By Bill Lindsay
I have to admit, I never watched Mister Rogers’ when I was a kid. I was just a little older than the target audience when the show made its debut on PBS in 1968. Nevertheless, like millions of other Americans, Fred Rogers has had an impact on my life.
Unlike so many others who found understanding, comfort, fun and learning in the Neighborhood as youngsters, I’ve gained appreciation for him as an adult. Working on parenting content for the last decade, I became familiar with his work from a different perspective. Not as a wide-eyed child, but as a writer and editor with a particular interest in the resources available to support children and families.
I read interviews. I watched tapes and documentaries about his life and his influence. And I combed through the many materials and ancillary projects put out by his nonprofit Family Communications Inc. I saw the substance behind the TV character all too often portrayed as lightweight.
In fact, I quickly learned that he isn’t a character. He is Mister Rogers in life, just as he is on the Neighborhood. There is no pretense about this man. Like the man we see on TV, he’s a gentle, caring soul who’s genuinely interested in others. He’s intelligent and thoughtful -- even philosophical. I wasn’t at all surprised when I learned that he’s an ordained minister. He has the demeanor of a deeply spiritual man.
His colleagues told me that he doesn’t really like talking about himself, though he happily does it in service of promoting the Neighborhood’s good works. I knew he was a good listener and on previous occasions had heard him say that he’s more interested in other people than himself.
He wasted no time with me. When I met him in his modest office in the WQED-TV building in Pittsburgh, he immediately started asking all about me. I had barely gotten into the interview when he again turned the tables and started asking about my 6-year-old daughter and what she likes to do.
Nevertheless, he was gracious with his time and his answers. As the interview exceeded our vaguely allotted time, never once did he express a sense of urgency or impatience.
At one point, early in our conversation, he said, "The older I get, the more I think that the most important thing that we, as human beings, can become is ‘appreciators.’ And, consequently, I think that two of the most important words in our language are ‘Thank you.’ I wonder how often we forget that."
Since nary a day goes by when he isn’t approached by someone on the street thanking him for the positive impact he’s had on their childhood -- or on their children, or both! -- one thing is certain: Fred Rogers is appreciated.
I personally encountered evidence of just how much impact he’s had on our collective childhood when I returned home from my visit with him. I dropped the tape of our interview off to be transcribed. The next day, while reading through the transcription, I was taken aback when I came across the following inserted in the middle of the transcribed text:
Thank you for the chance to type this up. I can’t believe I’d almost forgotten Mr. Rogers. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool cynic, but the darkest mire of maladjustment can’t beat down that smooth, reassuring, patient, just-so-damn-nice voice. If you see him again, tell him thanks for a lot of the better half-hours and hours of my childhood.
I’ve had a lot of interviews with very interesting people transcribed over the years. Never have I seen such a note. It says a lot and, in its own way, speaks for many.
So, as for appreciation, Fred Rogers has sown a multi-generational legacy (and one that’s still growing). And, albeit from a tangent, I join millions of other Americans in saying those all-important words: Thank you.