As a child, I watched PBS often. Trust me: when you have five channels, with three major networks and two public TV stations, you don’t have a great number of choices for programming. I grew up on Sesame Street, The Electric Company, The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross, and yes, of course, Mr. Fred Rogers. I recently enjoyed watching the 2019 semi-biopic about Rogers, titled A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, in which Tom Hanks portrayed the sweater-wearing, no-nonsense figure who guided children through life’s experiences ever since his show began in 1968, until his death in 2003 from stomach cancer.
I will admit: it wasn’t an Oscar-winning movie, and it wasn’t Tom Hanks’ best movie role ever; however, the film did offer remembrance of the character and legacy of Fred Rogers, which for some of us Gen Xers, is a memorable component of the foundation of our childhood. I had an insight while watching the movie: Rogers made an entire generation of children feel safe and secure, not only in who we are as individuals but in a frequently chaotic, absurd world that can sometimes seem meaningless and uncontrollable.
In the movie, writer Lloyd Vogel, who works for Esquire magazine, is tasked with interviewing Rogers for a “puff piece,” as he calls it, for a series on American heroes. Vogel’s character is accustomed to doing edgy, incisive, in-depth stories on public figures, which often result in unflattering profiles rife with negativity and sarcasm, is told by his editor that he needs to submit a 400-word profile. Vogel is not excited about this assignment and flies to Pittsburgh with little enthusiasm. However, once he arrives on the set of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, he discovers that an interview with Rogers is a challenge.
Rogers, who has read Vogel’s body of journalistic work prior to his arrival, dons the hat of psychologist, a role for which he seems to be a natural. After all, as the movie indicates, people such as Vogel, a misanthropic individual who has a love/hate relationship with his womanizing, alcoholic father, fascinated Fred Rogers. He turns the interview around and begins questioning him, learning that Vogel, like most all humans, has a vulnerability and a capacity for love not demonstrated by his actions in much of his adult life.
As a result, Vogel learns some of those same lessons that those of us who came to know Fred Rogers as children learned earlier on: it’s acceptable to be angry; anger is best dealt with when acknowledged and channeled in ways that don’t hurt us or other people; and it’s better to eliminate all of that negative energy and forgive others who we feel have wronged us because, after all, it’s hurting us as much as it’s hurting them, oftentimes more, since we live with it daily. While those aren’t easy lessons to learn, somehow Rogers was able to make them understandable even to children, one of the aspects that made him so special and loved by so many.
Rogers had that capability: to make the abstract concrete and the philosophical understandable. In one movie scene, Rogers’ character, under the guise of Hanks, talks about how people don’t like to discuss death. Working through the logic in the calm, rational fashion known for Rogers, he says that death is part of being human, a natural element of life, which, he adds, is what makes death mentionable. And anything mentionable is manageable, he continues. Therefore, we shouldn’t be afraid to discuss death – or, in fact, afraid of death at all.
The result of the fictional Lloyd Vogel’s multiple times spent with Fred Rogers in the movie was a 10,000-word piece that became the cover story for that issue of Esquire. Vogel’s character was patterned after actual Esquire writer Tom Junod, who wrote “Can You Say … Hero?,” published in the November 1998 edition of the magazine.
Junod may be more familiar as the author of an Esquire article titled “The Falling Man: An Unforgettable Story,” published in September 2016 on the 15th anniversary of 9/11 events. Junod has said that his time spent with Fred Rogers “changed my perspective on life.”
However, so much of television programming has changed since the era of Fred Rogers. As I watched the movie, which opened with Hanks as Mr. Rogers entering the famed door of his house, changing from his jacket and loafers to sweater and sneakers, and then sitting down to talk softly to his young viewers, I noted that children’s shows today are so antithetical to what Mr. Rogers envisioned. They are full of energy and sound, jazzed up with special effects and videos, fragmented and jumping from one topic to the next, in order to suit the now-shorter attention spans of youngsters. Or, perhaps, did those methods create a shorter attention span? It’s an interesting question of origin.
Nevertheless, there are ways in which the world hasn’t changed since Mr. Rogers. We still at times feel troubled and unsure, no matter our ages, in an existence that isn’t always secure. I have wondered of late what Mr. Rogers’ words might be to soothe us in the midst of a pandemic. Some of his famous words of wisdom came on the heels of the 9/11 tragedy, when he said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” I have seen that quote shared more than once of late.
What I also see of late on social media platforms is lack of rationality, cynicism, maliciousness, and criticism of others that smacks of something we might have said in childhood with little thought to our actions. I think often of Mr. Rogers these days. I know that he would say many of us could do better, and I think we can as well.