Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Esquire Post About Fred Rogers

This Esquire story is a small and conclusive case for the sainthood of Fred Rogers.   I always loved Fred Rogers for being exactly who he was, exactly what he intended to be, as unashamedly good as he was and entirely in the interest of other people, especially young children.  How good was Fred Rogers?   Supernaturally good.

ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a boy who didn't like himself very much. It was not his fault. He was born with cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is something that happens to the brain. It means that you can think but sometimes can't walk, or even talk. This boy had a very bad case of cerebral palsy, and when he was still a little boy, some of the people entrusted to take care of him took advantage of him instead and did things to him that made him think that he was a very bad little boy, because only a bad little boy would have to live with the things he had to live with. In fact, when the little boy grew up to be a teenager, he would get so mad at himself that he would hit himself, hard, with his own fists and tell his mother, on the computer he used for a mouth, that he didn't want to live anymore, for he was sure that God didn't like what was inside him any more than he did. He had always loved Mister Rogers, though, and now, even when he was fourteen years old, he watched the Neighborhood whenever it was on, and the boy's mother sometimes thought that Mister Rogers was keeping her son alive. She and the boy lived together in a city in California, and although she wanted very much for her son to meet Mister Rogers, she knew that he was far too disabled to travel all the way to Pittsburgh, so she figured he would never meet his hero, until one day she learned through a special foundation designed to help children like her son that Mister Rogers was coming to California and that after he visited the gorilla named Koko, he was coming to meet her son.

At first, the boy was made very nervous by the thought that Mister Rogers was visiting him. He was so nervous, in fact, that when Mister Rogers did visit, he got mad at himself and began hating himself and hitting himself, and his mother had to take him to another room and talk to him. Mister Rogers didn't leave, though. He wanted something from the boy, and Mister Rogers never leaves when he wants something from somebody. He just waited patiently, and when the boy came back, Mister Rogers talked to him, and then he made his request. He said, "I would like you to do something for me. Would you do something for me?" On his computer, the boy answered yes, of course, he would do anything for Mister Rogers, so then Mister Rogers said, "I would like you to pray for me. Will you pray for me?" And now the boy didn't know how to respond. He was thunderstruck. Thunderstruck means that you can't talk, because something has happened that's as sudden and as miraculous and maybe as scary as a bolt of lightning, and all you can do is listen to the rumble. The boy was thunderstruck because nobody had ever asked him for something like that, ever. The boy had always been prayed for. The boy had always been the object of prayer, and now he was being asked to pray for Mister Rogers, and although at first he didn't know if he could do it, he said he would, he said he'd try, and ever since then he keeps Mister Rogers in his prayers and doesn't talk about wanting to die anymore, because he figures Mister Rogers is close to God, and if Mister Rogers likes him, that must mean God likes him, too.

As for Mister Rogers himself…well, he doesn't look at the story in the same way that the boy did or that I did. In fact, when Mister Rogers first told me the story, I complimented him on being so smart—for knowing that asking the boy for his prayers would make the boy feel better about himself—and Mister Rogers responded by looking at me at first with puzzlement and then with surprise. "Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn't ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession."

And that's only one of the stories of his astonishingly easy and simple goodness.

I've met two people who knew Fred Rogers, one is my dentist who lived in his neighborhood.  She said he was exactly the same person in real life that he was on TV.  The other was Paul Lally who worked on his show before he came to New Hampshire to work at the public television station there.  He said that Fred Rogers was exactly like he was in real life as he was on TV and that when he talked to you you knew you had his entire attention no matter what else was happening.

Once there was a show about Mr. Rogers on TV, showing footage of one of his early, live shows done in Canada.   A woman was ad libbing about the idea of having a show where they would really build a house.  Right there on TV they'd  build a house and Mr. Rogers, actually it was Daniel Striped Tiger, said "No"  And when the woman innocently asked why,  Daniel Tiger said,  "Because it wouldn't have continuity".    Which might be the funniest line I have ever heard in children's entertainment.    Then there is "Windstorm in Bubbleland" where Daniel's opposite in so many ways, Lady Elane Fairchild gets to do a star turn as Hildegard Humming Bird.   And Mr. Rogers gets to show how dishonest TV news and advertising can be, how deceitful advertisers can be, selling useless products that cause harm are but how heroic people, or hummingbirds, can defeat them.

I love Fred Rogers and expect he has gone where he wanted to be.


  1. Fred, btw, was expressing an ancient Christian belief that needs to be revived.

    Also: what Ntodd said.

  2. What the hell did ancient Christians know, anyway? And the Franciscans? And those goddamned peculiar Friends?