A longing for Mr. Rogers

There’s a mistaken impression that today is the 50th anniversary of the first Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on PBS. It’s not. That comes next Feb. 19 (the first version of what would become Mr. Rogers Neighborhood actually was in 1953). But it’s never not a good day to hold on to the goodness of Fred Rogers.

Whenever inhumanity defines a day on the planet, Mr. Rogers makes a reappearance to a new generation, reminding us to “look for the helpers — because if you look for the helpers, then you’ll know there’s hope.”

Today is, again, one of those days.

Hope would be easier if there were still a Mr. Rogers, but he died in 2003 and no one ever took his place in popular culture. Bravado is in now; kindness is — too often — considered a weakness.

Bullies win now.

“Mister Rogers’ neighborhood was, in many ways, a suburb, and, today, it retains the limitations of a typical suburb; it’s mostly white, conservative in its values, blandly Protestant in its sensibility,” Phillip Maciak, assistant professor of English and Film at Louisiana State University, writes on Slate.

But the show’s emotionality was and is radical. The route to good feeling, for Mister Rogers, was empathy; the path to happiness was the control of anger; the climax of every episode was conflict resolution.

It’s easy to mistake this as a nostalgic paean for a bygone era, to read a defense of this show as a modulated call to Make America Great Again. But Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood doesn’t represent another time so much as another way of seeing, another way of entering the world.

The neighborhood is not an idealized version of American life; it’s a counterfactual experiment in imagining an American life that is founded in tolerance, kindness, and imperturbable calm. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted in 1968 to speak to children in an era of fear and anger and mistrust. This doesn’t seem nostalgic. It seems contemporary. It’s TV that hails you as a neighbor, and that tells you what to do with the mad that you feel right now.

On Twitter today, author Anthony Breznican tells the story of his encounter with Mr. Rogers.

Related: 9 times Mister Rogers said exactly the right thing (Vox)

  • ALEX
    • LifebloodMN

      The twitch stream is cool. They are doing a fundraiser for PBS too

  • Angry Jonny
  • MrE85

    As a child, I preferred Captain Kangaroo.

    • Gary F

      I feel guilty recycling a shoe box or paper towel tube without making some project out of it. I also want the big Colgate box with the windup key.

    • ec99

      I too am an alum of the Captain. Had to leave 15 minutes before the end to get to school. I remember all the characters, and his preference for Burl Ives. Including the original words to “Big Rock Candy Mountain”: “Oh the buzzin’ of the bees in the cigarette trees…”

  • KariBemidji

    As a kid, I loved Mr. Rogers. This is a good reminder for me and all of us to slow down and be helpful not just in the big scary events but in every day life.

    Further down this twitter stream, he links to another story of Mr. Roger’s radicaliness and destroying the racial divide. https://christandpopculture.com/wont-you-be-my-neighbor-mister-rogers/

  • Gary F

    Why do I always think of the National Lampoon bit on Mr Rogers interviewing a bass player?

    • The bit with his neighbors wanting him out of the neighborhood (well I like it here, bloody nose, there go my loafers) was hilarious. 😀

  • Zachary

    Am I the only one who hates twitter novels? I mean, this is nice, and well put together, but come on! twitter is not the place to do this.

    • Nobody puts a gun to your head forcing you to read anything. Nobody makes the rules of social media. Because at the end of the day, really, how does it impact you in any possible way, especially to the point that THIS is your takeaway?

      • Zachary

        you missed the part where I said it was nice and well put together.
        My takeaway – is that instead of linking to one coherent and formatted blog post, or article, there are 30ish little snippets of thoughts up there. I’m not faulting the author on how he chose to present the writing, I am faulting on how twitter handles such things.

        • Jerry

          In many cases it would be a lot more coherent if they typed it out in a regular word processor type program and then took a screenshot, where a tweetstorm like this gives a more powerpointish bullet point vibe.

          • Rob


    • Veronica

      Twitter is absolutely the place to do it. Lots of people saw it. Why isn’t it OK to have a thread?

      • Zachary

        Twitter chops it up in such a fashion that it makes it hard to follow at times, and as such, I dont’ think it’s the best way to post an essay like this.

        • Veronica

          Twitter threads are organic. They can be storified later.

          • Rob


        • Jim in RF

          And they often don’t come through in order (at least for me). Following Reusse and Brauer can be a challenge.

        • Heather T

          Twitter is, for some people, the form of social media that is most accessible to them in terms of affordability.

          FWIW, I found the chronological numbers helpful.

  • bjnord

    Dusty in here!

    Thanks Bob.

  • Thomas Mercier

    There are far too few of people who realize you contribute the most to a conversation when you say little and ensure you say it for their benefit and not your own.
    This is something I’ve identified in the best of communicators, and something I’ve got a long way to grow in to be anywhere near Mr. Rogers.

  • PJ

    Twenty-nine years ago, maybe 30, I interviewed Mr. Rogers here in Minneapolis for a PBS fundraiser shoot. I was freelancing for the little member magazine/program guide that Channel 2 published at that time. We met in his hotel room on Nicollet Mall and I was entranced with a cardigan sweater hanging neatly on the wall and slippers placed side-by-side next to the bed. I got my interview but before we parted he had also interviewed me–drawing me out about the challenges of juggling motherhood and work, my husband’s decision to take a paternal leave, how absolutely charming and smart my son was, etc. etc. I was quite embarrassed and apologized for taking up his time so unprofessionally. He gave me a big hug and said he enjoyed the conversation so much and thanked me for sharing these things with him. Then he said, quite solemnly, “You are a good mother. Never doubt it.” I kept it together until I got to my car then cried a bit. What a lovely, lovely man he was.

    • KariBemidji

      I am crying reading this. What a gift those eight small words were!

  • Jay T. Berken

    I saw Johnathon Kozol a couple of times while going to college. I think I saw him a second time just to hear his story about Mr. Rogers. Kozol has written many books about education and teaching in poverty stricken school districts all over the country. He would tell the story of visiting the South Bronx, which at the time was the poorest Congressional district in the country. He asked if Mr. Rogers would want to come visit the students and talk with them. As Mr. Rogers got off the subway, the story would go, and walked down the street to the school, students’ faces lit up and they ran to greet and hug Mr. Rogers. It didn’t matter where you would live, people loved and admired Mr. Rogers.

  • Crystal

    I lived in “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood” in Pittsburgh for about 7 years. I adored the show as a child, so whenever I went out, I was always on the lookout for him. Finally, very shortly before he died, I got a chance to meet him. I couldn’t say anything, I was too mesmerized. And even though he looked terribly frail and sick, he had an aura about him that was so welcoming and kind, and, of course, he smiled to every person he encountered. What a treasure he was. Thank you for posting, Bob.

  • AL287

    If there is anything that proves the Corporation for Public Broadcasting meets the test of being deserving of government funding, this post and the comments associated with it are proof positive.

    My son watched Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood from the time he could walk. We were still living in Baton Rouge at the time and I was a stay-at-home mom.

    Every weekday, I would faithfully turn on the TV at 11:00 and my son would watch both shows back to back. I would sit with him and watch as well at least a few times a week.

    At a time in our country where neighbors refuse to talk to each other because of the political divide, we need to make people sit down and watch Mr. Rogers and learn how to be politically neutral again.

    I get the feeling that a certain POTUS never watched Mr. Rogers Neighborhood with his children or his grandchildren. He would be a totally different person if he had.

    • Heather T

      Mr. Rogers never taught me to be neutral when it comes to the difference between right and wrong.

      • AL287

        By “politically neutral” I meant having an ability to listen to and respect the other side no matter what the differences are.

        Fred Rogers listened to others without passing judgment on them. Any skilled communicator must learn that lesson first. You can’t be a helper unless you listen intently first.

        In the US today, we no longer listen. We just bang other people over the head with our “my way or the highway attitude.”

        • // You can’t be a helper unless you listen intently first.

          Yes, you can. The people of Manchester just proved it. The city’s taxi drivers headed for the arena as soon as they heard about the explosion to take kids home. No charge. Hotels cleared rooms to give the young people places to stay until parents could get to the city. Then, of course, there are the first responders.

          Political polarity isn’t really anything new. It’s just irrelevant in certain times. We learned that on 9/11. We learn it during particularly traumatic events when people respond without regard to things that suddenly become trivial.

          They do so because there is a basic love that exists; a love that leads people to be a “helper” in such times.

          As far as politics is concerned, the idea that people are entitled to respect is a questionable one. There’s an argument to be made that people who are taking health care away, denying food, and attacking the most vulnerable are no more worthy of respect than someone who bombs a concert. Both are an assault on common decency.

          Mr. Rogers would never embrace any assault on common decenc.

          • AL287

            I think Fred Rogers would be very distressed by what is happening in our country and in the world at large.

            Of course, people’s better instincts kick in when a major disaster occurs. It’s the same instinct that kicks in when we see an abandoned baby animal. The urge is to offer assistance.

            I’m talking about Fred Rogers extraordinary ability to calm people as was so movingly told by Anthony Breznican in his Twitter posts.

            It appears that common decency is in very short supply. It starts with the lack of social decorum and then balloons from there. When we lose good manners, we lose common decency.

            Benevolence and beneficence are two words that are not in the Trump administration’s vocabulary.

        • Heather T

          And yet, @Al287, I suggest that not all arguments are created equal; nor are they equally legitimate.

          One cannot be obliged to respect an argument that is inherently harmful to oneself and/or to others.

  • One of my favorite Mr. Rogers story is the time he met Koko, the gorilla who learned sign language. She watched the show every day, and on the day she met him, the very fist thing she did was unzip his cardigan, because the first thing he did was change his jacket and shoes to play.