The Profile Dossier: Fred Rogers, the Nicest Man in the Neighborhood
"Listening is where love begins: listening to ourselves and then to our neighbors."
As a complement to the regular Sunday newsletter, the Profile Dossier is a comprehensive deep-dive on a prominent individual. The dossier editions are only available to paying subscribers.
The year 2020 will go down in history as the year of curveballs. The world seems to be in complete disarray, and every month is a new challenge. So as I thought about who to feature in the Profile Dossier this week, I kept coming back to one man whose goal was to spread kindness, grace, and compassion: Mister Rogers.
If you grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, you know that the neighborhood is a sacred place. It houses empathy, care, and most of all, mutual understanding.
Fred Rogers always opened his show with the song, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.” But as we look around our own neighborhoods today, we don’t quite see the beauty. Protests are raging across the country. The world is reeling from a global pandemic. Loved ones are losing their jobs and shuttering their businesses.
Although it may feel this way, our problems aren’t new. The first Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood episode aired in 1968 and continued for more than 30 years. When he was on air, Rogers spoke to kids about current events in a candid way they could understand.
In 1969, racial tensions were rising, and Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated a year earlier. Pools around the country were still segregated despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So Rogers asked Officer Clemmons, a black police officer played by François Clemmons, if he'd like to cool his feet with him in a children's wading pool. As he was drying off Clemmons’ feet with a towel, Rogers told his young viewers, “Sometimes a minute like this will really make a difference.”
In 1981, Rogers invited Jeffrey Erlanger, a 10-year-old quadriplegic, who told Rogers and his viewers that he needed a wheelchair after the removal of a spinal tumor left him paralyzed. The episode was intended to eradicate the stigma that existed around physical disability.
In 1983, the United States and the Soviet Union were at peak Cold War tension. Rogers dedicated five episodes to explain nuclear war with the use of his puppets. King Friday was nervous that another kingdom was building bombs, but they turned out to be bridges instead.
No matter how chaotic and uncertain the world may seem at the moment, meaningful change always starts in the neighborhood. Here’s what we can learn from one of the most beloved figures in television.
(Photo Credit: John Beale/Courtesy of Focus Features)
On becoming Mister Rogers: Writer Tom Junod was known as a ruthlessness, no-fluff reporter. He was assigned to profile Rogers in a 1998 Esquire feature titled, "Can You Say... Hero?" He took on the story with the intention to reveal a not-so-nice side of the world’s nicest man. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Junod entered Rogers’ world with his “heart [feeling] like a spike” and left with it opening and feeling “like an umbrella.”
On personal development: Junod recently reflected on how the time he spent with Rogers overhauled his personal and professional life. Rogers kept a file on Junod, in which he laid out four principles of journalism that he hoped he would stick to: 1) Journalists are human beings not stenographers, human beings not automatons. 2) Point out injustice when you have to. 3) Point out beauty when you can. 4) Be aware of celebrating the wonders of creation. Here’s how he converted a cynical journalist into a much more empathetic human.
On creating a world of acceptance: The Good Neighbor is the first full-length biography of Rogers, which details his upbringing and love for the world of make-believe. According to the book, Rogers was often bullied by his peers at school, so he spent a lot of time alone. He turned to puppetry and music to get out his frustration and create an imaginary world where he was accepted.
On unrelenting kindness: In this multi-part podcast called Finding Fred, author Carvell Wallace introduces Mister Rogers’s ideas to a generation that finds itself in the midst of a turbulent and uncertain world. Wallace invites guests who knew Rogers well to share their experiences and discuss what the show can teach us about being better, more empathetic neighbors.
On dealing with problems in a healthy way: In this compilation video, you’ll watch Rogers testify before the Senate in effort to defend $20 million in federal funding for public television. But rather than talk about money and budgets, Rogers discusses the importance of the work he does. His show helps to instill a sense of confidence in young children while also giving them tools to solve life’s problems in a healthy manner. Needless to say, he got the $20 million.
On what matters most: In this 2002 Dartmouth Commencement speech, Rogers hammers on the idea that there is no happiness in winning the race of life if you’re only looking out for yourself. He tells a story about the Seattle Special Olympics. There were nine contestants at the starting line of the 100-yard dash. Not long after the race began, a boy fell, hurt his knee, and started crying. Every single contestant in the race slowed down and ran back to help him. The boy got up, the runners linked their arms, and walked to the finish line together. “What matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves,” Rogers says. “What really matters is helping others win too — even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then.”
On coping with tragedy: In this nine-part interview, Rogers delves into falling in love with television and recognizing its potential as a teaching tool for children. Puppetry allowed Rogers to create a “make-believe universe” in which no topic — no matter how complex or taboo — is off-limits. In the shows, he’s discussed heavy life issues such as death, divorce, and disability. “It’s just a matter of being honest with the children,” he says.
On overcoming your demons: The 2019 feature film, A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood, is based on the real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and Tom Junod. It’s the story about how Rogers (portrayed by Tom Hanks) helps jaded writer Junod overcome his cynicism by learning about the power of empathy and kindness.
On life’s greatest purpose: In the documentary of his life, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, we learn about the motivation behind the show and why Rogers dedicated his life to speaking directly and honestly to his young viewers. “The greatest thing we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving,” he says.
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Remember what it’s like to be a child: Mister Rogers wrote a manual intended to teach doctors how to talk to children. The first sentence directly addressed the doctors who would be reading it: “You were a child once, too.” This sentence is the reason Rogers was so powerful in connecting with everyone — from children to CEOs to celebrities to educators. If you want to find compassion, look for the child in the politician, the police officer, and the protester. The idea is that if you remember what it’s like to be a child, you’ll find empathy for those you consider strangers.
Find the nuance: We tend to look at people in absolute terms. You may categorize yourself as “good” and someone with different views than you as “bad.” That’s a mistake, according to Rogers. He once wrote a song that reminds us that we are complex, multi-faceted beings: “Sometimes people are good, and they do just what they should, but the very same people who are good sometimes are the very same people who are bad sometimes. It’s funny, but it’s true. It’s the same, isn’t it for me… Isn’t it the same for you?”
There are many ways to create meaningful change: Rogers didn’t participate in marches in support of integration, but he cast black actors on his show and made a poignant statement by inviting Officer Clemmons to soak their feet together in a pool. The program was streamed directly into the homes of tens of thousands of families. It’s a reminder that you can use your own social capital and influence to practice what you preach. In the words of Rogers, “There are many ways to say ‘I love you.’ There are many ways to say I care about you.”
Look for the helpers: In times of disaster, Rogers’s mom would tell him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” This Rogers quote circulated the Internet following the tragic Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 alongside images of fellow runners rushing to help the injured. "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,” Rogers says.
Validate emotions, don’t suppress them: Despite his innocent and disarming demeanor, Rogers was very much in touch with his own dark side. In the show, he encourages children to turn their anger, frustration, or disappointment into something productive. There are appropriate outlets for those feelings, he says, like banging on the keys of a piano, going for a swim, or pounding some clay. “Everyone has lots of ways of feeling. And all of those feelings are fine. It’s what we do with our feelings that matters in this life,” he says.
Life’s greatest moments aren’t flashy: The grand gestures, the fancy dinners, the awards & honors. Rogers says none of these things are what “nourishes the soul.” A high school student once asked him, “What was the greatest event in American history?” He couldn’t say because it was likely something simple and quiet with little to no fanfare (such as someone forgiving someone else for a deep hurt that eventually changed the course of history). “The really important ‘great’ things are never the center stage of life's dramas; they're always ‘in the wings,’” he says. “That's why it's so essential for us to be mindful of the humble and the deep rather than the flashy and the superficial.”
Remember that we’re all neighbors: Love and kindness seem to be in short supply these days. Through his puppets, Rogers tried to relay lessons about how to treat others through times of misunderstanding, sadness, and hurt feelings. At the end of the day, being a good neighbor requires compassion and grace. “In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers,” Rogers says.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“How sad it is that we give up on people who are just like us.”
"Listening is where love begins: listening to ourselves and then to our neighbors."
"Real strength has to do with helping others."
"Discovering the truth about ourselves is a lifetime's work, but it's worth the effort."
"Love isn't a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now."
“Like all of life's important coping skills, the ability to forgive and the capacity to let go of resentments most likely take root very early in our lives."
“Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.”
"All of us, at some time or other, need help. Whether we're giving or receiving help, each one of us has something valuable to bring to this world. That's one of the things that connects us as neighbors--in our own way, each one of us is a giver and a receiver."
"Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero.”
"How many times have you noticed that it's the little quiet moments in the midst of life that seem to give the rest extra-special meaning?"
"It's really easy to fall into the trap of believing that what we do is more important than what we are. Of course, it's the opposite that's true: What we are ultimately determines what we do!"
"Often when you think you're at the end of something, you're at the beginning of something else."
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