Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Mr. Rogers

I decided to spend this morning's post on a subject other than myself (gasp! I know, it's shocking).

Being a human isn't a competition. If it was, we'd all be screwed, because the Michael Jordan of humanity left the court a long time ago. His name was Fred Rogers (March 20, 1928 – February 27, 2003), more commonly known as Mr. Rogers of the long-running PBS show "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood". His show was born not long before I was, so when I was a young child, Mr. Rogers was a staple in my household.

I have a personal connection to Fred Rogers in that he was a musician. You probably don't know that he wrote the lyrics and melodies to all of those great jazz-inspired songs you heard on the show -- over 200 of them. He received a BA in music in 1951, as I would do in 1992. But beyond that point, I'm afraid that comparing myself to Fred Rogers is a futile effort at best.

It's easy to poke fun at Mr. Rogers' personality. "That guy was creepy," my mom said recently. Really, what's "creepy" about Fred Rogers was the fact that he differed from so many of us in his completely sincere desire to help people with no expectation of re-compensation for his efforts. It went way beyond his ordainment as a Presbyterian minister. In fact, religious fundamentalists often grew irritated with Rogers; when he was asked to condemn non-Christians and gays for their beliefs, he'd instead tell them, “God loves you just the way you are.”

That's another area where Fred's and my beliefs intersect. Not the "God" part; for me, the jury will likely remain out on that topic my entire life. But I agree with Fred on the idea that no matter who you are and what you do, there is goodness inside of you. It's not always noticeable, nor is it easy to access for everyone, all the time. But ultimately, I do believe that people want to do the right thing... and some even do, from time to time.

It's likely you don't know too much about Fred, and that's okay. Most folks might have fond memories of his show, perhaps the little trolley ride into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, or the donning of the cardigan sweater and sneakers as he arrived to start the day. But Mr. Rogers had a real life as well, one that was incredibly admirable. I pilfered most of the info below from a combination of Fred Rogers' Wikipedia page and from a great blog post from Mental Floss. I'm sure Fred would forgive me for the blatant plagiarism... at least I cite sources.

• In 1969, Fred was still relatively unknown, but that didn't stop him from saving public television. At the time, Nixon's government had decided that PBS was an unnecessary expenditure, and Fred went to Washington to testify before a Congress committee on the matter. His testimony lasted only six minutes, but in that time he convinced a bunch of hard-boiled politicians that "TV had the potential to give kids hope and create more productive citizens." The result? Instead of cutting the funding down from $9 million, they raised it to $22 million. You have also have Fred to thank for the digital video recorder that's probably in your home. Fred also was instrumental in stopping laws that would have blocked videotaping, since he explained how recording the shows would make it more likely that families could watch them at a later time when they were together.

• Interestingly, Fred had a TV show because he couldn't stand television. Any of us who have flipped through channel after channel of crap can understand. Fred saw TV in the '40s and it was a depressing moment, as he saw all the potential in the medium and almost none of it being utilized the right way. In an interview shortly before his death, he said, "I went into television because I hated it so, and I thought there was some way of using this fabulous instrument to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."

• He genuinely cared about people -- all people. There are tons of examples in this regard, but my favorite one is this. He was invited to dinner at the home of a PBS executive. They sent a limo to pick him up, and on the way, he chatted with the driver. Upon arriving, he asked the driver what he'd be doing while the dinner took place, and the driver told him he'd just wait in the car for two hours. Fred wouldn't hear of it, and insisted the man join them for dinner (can you even imagine?). On the way home, Fred also had the driver go by his own home, where Mr. Rogers came in, talked with the family, and played jazz piano to everyone's delight. Like he did with so many others with whom he'd connected, Fred kept in touch with the limo driver, sending notes and cards for the remainder of his life.

Fred Rogers had an ability that I quite obviously do not: he could say more in a few words than others can say in a novel. I pulled some of my personal favorite quotes of his from here.

"When I say it's you I like, I'm talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed."

"Discovering the truth about ourselves is a lifetime’s work, but it’s worth the effort."

"The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile."

"The thing I remember best about successful people I've met all through the years is their obvious delight in what they're doing and it seems to have very little to do with worldly success. They just love what they're doing, and they love it in front of others."

"Little by little we human beings are confronted with situations that give us more and more clues that we are not perfect."

I'll end today's tribute with one last story. Toward the end of his life, in 1997, Mr. Rogers was given a Lifetime Achievement award from the Emmys. Tom Junod wrote about the moment in Esquire Magazine:

"Mister Rogers went onstage to accept the award — and there, in front of all the soap opera stars and talk show sinceratrons, in front of all the jutting man-tanned jaws and jutting saltwater bosoms, he made his small bow and said into the microphone, "All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Ten seconds of silence."

And then he lifted his wrist, looked at the audience, looked at his watch, and said, 'I'll watch the time." There was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy, strangled hiccup of laughter, as people realized that he wasn't kidding, that Mister Rogers was not some convenient eunuch, but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked. And so they did. One second, two seconds, seven seconds — and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier. And Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said softly "May God be with you," to all his vanquished children."

Fred once said, ""You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are." I don't know anyone who had a deeper sense of self, and selflessness, than Fred Rogers. Hopefully, there are more people out there like him. I'll let you know if I ever meet one.

No comments: