For as long as I can remember, he’s been a friend, he’s been a mentor and he was someone I could depend on since I was a young child.
While “he” could be my father, who has shared all these personal virtues with me and so much more, his name is Fred Rogers — Mr. Rogers to those who know him well.
I, along with millions of other children grew up watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on PBS. It was one of several television shows on this particular channel that my brothers and sisters watched regularly.
But Mr. Rogers was different. He didn’t have to put on a show, he didn’t have to “entertain” children as it were. He just had to be him.
Last week I took my 27-year-old daughter to watch the newly-released movie, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” staring Tom Hanks as the beloved children’s icon. She remembers watching him when she was younger, too, saying he was one of her favorites.
The movie wasn’t about Mr. Rogers’ life, but about the lessons he taught all of us, about what he gave to us — acceptance, encouragement and love.
The plot of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is one of forgiveness and understanding. An award-winning investigative journalist is given an assignment to profile Mr. Rogers — a task he initially spurns as he’s a bit jaded.
In the midst of meeting with and interviewing Mr. Rogers several times, he comes to realize that this fellow is what he portrays on television — a genuine, loving and kind man. He makes everyone he meets feel special, as if they’re his own personal friend.
While this jaded journalist is embedded in the loveliness of Mr. Rogers’ world, he is embroiled in his own family turmoil as his father, who has been absent for most of his life, returns and is on the brink of death.
Unable to forgive his father, the journalist dreams he’s in an episode of Rogers’ show. He finds himself wearing rabbit ears and shrunken to the size of Daniel Striped Tiger and King Friday XIII. Still dreaming, he visits his dying mother, who urges him to release his anger.
During a subsequent interview with Rogers, he encourages the journalist to forgive his father, which he eventually does. This newly-lifted weight inspires him to write a 10,000-word article about the man who taught him to forgive, and to accept and revel in his role as a father himself.
At the end of the movie, I realized that Mr. Rogers’ was just a man — a quiet-mannered, kind man, who wanted to make the world a better place for children. This sweater-wearing, tennis-shoe tossing television personality didn’t have to use special effects to make his point; he had hand puppets, a magical trolley and special friends, like Mr. McFeely.
Mr. Rogers wasn’t alone when it came to children’s programing, but he has touched the hearts and minds of at least two generations of children. He wasn’t perfect, and never claimed to be. He was a man of principle, a man of integrity.
No, he wasn’t a Navy Seal, or an Army sniper (as some have claimed). He was a minister, a husband and a father. He taught us it is OK to be different, it’s OK to be kind and it’s OK to love.