Today you are not in the year 2019. Today you have time traveled back to an ordinary afternoon in 1996. No, you have not entered the Twilight Zone. But what you are about to witness is a true story. You are looking into a living room with a dark-paneled wall, a wood-burning stove, and an old square television set with dials. Seated in front of it is a little girl with scraggly blonde pigtails wearing a pink turtleneck under a jumper-dress. She fixes her eyes on the screen. The tall, thin man with grey hair she is watching on the screen removes his red sweater and hangs it in the closet, replacing it with a suit jacket. As he does so, he sings part of a song, “I’ll be back, when the day is new. And I’ll have more ideas for you. And you’ll have things you’ll want to talk about. I will, too.” And just before the man leaves through the front door of his home, the little girl leans forward and kisses him on the cheek… or rather, the static-y screen of the TV.
I imagine by this point you can guess the man on the TV was Fred Rogers. And maybe the visual picture of a little kid smooching a televised picture of a guy makes you giggle, but, I was that little girl. I remember doing it. There is even, buried somewhere in my photo albums, a picture of me doing it. Maybe after I’m done writing this, I’ll go find that old snapshot.
As a child I loved Fred Rogers. As an adult (now, no longer considered “young”), I still love Fred Rogers. Why? Because he gave me the best free advice a child could ever think of, he answered questions no-one else would, he showed me marvels of the world (like how recycling companies worked and why we need them), and never, ever made me feel small and unvalued. He never made me cry. Except the day I found out he died, back in 2003. He let me know failure was okay, as he once said, “I’m proud of you for the times you came in second, or third, or fourth, but what you did was the best you had ever done.” He gave me a unique view of the world, how everyone was my neighbor. My neighborhood was not confined to the few blocks I lived in, nor my city, nor my state, country or continent. Heck, even the fact that there was a blue station wagon (just like my family’s) parked on his diorama of his neighborhood proved he was my neighbor, too. It felt like he lived down the street from me!
I realize that the subject historical figures conjures up images of people who lived a REALLY long time ago, in fact, I also wrote something on Benjamin Franklin for this issue because that’s how I thought about it at first. Not saying Ben isn’t a swell guy, either, but I wanted to talk about Fred Rogers’ legacy, too. I recently watched Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a documentary film about him. And read The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King. Sitting on my bookcase right now is the small edition of The World According to Mister Rogers, which is a collection of his sayings, poems and songs. Together they gave me a very complete picture of Fred McFeely Rogers from a personal standpoint; who he was in life and what his hopes and dreams were, that he was an ordained Presbyterian minister and ran a show intended for kids of all ages for 31 seasons. But to be honest, I always felt I had that complete picture of him because the person he was on his show was the person he was every single day of his life. When he looked at the screen and sang, “I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you…” it never felt false. In that moment he wanted me to be his neighbor and so for 28 minutes (the show’s running time) he would address me that way and introduce me to friends that way. I was his neighbor. Fred Rogers cared about the individual people watching his show.
How do I know? Because he said this, that “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.” He showed people and children how to be kind to one another. He wanted people to go out into the world and be kind to others. To love others. And just as he ministered to my heart, mind and soul as a kid (and adult), Fred Rogers also emulated the words of Jesus Christ, whom he followed: Mark 12:30-31: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”
That is the long and short of it.
That is why Fred Rogers said of love, that “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.” Fred Rogers and Jesus taught me that love is not easy, it is not immediate (like fairy tale “poof” love), but a real, everyday striving to love others. And while I know Fred Rogers was not a perfect person, he was a person who lived with love and kindness in his heart and on his mind every single day. He touched my life profoundly and did not, as the 2007 Fox & Friends debate suggests; “ruin an entire generation” by telling kids they were special, “even if they didn’t deserve it.” Heaven forbid society only tell kids it values them if they achieve high marks in school, do all the dance steps perfectly, and never stay out past 10pm, for example. I appreciated Mister Rogers showing me practical things: like how to craft with construction paper, that real and make-believe are separate, and that he liked me just the way I was, big front teeth, high forehead, straggly pig-tails and all.
But I had forgotten a lot of that as an adult, including how to love and be kind unconditionally, because the world I live in often makes you forget. Re-watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor made me realize that. The documentary made me laugh. Made me cry. Made me remember that little girl sitting in front of the TV set, where for 28 minutes she was a loved neighbor. And above all, made me realize that although my mind had forgotten, my heart still knew Fred Rogers, as after twenty-something years I could still sing the opening and closing songs and cried as I did so. I hope you will also watch that documentary and get to know the real man in the red sweater. And while Fred McFeely Rogers may have passed away on February 27, 2003, his legacy of kindness and love continue to live on, at the very least, in my heart.
Thank you, Fred, for being my neighbor.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Caitlin Horton is a 20-something reader, seamstress, and history buff. She lives a life blessed in the knowledge that she is God’s child, and her life has a purpose in the scope of His plan. She encourages her readers to remember, every day can be like Bilbo’s “adventure” if you’re willing to take the “ordinary” and add some “extra” in front of it!