Rediscovering Mr. Rogers

What seemed like a simple, gentle children’s show has had an unexpected impact on society. It all began with the way he viewed his ‘neighbors.’

Courtesy of John Beale
Fred Rogers (l.) with Francois Scarborough Clemmons (r.) from "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood."

A Hollywood movie about children’s television host Fred Rogers – “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” starring Tom Hanks – arrives in U.S. cineplexes just in time for Thanksgiving. It follows a well-received documentary last year about the soft-spoken Mr. Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister whose influential “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” aired new episodes from 1968 to 2001 followed by numerous rebroadcasts.  

It’s easy to imagine the program’s appeal to be nostalgic, a longing for a simpler, kinder time (the last new episode ran just days before 9/11). But when the show launched nationally in 1968 the United States was in a convulsive, angry, and disillusioned state. It was a year that saw assassinations (Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy) and revealed a nation deeply divided over issues from the Vietnam War to racial equality. 

While Mr. Rogers’ core audience was children, his message was universal, and often timely. In one now-famous episode he asks an African American actor portraying a policeman to join him in cooling off by putting their feet together into a wading pool – this at a time when the racial segregation of some public swimming pools was making news. (Some also have seen a reference to the biblical story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, an act of humility and love.)

But were Mr. Rogers’ ideas saccharine and unrealistic, a childish view of the world? The new movie’s plot apparently tries to address that question by telling the story of a hardened, skeptical magazine reporter sent to write about Mr. Rogers who is won over by Mr. Rogers’ powerful sincerity and message.

Mr. Rogers’ offer to his young viewers – “Won’t you be my neighbor?” – was both simple and subtly profound. It was grounded in his belief that all human relationships benefit from being based on the golden rule: Treat those around you the way you would like to be treated. “Fred’s legacy reminds us … to try and forgive those who have hurt us and to see the innate goodness in all people,” his widow, Joanne, said recently.

Examples of that kind of neighborliness may seem hard to find in today’s headlines – just as they were in Mr. Rogers’ time. But they exist, and they continue to break down barriers of resentment and hatred because that same innate goodness Mr. Rogers saw still exists.

This week the nation marked the death of Rep. Elijah Cummings, a leader of the Democratic Party in the U.S. House. Many Americans were startled to learn about his long and close friendship with Rep. Mark Meadows, a conservative Republican. 

“I was privileged enough to be able to call him a dear friend,” Mr. Meadows said. “Some have classified it as an unexpected friendship. ... Perhaps this place and this country would be better served with a few more unexpected friendships. I know I have been blessed by one.”

Earlier Mr. Cummings himself had hoped that they might become a model for others. “We need to get away from party and deal with each other as human beings,” he said.

It’s a friendship that Mr. Rogers would happily include in his neighborhood. And one that perhaps shows that that neighborhood is a bigger place, and nearer by, than we realize.

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