Won’t you be my neighbor?

My heroes were many in my childhood. Some of them were athletes like Mike Schmidt or Pete Rose. Others were fictional characters like Knight Rider or “Ponch” and John from the T.V. show C.H.I.P.S. Still more were nameless people who had valiant occupations such as astronauts or firemen. Despite all of those examples, it is quite possible that (outside my parents), no one had a greater impact on me during my childhood than Fred Rogers. Whether I was lonely, sad, happy or confused, I could always count on him to look at me and smile.

I am not alone. It is hard to think of another man who has wielded greater influence in the lives of my generation than a simple, kind and wise man known to most as “Mr. Rogers”.

Despite his success in television, he never intended to enter the field. As a child, he spent a lot of time expanding his imagination through making up songs or playing with his puppets. This childlike sense of play would follow him throughout his life. The fire wasn’t lit in his heart to be a part of the broadcasting world until his college years. He watched a T.V. show and was repulsed by what he saw as “violence”. Shortly thereafter, he announced to his family that he was going to put off his plans to go to seminary and instead enter the television industry so that he could be a positive influence in that environment.

Despite a less than enthusiastic response from his family, Fred applied for a position with NBC when he graduated. Eventually, his job changed from delivering coffee to planning programs. This led to an offer to create a children’s program near his hometown in Pittsburg, PA. Fred’s passion for children translated into the program becoming a local success.

By 1968, the show, which became known as “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood”, was syndicated nationwide. Fred worked on the show for 33 years before retiring in 2001. During that time, Fred wrote numerous books, composed and wrote lyrics for over 200 songs. On top of that, he received every award available for him in television broadcasting including a lifetime achievement award and entrance into the television hall of fame. He was the recipient of 40 honorary degrees from such prestigious universities as Yale and Dartmouth. In 2002, the year before his death, he was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contribution to the well being of children and a career in public television that promoted compassion, kindness and learning.

All of this, from a man best known for asking the question, “Will you be my neighbor?” How did he become such a massive success? First of all, his main passion of serving children hit a felt need in society. It was an age when many kids became isolated from their parents. His show was a blessing for children and parents alike. He also happened to be born at just the right time to get involved in television on the “ground floor”. Perhaps most of all, the gifts, heart and experience of Fred Rogers seem perfectly aligned for the role. He was interested in music composition, T.V. production, ministry and child development theory. His uncanny ability to communicate deep ideas in simplistic ways tied all of his gifts together.

My heroes are much fewer now. Over the years, some of them have disappointed me. Cynicism has affected me more than I care to admit. Yet, I still look to “Mr. Rogers” as an inspiration. I long to communicate the truth about God in the compelling way that he talked with me. Like Fred, I believe the best way to do that is through compassion, kindness, vulnerability and speaking in a way that anyone can understand. I hope that in some small way I can use my gifts to be “a neighbor” to those around me. I like to think that would make him smile.

Sign of the Times?

I am used to cheering for another team besides my favorite to win the Super Bowl. Last night my team du jour was the Denver Broncos. Mainly, I wanted to see Peyton Manning leave his career on a high note. I have always seen him as a great example of professionalism and humility on and off the field. He is a true legend!

I was excited when the Broncos scored a touchdown and successfully made a two point conversion late in the game. Victory was inevitable. I turned to Laura and said, “I wonder how Peyton is going to react afterward”. I anticipated the post game interview… Would he be overcome by the emotion of so many years of competition? Would he bare his soul? Maybe we would be let into what he has been experiencing as he grapples with the highs and lows of ending his career.

Obviously, the rest of America was wondering the same thing. Cameramen surrounded the quarterback like a bunch of bloodthirsty mosquitos attacking my head on a warm summer evening. Something about the scene felt terribly wrong. There was no reverence. No room for respect.

When the game ended, the wave of yellow vested humanity rolled out onto the field. Suddenly, like a skit from Saturday Night Live, Papa John appeared from the crowd to give Peyton a handshake. “What in the world was that?!” I thought to myself.

Manning moved forward. He became the eye of a storm that would have been the lead story on The Weather Channel, “Hurricane Peyton attacks California!”

In the midst of the chaos, a reporter made her way to Peyton. She asked questions that seemed aimed at eliciting an emotional reaction. He gave polite answers but no tears flowed and no insight into his soul was given. The only response I remember was what he was going to do after the game. His parting words to America were that he was going to have a lot of Budweiser. With the way he delivered the line, it seemed like he should have added the words “The King of Beers! This Bud’s for you America!”

In my disappointment, I thought of another speech given by a legend at the end of his career. The difference is like whiplash for the soul. Here is the full transcript of the speech given by Lou Gehrig on the day he hung up his spikes.

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

 “Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.

 “When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies – that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body – it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.

 “So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”

I still have a ton of respect for Peyton Manning. Who knows how I would have reacted in a similar situation? I have a feeling that Peyton’s response last night is more than just a reflection of him. Maybe it’s a sign of the times. In our society sacred space is lost in the name of sound bites. Contemplation is replaced by commercialism.

Yet, I yearn to tell the story of my life like Lou Gehrig. I want to stand apart as a man of thoughtfulness and thankfulness no matter how the storms of culture surround me.