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.