Posted by: on June 10, 2018




Mr. Rogers has been in my life since my first child started watching him on public television long ago in the 1970s in Brooklyn, New York.  The show seemed strange to me at first, with the simple set and unique puppets (many of whom had the same Pittsburgh accent.) I subsequently met Mr. Rogers briefly at a Parent Teacher Association luncheon in Manhattan in the early 1980s. All the PTA parents at the luncheon were hoping to have him sign their event program for their children after the event. There were probably 50 or more of us still lined up for an autograph when someone came over to Mr. Rogers and said, “Fred, we have to leave now.” He looked at the person, and then looked out over all of us. His friendly response to the person urging him to stay on schedule was, “I will leave after I speak with all these people.”   This memory always stayed with me; PTA parents whose children attended public schools in New York City were not always treated with that level of respect and kindness. It meant a lot to me.


In the mid-1980s, my family made the decision to move from New York to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. So many of my friends asked me, “How can you think of moving from New York? You are such a New Yorker! You love New York!” It was true. I loved New York City so much that, taking the subway home from my evening doctoral classes at Teachers College, I always stood up to look out the window in awe of how beautiful the city looked as the train went over the Manhattan Bridge.  But the prospect of living in Pittsburgh was exciting for lots of reasons, and I always reminded people that we were “moving to Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood!” Somehow, it was the connection with Mr. Rogers that eased my way during the transition. And, when friends or relatives would come to visit us in our new home, we would bring them to WQED to see the set for Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. If we happened to see Fred there, he was absolutely just as kind and polite and nice in person as he was on his TV set.


Last night, more than 30 years after moving to Pittsburgh, I went to see the documentary called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” What a beautiful film!  I was so moved again to see his gentle kindness to children – his respect for their feelings and experiences. I also became much more aware of the courage of his convictions as he pioneered new ways of helping children to develop ethical and political understandings of the world around them. He honored their questions and fears; he found ways to model respect, compassion, and acceptance of others. Love, he tells us in the film, is at the root of all feelings – love or the lack of it.  He also shares his belief that one of the worst and most unethical things we can do to children is to make them feel as though they are much less than they really are. Mr. Rogers was a powerful advocate for children. He knew they did not all experience love. He knew that many of them were harmed by the belittling powers of prejudice and discrimination. Mr. Rogers showed all of us how, in daily exchanges with children, we could help them to see their true selves and find their real voices.


At the end of the film, we saw Mr. Roger’s persistence even in the face of aging and discouragement. Violence was still persistent in children’s television. There were parodies of his show, some demeaning and unkind.  Like so many other dedicated people, after a lifetime of commitment to a great social cause, he had to face the limitations of what he had accomplished. After he died, unkind criticisms of the effects of his show on children emerged. There were even protesters across the street from his funeral – protesters who had their young children with them – because of his perceived approval of homosexuality. Imagine having little children across from his memorial service taking part in a demonstration of human intolerance! It seems impossible, but it is not. Over and over again, those who advocate for children must accept the limitations of their social, political, and professional power.  Every day was not a beautiful day for Mr. Rogers, but he was never diminished. If he were here with us today, I believe that he would tell us again that love is the strongest human force on earth and love will always prevail in the end.


The photograph above in the public domain is of Mr. Fred Rogers testifying in support of public television for Congress in 1969.

Written  by Beatrice S. Fennimore a teacher educator focused on advocacy and social justice for all children.

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