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Goodbye Mr. Rogers

March 20, 1928 – Feb. 27, 2003

“You don’t set out to be rich or famous. What you set out to do is to be helpful.”

Fred Rogers, gently soft-spoken stalwart of my childhood, died today of stomach cancer. It seems such a hard, cruel way to lose such a gentle man. If there is anyone who deserved to pass peacefully from this life in a painless slumber, it’s Mr. Rogers.

In the 60s and 70s, when what was hot for kids was the frantic muppet capers of Sesame Street or the neon “Hey You Guys!” hysteria of The Electric Company, I’m sure frazzled mothers across the nation really thought they were pulling one over on their kids every time they plunked us down in front of soothing, boring ol’ Mr. Rogers. And perhaps for kids who came from stable, predictable homes Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was something to be mocked, a “baby show”. Not for me.

Mr. Rogers offered something to me, and thousands of children like me, that we didn’t have in our own lives. For half an hour a day, we were basked in gentle, predictable adult attention. Mr. Rogers was going to walk in the door of his little cottage, put on his sweater and sneakers, and invite us to join him on whatever simple adventure or project he had in mind. Every time. For a girl like myself, living in a transient world of new homes, new schools, new friends every year, a child of stressed and harried young parents, this predictability was blissful. I had no gentleness in my real world. I was a victim of bullies, ruthlessly teased, awash in grief at my parents’ divorce, very little extended family around me. My parents disciplined through an ever-escalating routine of nagging, yelling, and physical punishments including slaps, hair-pulling, and spankings with hands, belts and spoons. An adult with the attitude of Mister Rogers did not exist in my life.

That’s not entirely true. My father had a friend named Steve, a fishing buddy who we spent a good deal of time with. Steve and his wife didn’t have children then, but they were gentle and patient with my brother and I when we saw them. Steve goofed around with us in a carefree, unfatigued way. He talked with us, not at us, not down to us. But most importantly, when we screwed up, Steve’s manner was shockingly different than anything I was used to. There was a time when we kids were down by the lake, wildly swinging our fishing lines through the air without a thought in the world to the potential dangers of flying fish hooks. Steve shouted for us to stop, and I (ever the overly sensitive one) burst into tears. Part of it was from the shock of Steve raising his voice to us, it was so uncharacteristic. Part of it was from the shock of being reprimanded, since I was too young and inexperienced to make the flying fish-hooks connection for myself; I wasn’t trying to be be “bad,” I didn’t mean to be bad. Mostly my tears came because I desperately feared I’d disappointed Steve, and I’d ruined it for myself, that he’d gotten fed up with me and the days of being treated with patience were done.

What Steve did at that point is something so very simple, but so meaningful to me, I try to remember it as often as I can with my own parenting. Steve came down to my level, sat close to me and looked me in the eye (or tried, as I sobbed and hid my face in fear and shame). He made the connection for me, explained that he hadn’t yelled because he was angry at me but because he cared about me and saw that I was doing something dangerous. He cared about me, he didn’t want me to get hurt by getting a fish hook in the eye, and we could go on having fun. That was a Mister Rogers moment.

I couldn’t have been more than 6 when I had that exchange with Steve, because my parents were still together then and I was still living in the town where I was born. Within another year or so, my parents had split up and we moved away not too long after. While we still occasionally saw Steve and his wife, and later their children, the visits were brief and years apart. I never forgot that taste of being treated with gentleness and respect and, until I deemed myself “too old” for Mr. Rogers, Fred Rogers kept that memory aglow through his television example.

Bless you, Mr. Rogers, for all you’ve done. We need more people willing to take their strength from gentleness and set out in the world to be good and helpful.

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