The real Mr. Rogers
I grew up loving said journalist Anthony Breznican. But it wasn’t until I had a chance encounter with Fred Rogers as an adult that I realized the character he played on TV wasn’t fake.
I WAS PUTTING my 4-year-old son to bed one night this past May and scrolling through the news in the dark, finding only more darkness beyond. The horror and heartbreak of the bombing in Manchester, England, were unfolding. Amid the fear and uncertainty, I saw countless instances of selflessness and unity—people welcoming strangers into their homes, taxi drivers helping families get away from the scene, families reaching out to find loved ones who hadn’t answered their phones (often finding them scared but safe). Threaded throughout these messages, I saw one meme being shared and reshared. It was something Fred Rogers once said, advice for parents trying to find a way to talk about violence and tragedy with young children. The photo of him is accompanied by these words: “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.” Some wonder if he really said this. Often quotes online that seem too perfect to be true are exactly that. But no, Mr. Rogers really said it. He said it often. Then I scrolled a little further and found this tweet. 10:21 AM — May 22, 2017 On this day in 1967, a show featuring a kindly man in a cardigan & blue sneakers debuted on public television— #MisterRogersNeighborhood. Dr. Paul @DrPnygard The date’s a little off. (He recorded the first episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on Sept. 27, 1967, and it aired nationally in February 1968.) But that notion of 50 years hit me hard. And it stirred up a memory of him from long ago. Fred Rogers was from Pittsburgh, my hometown, and I’m a member of just one generation that grew up loving this man, who taught us to be kind above all and see ourselves as special and good, no matter what the world tried to tell us to the contrary. When I got older, I learned firsthand that Fred Rogers was the real thing. That gentle soul? It was no act. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ran until 2001, but I lost touch with it as I got older. That’s how it goes. But in college, one day, I rediscovered it, just when I needed it. I was having a hard time then. The future seemed hopeless. I was struggling, lonely, dealing with a lot of broken pieces within myself, and not adjusting well. I was a student at the University of Pittsburgh but felt rudderless. I wanted to be a writer but received nothing but discouragement from home. Nevertheless, I devoted everything I had to the school paper, The Pitt News, hoping that would propel me into some kind of worthwhile career and future. It seemed just as likely that I’d fall on my face and end up nowhere. On top of that, I was grappling with a loss that I couldn’t talk about, partly because I had no one I could talk to. One span of time in winter of 1996 was especially bad. I was angry, alone, unhappy. But walking out of the dorm one morning, I heard familiar music in the hallway: “Won’t you be my neighbor?...” The TV was playing in an empty common room, tuned to WQED (which was Mr. Rogers’ home station). And there he was— the sweatered one, feeding his fish, checking in with that little trolley that rolled through the wall into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, and asking me what I do with the mad that I feel. (I had lots to spare. Still do.) It feels silly to say—it felt silly then—but I stood mesmerized. His show felt like a cool hand on a hot head. I never sat down, but I watched the whole thing. Afterward, I left feeling...better. S EVERAL DAYS LATER, I got in the elevator at the paper to ride down to the lobby of the William Pitt Union. The doors opened, and who was standing there but Mr. Rogers. For real. I thought I was hallucinating for a moment. But there he stood—a slim, old man in a big coat and scarf, eyes twinkling behind his glasses, a small case clasped between his hands in front of him. I stepped aboard the elevator, staring, and
Mr. Rogers: A neighbor to all his young viewers