People aged 20 to 50 likely remember a time in their childhood when they turned on their television and were instantly transported into the fantasy world of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
The beloved production, staring the soft spoken Fred Rogers, was an unimposing, low key show that made children, no matter their home life, feel loved and treasured. Recently, filmmaker Morgan Neville, created a documentary-style film entitled “Won’t You Be my Neighbor?” about the man behind the show. It looks at the success of the show despite it not having many of the traditional elements that make up many successful children’s programs.
According to Margy Whitmer, who was the producer of the original show, which aired for the first time on February 19, 1968 and ran until August 31st, 2001, the following was what made Mr. Rogers’ show such different:
“We had a director who once said to me, if you take all the elements that make good television and you do the exact opposite, you have ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’: low production values, simple set, an unlikely star. Yet, it worked, because it was saying something really important.”
The message that was communicated over and over to countless children during “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” episodes was that they mattered. They were loved, and they were worth loving. Mr. Rogers, himself a Presbyterian minister, learned this important lesson first-hand thanks to his amazing parents and his purposeful upbringing. His goal was not to simply entertain children for 30 minutes on a daily basis, but instead to become a friend to them, to welcome them into “his” neighborhood, where all would be included, no matter their financial status or physical abilities, or race.
To truly understand what made Fred Rogers tick, one has to look deeper at his childhood. Rogers’ grew up in a wealthy Presbyterian family in Latrobe, PA. However, despite his family’s resources, his frugality and work ethic was ingrained from his earliest memories. He recalled his parents frequently modeling the importance of giving back to young Rogers by purchasing hundreds of present for the people in their town around the holidays. Rogers’ father allowed countless people to borrow money from the family without ever asking for repayment. These lessons in turn taught Rogers an important way of looking at life according to Junlei Li, the co-director of the Fred Rogers Center in Vincent College Latrobe, PA.
“Everyone has something worth giving,” she said. “You could go to the lowest and the least and the youngest, and you fundamentally respect they have something to give.”
The original show’s name was not without meaning either. The term “neighbor” was chosen by Rogers from a passage in the Bible. Rev. George Wirth, a fellow Presbyterian minister and friend to Rogers said, “This word ‘neighbor’ wasn’t something Fred just came up with out of nowhere. It was biblical as Rogers was a man of deep faith.”
The passage where Rogers’ found his inspiration came from one of Jesus parables. In the passage, Jesus was asked “who is my neighbor?” and then told the story of the good Samaritan to answer the question. The story talks about a man who cares selflessly for another who was left beaten and bloodied on the side of the road. The “neighborhood” aspect is just taking this truth and expanding upon it. A neighbor is anyone who cares for another. A neighborhood is a place where everyone is loved, cared for and welcomed.
Although Rogers was obviously a man of deeply rooted faith, he didn’t explicitly mention his beliefs on air. This was because it was so important for him to ensure all children who watched felt included in this neighborhood, even if their personal beliefs differed from his own.
“I think the bottom line for him was he believed all people are created in the image of God. He saw everyone in that light,” Wirth said. “That crosses all religious boundaries, all the race and ethnic boundaries—all of God’s children are created in God’s image.”
In this respect, yes, Rogers was very much like Jesus. He welcomed all, loved all and ministered to all. He saw worth and value in all and was a neighbor to all. This is most certainly an aspect of the late beloved actor the world needs more of in today’s society, which makes him so dearly missed.
~ 1776 Christian