In this age of television celebrities, it's good to be able to honor a man who encouraged every child who came into his neighborhood to be a "real" celebrity by expressing qualities such as kindness, patience, and friendliness to everyone. I think Fred Rogers, who passed on last week, actually defined "reality TV," which he saw as an opportunity to confirm that "each person is special, deep inside, just the way they are."
"I got into television because I didn't like it!" he told me in an interview three years ago. "But I never give up hope, because television's an extraordinary tool for education and enrichment."
And that became Fred's life work. It was always a beautiful day in the neighborhood when he strolled shyly onto the set, changed from shoes to sneakers, pulled on a cardigan sweater, and began to dispense thought-provoking advice to children on how to manage life.
But Fred's advice was not tossed into the air in the manner of so many hardened professionals. He prepared by praying before every broadcast. For two hours he read from the Old and New Testaments in the Bible and from inspirational works by many other writers.
Fred described "thank you" as two of the greatest words in our language. He said: "All day long I offer prayers of gratitude for God's goodness. There are so many things around us that are so beautiful, and so real, and so nourishing.... I'm convinced that the Holy Spirit somehow translates our offering in a way that meets the need of the person who is watching and listening. The space between the television set and the person in need is holy ground. No one knows exactly how the Eternal will use what we offer in love."
Fred's love spilled generously into millions of homes across the globe. A mother told me a few days ago that she used to watch "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" with her children. "With a dad who had left home when they were young and showed little interest in them," she said, "my children benefited from getting to know, at least electronically, a man with such 'good-Daddy' qualities. My son and daughter were sure he had a genuine interest in them. And I'm sure they were right."
A spirited 20-something now in her first job, shyly admitted to me that she was so comforted by Mr. Rogers when she felt alone in her college dorm that she almost wore out her CD of his songs. "He reminded me of all that was pure and imaginative about my childhood," she said. "My hallmates teased me about it at the time, but when they heard of Mr. Rogers's death this week, three of them sent me sweet messages of condolence."
When Fred made public appearances, including the 1997 Daytime Emmys ceremony at which he received a lifetime award, he liked to ask his audience for 10 seconds of silence so that everyone - including television viewers - could think about and privately thank the people who had made them what they were.
This is how Fred explained it to me: "I have always felt that the truly appreciative person is closest to God, closest to what is the eternal purpose of creation. When we look at our neighbor with appreciative eyes, looking for the good, with gratitude for who that person truly is, then I feel we are arm in arm with Christ Jesus, the advocate of eternal good.
"So much of our society encourages shallowness and complicatedness," he added. "Taking time to think deeply and simply does so much to nourish our souls."
Fred often talked to his young viewers about overcoming evil and about the importance of forgiveness. He explained that this sprang from his love of Martin Luther's hymn "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," with its enduring promise that even when evil threatens to "undo" us, we need not fear, "for God hath willed His truth to triumph thro' us." Fred said it was good to know that evil in any form simply melts before true forgiveness.
The Boston Globe suggested last Friday that the best way to honor Fred Rogers would be to recognize the power of his example. "There's great benefit," it said, "in coming home, putting on comfortable clothes, and speaking from the heart to the people one cares about most."
There's no doubt that Fred really cared about all of us. Thank you, Mr. Rogers.