet very compelling. “Won’t you be my neighbor?”, and after a friendly pause he begins a frank and simple conversation about — you name it: divorce, peanut butter, bathrooms, clowns, music. Throughout, he pauses zenlike between sentences and moves slowly around his room, always maintaining eye contact. He feeds his fish. The immaculate kitchen never makes you very hungry.

Mr. McFeely rushes in or a special guest (Yo Yo Ma, some Kenyan musicians, or the local chef) stops by. He makes a visit to a hat shop or a recording studio. Then you feel a tingling sensation as he strolls toward the trolley. All the lessons and fun you’ve absorbed so far are about to be dramatized as the trolley speeds you to a royal forest-puppet kingdom called “The Neighborhood of Make-Believe”, with owls and queens and tigers and big stumbling humans. You sit entranced as King Friday’s quandary gets resolved by X the Owl, and the trolley winds its way back to Mr. Rogers’ house. He knows everything that goes on in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, and he sings a song about it. He’s taking off his sneakers now, and hanging up his cardigan. “It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive . . .” Snapping fingers and a beaming smile. Another episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is over.

Of course this is just the reportage of my Inner Adult, who absorbed all this stuff while I was still a toddler, transfixed before the television. But they are memories that stood in the back of my consciousness for years, seemingly untouched by time. And so when I heard that Fred Rogers died of stomach cancer on February 27, I had to stand still for a moment and recompose myself.

“Won’t you be my neighbor?” is a question that never (ever) gets asked in this caustic self-obsessed anomie-soaked era of American history (indeed Robert Putnam wrote a whole book about the lack of neighborly days in the beauty ‘hood called Bowling Alone, and I strongly recommend it). Yet Fred Rogers began his show with this tune — sung fresh and enthusiastic every time — and this is what made him so special. He encouraged individualism and self-esteem at the same time that he slowly soaked us all in a sense of community, of shared experience. In this, he was one of the 20th century’s greatest heroes, a fact that was underscored on July 7, 2002, when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. One look at Fred Rogers, Hank Aaron, and Bill Cosby sharing the stage with such unsavory characters as President George W. Bush and fellow recipients Irving Kristol, Nancy Reagan, and Peter Drucker makes you doubly aware of the curious places where true greatness resides, and the towering heights that it so scrupulously avoids.

Think about where Fred Rogers was born: Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Westmoreland County, at first a peripheral coal-mining region (the Latrobe No. 1 Mine and Coke Works, like many other mines in the area, is shot through with a black seam of tragedy), later expanded its economic focus in the first half of the 20h century, with steel companies, distilleries, and brickyards popping up all over Latrobe and surrounding towns. Eventually, the McFeely Brick Co. would become one of the city’s largest employers, and its president, James H. Rogers, was one of Western Pennsylvania’s wealthiest men. His wife, Nancy McFeely Rogers, was the daughter of the company founder. James and Nancy were Fred Rogers’ parents.

But before you jump to conclusions of privilege and local plutocracy, note that his family was deeply spiritual, very close, loyal, and loving. And it was his grandfather, Fred McFeely, who told young Fred as often as possible “You made this day special just by being yourself. Remember there’s just one person in this world like you, and I like you just the way you are.” Sure, the elder Fred probably cadged those sentiments from Dale Carnegie or something, but doesn’t it sound genuinely comforting and a little bit beautiful, without caving into mystical mumbo-jumbo? No wonder young Fred took these themes to heart, and braved the coldhearted television camera to sing them over and over for three decades.

But beyond the comforts of family and spirit, I wonder in what ways Mr. Rogers was influenced by the nonstop industrial and mining conflicts that simmered and erupted all over western Pennsylvania during his youth. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (forerunner of the AFL) was founded in nearby Pittsburgh in 1881, and lots of other local unions were created or expanded during the early 20th century to join the eternal struggle between labor and management. For young Fred, the Ambridge Strike of 1933 and the Westinghouse Strike of 1946 were just two local flash points in an ongoing Western Pennsylvania labor-capital struggle that had created a bit of fear and a lot of stridency all over the Alleghenies. I don’t have enough information at this point to determine whether Brick and Clay Workers Local 437 (up in Armstrong County) had succeeded in organizing the workers at McFeely Brick Co. But if they did, you better believe the topic came up round the Rogers dinner table.

In any case, Western Pennsylvania labor strife was a fact of life when Fred Rogers was growing up, just like terrorism possesses us all today. And I’d venture a guess that this informed his mindscape just as much as his Presbyterian religion did. His calm and unperturbed message of peaceful self-esteem and individualism, along with a benign concept of “neighborhood”, seem (to me) like lucid reactions to the class struggles and violence that shook Western Pennsylvania while he was growing up. And he always made a point of telling the world’s stories from the point of view of the worker. Not just hard-working characters like Chef Brockett and Mr. Speedy Delivery, but countless other real-life laborers were part of his show. Remember his frequent television visits to places like crayon factories and breakfast cereal packaging plants? Rogers’ longtime friend Hedda Sharapan points out a key element that made his visits personal and distinctive: “It’s not ‘how cereal is made,’ but ‘how people make cereal,’ with the emphasis on people’s worth in the job they do and their pride in workmanship.” More effectively than any Marxist theoretician or crusading labor leader, Mister Rogers was a genius at casting the demons of worker alienation out of America’s neighborhood.

Nothing stands up to scrutiny. Everything from Abraham Lincoln’s arrogant racism to Gandhi’s bedtime with teenage girls bears this out: the saints among us inevitably had their flaws and temptations. Still, I suspect that an unauthorized biography of Fred Rogers would turn up little dirt other than a tiny bit of inevitable control-freak behavior, some occasional sulking, and rare bouts of passive-aggressiveness. In other words, this eccentric genius was internally consistent. He was stripped clean of the messier bits that make us all human. Animal urges, sarcasm, hidden motives, rage, ecstasy: where could you find this stuff in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood? No, that’s the meat of adulthood, and Fred Rogers did all he could to keep it at bay, both in his own life and that of his chosen mission. He was a vegetarian. He did not drink or smoke. He swam daily.

Yet this squeaky clean, preternaturally nice man — an ordained Presbyterian minister too — still seemed completely attuned to the world of nightmare and pain. Later in life, when Fred Rogers talked about children, he asked us to listen closely to their “inner dramas”. Fears like falling down the drain, getting beheaded by the barber, or mom not returning from work seem like trivial topics. But I remember as a toddler being damn near being reduced to tears of relief and exhilaration when Mr. Rogers looked me in the eye and recognized my own inner dramas. Through the course of an episode he gently untied all the psychic knots that get twisted in the mind of a troubled childhood. This is why his death comes as such a visceral and dreadful shock to all of us. Mr. Rogers could charm anyone, could face down any obstacle with his gentle, frank and compassionate good nature. Yet he was unable to face down Death’s dark scythe, which tragically chose his stomach as the organ for his own devouring. Still, his passing is a great opportunity to pause and consider his message, how it’s been ignored and how it could be revived.

So I’ll choose his most poignant quote to close this tribute: “What really matters is whether the alphabet is used for the declaration of war or for the description of a sunrise.”