Maxwell King, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers (Abrams, 2018, 405 pp.)
Fred Rogers as a child was bullied, chased home from school, and taunted as “Fat Freddy.” An only child, he sought refuge in the attic of his parents’ home, where he created his own world with puppets that he made. Why, he wondered, couldn’t the other kids see past his outward appearance to find out what he was really like? His parents and grandparents told him to “let on that you don’t care” how the other kids treated him. This would disarm them and show his indifference. He later wondered, “I didn’t have any friends and yet I was supposed to act like that didn’t bother me?” Children, he thought, deserved better than that.
Many years later, in his office at Pittsburgh’s WQED, where he and others produced his famous television show, Mister Rogers kept a framed plaque: “What is Essential is Invisible to the Eye.” It’s not what we see of other people–their face, their weight, their hair or clothes–that truly matter, but what’s inside them. It was a mantra that he lived by his entire life, shaped through the trauma of his own childhood, the love of parents and grandparents who instilled a lasting sense of service to others, and a strong Presbyterian faith.
Like many people of my generation, I watched “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” nearly every day when I was little, and I loved it. I was fascinated by the Neighborhood of Make Believe and wanted desperately to visit it, to see King Friday XIII, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, Daniel Striped Tiger, X the Owl, Henrietta Pussycat, and Lady Aberlin, on whom I lavished my first crush. Having my own puppets and later my own line of comics (written, drawn, and edited by yours truly), I spent a great deal of time in my own Neighborhood of Make Believe.
(Sidebar: The OCD part of me always worried that he wouldn’t get his sweater on and his sneakers tied before he came to the end of the opening song. Little did I know, till I read this book, that his musicians were right there on set with him and could time the song to his actions. Whew.)
The other thing I learned from Mister Rogers besides the power of imagination was that it was okay to be just who I was, inside and out. It didn’t matter the color, gender, or religion of his viewer, he wanted you as his neighbor. A powerful message then and now.
With the publication of this book, coinciding with the 2018 documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and the upcoming bio-pic You Are My Friend starring Tom Hanks, Fred Rogers is more relevant than ever. Fifteen years after his death we seemingly need him again, with civility, kindness and tolerance stretched to the breaking point in our fractured and dysfunctional society. The simple lessons that he taught and lived are more potent and necessary with each passing day.
To be sure, he had his faults. Mister Rogers could be petulant at times when he didn’t get his way and was baffled as to how to raise his own two boys once they reached adolescence (his wife Joanne discovered their marijuana stash growing in the basement). But that only helps to humanize a man who would otherwise seem too Christ-like to be real. Still, despite these all-too-human foibles, he was, according to those who met him in person, very much the man he appeared to be on TV–authentic, caring, and always, always, kind.
He also had an unexpected sense of humor. One of my favorite stories in the book was when Fred Rogers and his wife were picked up at the airport and during the drive to the next destination, on a cold and rainy night, the car ran out of gas. The driver had to flag down a passing State Trooper, who put the Rogers and their belongings in his car. The driver groaned and asked Mr. Rogers, “what would Lady Elaine [one of the show’s puppets] say in this situation?” Out of the darkness he heard Rogers in Lady Elaine’s voice reply, “She’d probably say, ‘Oh shit!'”
I find it difficult to read about Fred Rogers–or to watch him–without channeling his behavior. And that’s not a bad thing. To wit: while reading this book, I drove to work one morning, and in my haste to get through a stop sign to secure a scarce parking spot, I failed to look both ways and almost ran into an older man who was crossing the street from my right. I suddenly saw him out of the corner of my eye and could hear him yelling at me through the car window.
I slammed on the brakes and he crossed behind me. As he came around the car, his face flush with anger, I rolled my window down.
Pre-Fred-Rogers Stan, impatient and late for work, at this point might have called this fellow a name that would have implied that his parents weren’t married. But I could hear Mister Rogers’ voice in my head: “There are three ways to accomplish success: first, be kind; second, be kind, third, be kind.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, “I didn’t see you.” He wasn’t expecting that. “Well,” he barked and sputtered, “look both ways next time, okay?”
In as friendly a voice as I could muster, with nary a hint of sarcasm, I replied, “Yes sir, I sure will. I’m awfully sorry.” He looked perplexed and turned on his heel and walked off.
Fred Rogers believed, as his biographer so eloquently puts it, that human kindness will always make life better. Such a simple lesson, but one that struggles to be heard through the noise and anger of modern society.
“When I was a boy,” he said, “I used to think that strong meant having big muscles, physical power; but the longer I live, the more I realize that real strength has much more to do with what is not seen. Real strength has to do with helping others.”
Need inspiration? Pick up this book, watch the above-mentioned documentary, or simply go online and watch a few of his shows.
Then pick up his standard and carry it forward. It’s not too late to make it a beautiful day in the neighborhood.