Mr. Rogers, secular saint

Fred Rogers and King Friday in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

Fred Rogers is the closest thing television has to a patron saint.

No other figure has advocated so powerfully for television as an educational medium. A young Rogers single-handedly saved PBS from federal budget cuts, testifying before a Senate committee and defending his televised “expression of care” over against the recent glut of violent cartoons. After Rogers recited the lyrics of “What Do You Do with the Mad that You Feel?”, the committee chair gushed, “I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million [federal grant].”

As an performer, Fred Rogers modeled remarkable compassion. One episode of the Neighborhood, in particular, illustrates Rogers’ on-screen demeanor.[1] In a segment filmed in 1980, Rogers kneels to chat with Jeff Erlanger, an affable ten-year-old quadriplegic. Rogers marvels at Jeff’s electric chair, invites him to discuss his disability openly, and joins him in a song. It’s a charming moment; Rogers listens intently, interrupting Jeff only to add a word of praise or admiration. Just try not to tear up when Mr. Rogers launches into “It’s You I Like.” Or when, decades later, Erlanger surprises Rogers at his induction into the TV Hall of Fame.[2]

As childhood heroes fall left and right, I’m tempted to brace myself for some horrifying postmortum accusation against Fred Rogers. For some rumor to tarnish his spotless legacy as a tireless advocate for educational media and for children’s well-being.

But in the decade since Rogers’ death, no such story has broken.[3] The closest thing to a “scandal” was a ridiculous Fox News segment that accused Mr. Rogers of over-coddling kids, blaming him for young people’s sense of entitlement.

If Rogers’ worst secret is that he made kids feel too good about themselves, then he’s done pretty well.

  1. During my college years, I worked at a small amusement park. I was a trolley driver, piloting families through a life-size version of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. One summer, Mr. Rogers himself visited the attraction and joined us for a picnic lunch. I can confidently say that Fred Rogers’ off-screen persona perfectly mirrored the television version.  ↩

  2. Jeff later described the relationship: “Mr. Rogers made me feel as if he was talking only to me. There’s obviously things I can’t do, but it doesn’t really matter as much what I can’t do. It’s what I can do. That’s how I try to live my life.” Sadly, Erlanger died in 2007.  ↩

  3. Christianity Today once referred to Rogers and fellow PBSer Jim Henson as public television’s “unfallen duo.”  ↩