Mr. Rogers offered kids genuine acceptance and a unique model of manhood.
I like you just the way you are.
In a world in which men are seen as superheroes, testosterone-poisoned oafs, new-age sissies or simply clowns, Fred was the embodiment of a different image: a man who used his immense talent and commitment to his craft in service to humankind. He reached out to toddlers with unconditional love that seemed to well up from an inexhaustible source. Our lives are richer for his work, and for his example. He was a true man.
Last week we lost a compassionate and authentic man. Mr. Rogers, born Fred McFeely Rogers, died at the age of seventy-four.
“Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” was first broadcast in 1968 and became the longest running program on public television. Rogers “retired” in 2001 but continued working on projects for children.
Mr. Rogers’ television show progressed at a leisurely, purposeful pace in contrast to the lightning-speed TV programming children now typically view. And from donning his sneakers and sweater at the beginning of the show to the closing song, children had the opportunity, if only for a half-hour, to be in the presence of someone who thought that they were OK just the way they were.
My daughter, Lilla, was not a huge Mr. Rogers’ fan. Her children, my grandkids, were really born too late to get to know the slightly shy man and his cast of characters. And being from the Howdy Doody era myself, I didn’t see the show that often. But somehow Mr. Rogers seeped into my consciousness.
While he took care to reassure kids of their innate value, Mr. Rogers was not one to avoid the tough topics of the day. When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, he encouraged children to talk about the violence they had seen on television and what they were feeling with their parents. More recently he came out of retirement to help kids make sense of the events of September 11, 2001.
But the memory that’s closest to my heart is an event at which Mr. Rogers was addressing adults—actors and producers. At the 1998 Daytime Emmy Awards, Mr. Rogers received a Lifetime Achievement Award. And during his acceptance speech, he spoke these words:
Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are? . . . Ten seconds. I’ll watch the time.
A hush fell over the crowd and at the end of the allotted period, tears streamed down the faces of many of the high profile sophisticates in the audience. “I think we don’t realize how hungry people are for what is honest and real,” Rogers later observed.
John Wayne. Clint Eastwood. Sylvester Stallone. These and others like them have been typically put forth as models of American manhood. For their ruggedness, their independence, and their ferocity. Not that there’s anything wrong with those attributes. And we gave the sensitive New Age guy a spin a few years back. But this proved to be an overreaction. What we thought women wanted.
Now men have a choice. And not just between Eastwood and Alan Alda. Thanks, in part, to Mr. Rogers’ willingness to be real, to show his vulnerability, to reveal his gentleness, being a man means any damn thing we want it to . . . provided we’re true to ourselves.
Today I wept as I paid tribute to this extraordinary man. And I’m sure Mr. Rogers would have thought that my tears were OK.
You can watch Mr. Rogers’ Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech at the 1998 Daytime Emmy Awards by clicking here.