The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers
by Maxwell King
Harry N. Abrams, 2018
320 pages (hardback), $30.00
There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind. —Fred Rogers
Earlier this year, PBS aired a documentary called Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I was told by a friend who saw it that it would make me laugh—and cry. She was right. I learned much about Fred Rogers in this short film, and I learned even more about him in The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King (and I’ve heard that there’s another book on the way). I’m not sure why we’re having this sudden resurgence of attention on Fred Rogers, who died in 2003. Maybe it’s because 2018 was the ninetieth anniversary of his birth. Or perhaps it’s because of our current national and world turmoil. Years after the final episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on August 31, 2001 (just weeks before the tragic events of September 11), we apparently still need that humble, kind, loving, gentle Mister Rogers—complete with the cardigan sweater his mother knitted for him (which now hangs in the Smithsonian). Perhaps biographer and friend Maxwell King provides the best answer himself:
Whenever a great tragedy strikes—war, famine, mass shootings, or even an outbreak of populist rage—millions of people turn to Fred’s messages about life. Then the web is filled with his words and images. With fascinating frequency, his written messages and video clips surge across the internet, reaching hundreds of thousands of people who, confronted with a tough issue or ominous development, open themselves to Rogers’s messages of quiet contemplation, of simplicity, of active listening and the practice of human kindness. (357)
Indeed, here is what Mister Rogers still says to us today:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world. (6)
Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary specializing in children’s ministry, was there at the very beginning of television. Early on, he saw this as the perfect opportunity for education. He worked with child psychologists to understand the worries of small children and how best to help them. He never forgot the painful childhood he experienced as an overweight rich boy in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He also felt out of place when he went to Dartmouth, so he transferred to Rollins College where he courted Joanne Byrd, who married him in 1952 (they later had two sons).
In this book by King, there may be a bit too much information on Rogers’s early years and others who were an integral part of his life (and the writing at times can be stilted), but I do think it’s a worthwhile read. Once we get into his career with public television, I feel the book then becomes quite interesting. A highlight of Rogers’s career was when he literally saved PBS from extinction (Nixon sought to cut funds to meet ongoing expenses for the Vietnam War). In what is now a famous testimony before Congress, Rogers appeared before tough Senator John Pastore of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications on May 1, 1969 (this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of this hearing, which is still available on the Internet). After Fred shared his moving apologetic for children’s educational television, Senator Pastore said, “I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the twenty million dollars” (175). This secured the funds needed for public television, and soon Nixon asked Rogers to chair the 1970 White House Conference on Children and Youth. In 2017, Rogers’s testimony helped once again to secure funding for PBS when Congress wanted to cut its budget. King writes, “If Fred Rogers had lived, he might have felt vindicated by the widespread re-airing of his testimony in early 2017. . . . Once again, he was the champion his audience remembered, and that a nation counted on” (177).
There are many wonderful stories in this book, but we have limited space (so you’ll have to get a copy and watch the documentary for yourself!). I will say that throughout the documentary and this book, everyone who knew Fred Rogers agrees that he was truly the man we saw on his children’s show. He made anyone—even hard-boiled reporters or famous musicians—soften their edges as he spoke to them, making them feel as if they mattered to him (they did).
He was also ahead of his time in having women in positions of authority and people of color on his show, famously sharing a wading pool with the black “police officer” in his “neighborhood,” played by François Clemmons during the civil rights movement—when there were “whites only” swimming pools. In 1993, Rogers recreated this scene of both men cooling off their feet in a wading pool. This time, however, Mister Rogers took a towel and wiped Clemmons’s feet dry. Not only was Clemmons a black man, but he was also gay. Although this was not known while the show aired, this scene becomes more profound when we see the unconditional love Mister Rogers showed for everyone in his “neighborhood.” As Margy Whitmer, the producer of his show, said:
The man you saw on the show, that’s who he was. His respect and passion for children was real. . . . What he put out to the world was so important to us. It struck a real note in our hearts and our souls. Everything he set out to do, he set out to do the best way possible. There’s a poem he liked called “Be the Best of What You Are.” If you’re a janitor, be the best janitor—or whoever you are. Whatever you do, do it the best way you know how. . . . He was like a father figure who allowed me to blossom and be creative. He really helped me think about other people and get a bigger global perspective. He taught me to think about my neighbor . . . to step outside of myself and embrace otherness, and always try and think about what the other person’s going through. . . . Fred wanted to nurture, and set an example as a caring adult. That was always the message. (210–11)
He also knew how to talk to the children (and the parents who watched with them) when tragedy struck. King shares an excerpt from Rogers’s speech to the 1977 National Symposium on Children and Television:
When President Kennedy, Dr. King, and Senator Kennedy were assassinated, I felt that I had to speak to the families of our country about grief. So many families and children were taking these catastrophes personally. Among many things, my main point in mounting such a program was to present a plea for families to include children in their own ways of coping with grief—a plea not to leave the children isolated and at the mercy of their own fantasies of loss and destruction, which tend to be much more frightening than any reality. (192–93)
At a 1969 graduation ceremony at Thiel College in Greenville, Pennsylvania, Fred Rogers shared with the students what he would pursue until his death from stomach cancer in 2003:
Our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is—that each of us has something that no one else has—or ever will have—something inside which is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness, and to provide ways of developing its expression. (236–37)
Although he certainly was not perfect, he was an authentically Christian man. He read his Bible every morning and got in his laps in the local pool before heading to the studio. In real life, he was the real thing. He took seriously God’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves. Even today, he would ask of us, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” In a mad and fallen world that seems on the brink of destruction, each of us can do our part to follow suit: encourage each other and love each other. Fred Rogers would agree with Paul as he writes in Galatians 5:22–23,
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
Patricia Anders is the managing editor of Modern Reformation and editorial director of Hendrickson Publishers on the North Shore of Boston.