America needs more people like Fred Rogers—a hell of a role model

I’m on vacation this week, so please enjoy this column from last summer.

Fred Rogers was an evolved human being. I recognize that now—as an adult, as a mother, as a person who would have benefited from having someone like him around during childhood.

I didn’t see that as a kid. In fact, though I watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood countless times, I viewed him as the chief weirdo in his whacky Neighborhood of Make-Believe. To be honest, his puppetry creeped me out—especially Lady Elaine Fairchilde, the witch-like, red-nosed puppet whose voice sounded like nails on a chalkboard. As for Rogers, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around his tender, deliberative style of talking to kids like me.

That’s not to say I disliked the show. Like other Gen-Xers, I watched it quite often, likely because there weren’t many options in the early 1980s. I may have tuned in as a warmup to Sesame Street. I can’t recall.

What I do remember is that Rogers was reliable. He started each show with his signature entrance: singing that cheesy yet catchy theme song while taking a stroll to the closet to swap his jacket for a comfy sweater, and then winding it down while changing from loafers to sneakers.

Clearly, he was a good person—predictably and perhaps unrealistically so. I mean, who talks to kids like that? Nobody in my life—that’s for sure.

Recently, I was drawn to the new documentary about the real-life Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I watched it last weekend in a sold-out Pageant Theatre with folks who, like me, were seeking relief from the news of the day. I was crossing my fingers that the guy I remembered was at least similar to the man on public television.

I discovered several things about Rogers, including the fact that he was an ordained minister. In hindsight, that makes sense. Mister Rogers didn’t preach religion, but he certainly preached love—for others and oneself. That whole “love thy neighbor as thyself” thing really stuck with him, it would seem.

Perhaps one of the stranger things the documentary reveals is that Rogers had a bit of an obsession with the number 143, which, when broken into three numbers, connotes the message “I love you.” For those who didn’t have pagers in the 1990s, I’ll translate: “I” is one letter, “love” is four letters, and “you” is three letters. He also prided himself on weighing exactly 143 pounds.

Eccentricities aside, Rogers was brave and his show resulted in breakthrough television. In one episode that originally aired in 1969, for example, he invites the local police officer, played by a black man, to join him in cooling his feet off in a mini pool. That was a big deal in the year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Indeed, for the millions of kids who got to know Mister Rogers during his show’s national run on PBS—from the late 1960s to 2001—Fred Rogers was a hell of a role model, a bold visionary with a calming presence in a chaotic world. We just didn’t realize that at the time—or at least I didn’t.

There are several takeaways from Won’t You Be My Neighbor? For me, the biggest is that America needs more people like Fred Rogers, especially now.