Column: We Can Make the World a Little More Like ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’

  • Shawn Braley illustration

For the Valley News
Saturday, July 07, 2018

A few days ago I went to see RBG, a full length documentary celebrating the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The movie was wonderful, inspirational and eye-opening. But I felt it took a back seat to a trailer for a forthcoming movie about another American icon, Fred Rogers.

The trailer for Won’t You Be My Neighbor? featured vignettes of Rogers with a disabled child, with an African-American friend in a children’s pool, and with small groups of wide-eyed children looking at him in wonderment as he performed low-tech puppet shows and told them silly-but-enchanting stories. It also featured trademark snippets of his show as he donned a cardigan and sung simple songs assuring his viewers that they were beloved human beings.

When Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was on PBS, I recall watching it over my older daughter’s shoulder when she was in preschool and cynically rolling my eyes. At the time I was a high school disciplinarian in a rough-and-tumble small town outside of Philadelphia. I thought the world Mister Rogers lived in was fanciful. No one in his neighborhood was being busted for smoking dope, engaging in fights over petty insults, or struggling to make ends meet. I feared Rogers was presenting my daughter with an unrealistic picture of what she would encounter when she got out in the world. Moreover, as a cynical young adult, I was certain that when Rogers concluded his performance on the show, produced by Pittsburgh public broadcaster WQED, he probably went to a bar outside the studio to throw down beers with his buddies and watch the Steelers pound opponents into submission.

Now, watching the trailer at Hanover’s Nugget Theater with a group of aging baby boomers who in all probability shared my experience as a PBS parent, I was stunned to find I was touched deeply as Mister Rogers explained death, divorce and racism to open-minded 3- and 4-year-olds in his soft and reassuring voice. I shared this experience with a group of friends and found that they, too, had the same reaction watching the trailer. When I spoke to my younger daughter, who is now 40, about watching the trailer, I found that she had seen it five times and cried each time.

What is it about Mister Rogers and his neighborhood that triggers such a response? I came to the conclusion that I was touched because I really wanted to live in a neighborhood like Mister Rogers’ and I hoped to help create a world like his. And now, after a long career in public education and looking at the state of affairs in our nation, I can see that such a world seems more and more implausible.

Later in my life I had an opportunity to meet Rogers. My late wife, a fabric artist, served as an assistant to Jan Newbury-Meyers for a course at Haystack Mountain in Deer Isle, Maine, and the two of them became fast friends. Jan’s husband, Sam Newbury, worked with Fred Rogers, and when we visited Jan at her home in Pittsburgh, Sam shared stories about his workplace, which sounded as wholesome and warm as the show itself. When we joined them on Sunday at the Presbyterian Church she attended, we had an opportunity to meet their good friend Fred Rogers. He was as genuine and radiant in person as he was on television. Even though I felt we were invading his privacy by meeting him at church, he greeted us with the same glint in his eyes with which he greeted his guests on TV. He seemed enthused to meet us. After meeting him, it was clear that Rogers never went to the bar and talked about the Steelers. But it was equally clear that he understood the Steelers fans and would welcome them into his neighborhood.

I believe that, while living in a world that resembles Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is unrealistic, it is possible for each of us to create such a world by emulating Mister Rogers — by being willing to welcome strangers into our communities, lending a helping hand to those in need, and telling those who view the world differently from us, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Wayne Gersen, of Etna, is the former superintendent of the Dresden School District.