Mister Rogers wasn’t just nice — he was rev­o­lu­tion­ary.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - An­nie Mur­phy Paul is a so­cial-sci­ence jour­nal­ist at work on a book about re­think­ing in­tel­li­gence.

In a recent in­ter­view on NPR, jour­nal­ist Beth Macy was asked about the per­sonal toll taken by her work re­port­ing on the rav­ages of the opi­oid cri­sis — work that en­tailed spend­ing hour upon hour with des­per­ate ad­dicts and griev­ing fam­i­lies. Macy replied that the words of a friend helped buoy her spir­its and guide her ap­proach to the story, which also in­volved in­ter­view­ing “the peo­ple fight­ing back” against the scourge of ad­dic­tion: doc­tors, so­cial work­ers, first re­spon­ders, health ac­tivists. Re­called Macy of her friend: “He quoted Mister Rogers — he said, ‘Look for the helpers.’ ”

“Look for the helpers”: a small gift, one of many, for which we can thank the children’s tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity Mister Rogers. The life of Fred Rogers — yes, he had one out­side the con­fines of the liv­ing room where each day he changed into a cardi­gan and sneak­ers on cam­era — is re­counted in “The Good Neigh­bor,” a new bi­og­ra­phy by Maxwell King. King, a former jour­nal­ist who now leads the non­profit Pitts­burgh Foun­da­tion, of­fers the full com­ple­ment of heart­warm­ing, feel-good sto­ries we would ex­pect from a book about Mister Rogers. But, as King is at pains to demon­strate, Rogers wasn’t just about feel­ing good. He was no su­per­fi­cial car­toon of nice­ness. The man was deep — a qual­ity that dis­tin­guished him from the char­ac­ters fea­tured in other children’s shows, from Soupy Sales and Cap­tain Kan­ga­roo to, later, Bar­ney the Di­nosaur and Elmo the he­lium-voiced Mup­pet. Rogers treated with sober se­ri­ous­ness no­tions that the rest of us re­gard as plat­i­tudes — “Love thy neigh­bor” — and de­vot­edly lived them out. He made nice­ness rad­i­cal.

King is a skilled sto­ry­teller who cap­tures the essence of not only Rogers the per­son but also the very par­tic­u­lar Amer­i­can scene that pro­duced him. The fu­ture tele­vi­sion icon was born in 1928 in La­trobe, Pa., an in­dus­trial city 40 miles out­side Pitts­burgh. View­ers who re­gard him as the epit­ome of mid­dle-class bour­geois habits may be sur­prised to learn that Rogers grew up very, very rich, in a man­sion with a cook and a chauf­feur. His mother, known around town for her ex­tra­or­di­nary kind­ness and gen­eros­ity, was a model for Fred and the source of the ad­vice Macy found so in­spir­ing: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” Rogers once re­lated on his show, “my mother would say to me: ‘Look for the helpers. You will al­ways find peo­ple who are help­ing.’ To this day, es­pe­cially in times of dis­as­ter, 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 him­self was a “sickly, chubby boy” whose class­mates called him “Fat Freddy” and chased him home from school. De­spite such treat­ment, he formed a lov­ing at­tach­ment to his home town, which he would later re-cre­ate on his show as “The Neigh­bor­hood of Make-Be­lieve,” com­plete with trol­leys and fac­to­ries. Many of the fac­to­ries in real-life La­trobe were owned by Rogers’s fam­ily, but un­like the su­per-rich of to­day, the Rogerses lived and worked and so­cial­ized among their less-af­flu­ent neigh­bors in­stead of other peo­ple of wealth. Read­ing King’s ac­count of this close-knit and com­mu­nity-minded city, one gains new in­sight into the af­fec­tion and nos­tal­gia so many feel for “Mister Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hood”: Its host was dra­ma­tiz­ing a world that was al­ready, at that mo­ment, slip­ping away.

“The Good Neigh­bor” guides us smoothly from Rogers’s child­hood though his early adult­hood and the start of his pro­fes­sional ca­reer. Af­ter study­ing mu­sic com­po­si­tion at Rollins Col­lege in Florida (where he met his fu­ture wife, a pi­anist named Joanne Byrd), he was hired by NBC Tele­vi­sion in New York, work­ing as an as­sis­tant pro­ducer and floor di­rec­tor for shows like “The Kate Smith Evening Hour” and the “NBC Opera Theatre.” In 1953, Rogers moved back to Penn­syl­va­nia to work at WQED Pitts­burgh, the na­tion’s first com­mu­nity-spon­sored ed­u­ca­tional tele­vi­sion sta­tion. There he pro­duced a pro­gram called “The Children’s Corner,” in which he in­tro­duced many of the char­ac­ters that would later be­come fa­mil­iar to gen­er­a­tions of young view­ers: Daniel Striped Tiger, X the Owl, King Fri­day XIII, Hen­ri­etta Pussy­cat, Lady Elaine Fairchilde. That show led to the cre­ation of “Mister Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hood,” fea­tur­ing Rogers him­self as host, which was dis­trib­uted na­tion­ally start­ing in 1968.

Rogers’s show was earnest, quirky, am­a­teur­ish in the best sense of the word; it was also ground­break­ing. Into the lily-white world of mid­cen­tury children’s pro­gram­ming, Rogers in­vited ac­tors of di­verse back­grounds like Fran­cois Clem­mons, an African Amer­i­can singer and ac­tor who played a po­lice of­fi­cer; Maggie Ste­wart, the African Amer­i­can “mayor” of West­wood, ad­join­ing the Neigh­bor­hood of Make-Be­lieve; and Tony Chi­roldes, the owner of a shop that sold toys, books and com­put­ers in the Neigh­bor­hood, and who some­times taught Mister Rogers words in Span­ish. In the 1970s, Rogers be­came a veg­e­tar­ian, of­fer­ing as his rea­son an­other un­der­stated gem: “I don’t want to eat any­thing that has a mother,” he said. As King notes, “In many ways, he was ahead of his time.”

And yet, as we’ve noted, Rogers was also a crea­ture of an ear­lier era. Even as the world around him ratch­eted up its speed, Rogers main­tained his slow, steady tempo. King tells us that his friends and co-work­ers called it “Fred-time”: “When­ever one sat down to talk with him, ur­gency seemed to dis­si­pate, dis­cus­sion pro­ceeded at a mea­sured, al­most oth­er­worldly pace, and the deep­est feel­ings and thoughts were given pa­tient at­ten­tion.”

Rogers was also deeply re­li­gious, com­mit­ted to his mother’s Pres­by­te­rian faith. For eight years, he slipped away from his du­ties at the tele­vi­sion sta­tion three or four times a week to at­tend classes at the Pitts­burgh The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary; he was or­dained a Pres­by­te­rian min­is­ter in 1963. Many who knew Rogers seem to have re­garded him as al­most saintly. King quotes Wil­liam Hirsch, a friend of Rogers’s from his church: “So what would Christ be like? He would be like Fred. He would en­cour­age you to do things that were right and would help other peo­ple.”

King seems to rec­og­nize the dan­gers of re­gard­ing Rogers as too good — so im­pos­si­bly vir­tu­ous as to seem not quite mor­tal — and does his best to ex­ca­vate Rogers’s dark side. He could be stub­born and rigid, the bi­og­ra­pher re­veals; to hear former pro­ducer Margy Whit­mer tell it, Mister Rogers was a bit of a con­trol freak. “Our show wasn’t a di­rec­tor’s dream,” Whit­mer con­fesses to King. “Fred had a lot of rules about show­ing the whole body, not just the hands. When ac­tors or pup­pets were read­ing some­thing, Fred wanted the kids to see the words, even if view­ers couldn’t lit­er­ally read them. The cam­era moves left to right, be­cause you read left to right. All those lit­tle tiny de­tails were re­ally im­por­tant to Fred.”

It does no dam­age to Rogers’s rep­u­ta­tion to gain this hu­man­iz­ing per­spec­tive. One of the most af­fect­ing sto­ries in the book, in fact, highlights both his rigid­ity and his good­ness. Be­fore ap­pear­ing on Oprah Win­frey’s talk show in 1985, Rogers is­sued strict in­struc­tions: No children were to be pre­sent dur­ing the tap­ing. King ex­plains: “He knew that if there were children in the stu­dio au­di­ence, he wouldn’t fo­cus on Win­frey’s ques­tions, he wouldn’t pay heed to her le­gion of view­ers, and he wouldn’t con­vey the great im­por­tance of his work. The children and their needs would come first. He couldn’t help it.” Win­frey and her pro­duc­ers ig­nored his re­quest and filled her stu­dio with young children and their moth­ers.

King de­scribes what hap­pened next: “As soon as the children started to ask him ques­tions di­rectly, he seemed to get lost in their world, slow­ing his re­sponses to their pace, and even hunch­ing in his chair as if to in­sin­u­ate him­self down to their level. This wasn’t good tele­vi­sion — at least, good adult tele­vi­sion. Ev­ery­thing was go­ing into a kind of slow mo­tion as Fred Rogers be­came Mister Rogers, con­nect­ing pow­er­fully with the small­est children pre­sent. He seemed to for­get the cam­era as he fo­cused on them one by one.” Win­frey, King re­lates, be­gan to look wor­ried. “Then it got worse. In the au­di­ence, Win­frey leaned down with her mi­cro­phone to ask a lit­tle blond girl if she had a ques­tion for Mister Rogers. In­stead of an­swer­ing, the child broke away from her mother, pushed past Win­frey, and ran down to the stage to hug him. As the only adult pre­sent not stunned by this, ap­par­ently, Fred Rogers knelt to ac­cept her em­brace.”

In to­day’s ugly cli­mate, full of bit­ter­ness and rage on all sides, Rogers’s ex­am­ple feels more nec­es­sary than ever. In­deed, 15 years af­ter his death, we’re still pass­ing on his words to each other like some­thing warm to hold. When we look for the helpers, he’s there.


Fred Rogers dons his trade­mark red sweater dur­ing a cer­e­mony at the Smithsonian in 1984. Rogers do­nated the cardi­gan to the Na­tional Mu­seum of Amer­i­can His­tory.

By Maxwell King Abrams. 405 pp. $30

THE GOOD NEIGH­BOR The Life and Work of Fred Rogers

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