I have no idea why it meant so much to me, other than the fact that I grew up on Mr. Rogers, and in the days and months after September 11, 2001, I feel, like a lot of my generation probably did, that we needed him. And when he died, it felt like we lost a huge part of our childhood, and maybe even worried about where our own children would learn all those great lessons that Mr. Rogers taught us, like how they make crayons and how the mail gets sorted and how to be kind, generous people.
So here it is, nearly 10 years later (and 10 years after the day we all wished Mr. Rogers could give us a hug and tell us it would all be ok).
He Was Not Afraid of the Dark
If you remember Mister Rogers as warm, fuzzy, and innocuous as a cardigan sweater, you did not really know Mister Rogers. It is true that Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, which lives on in reruns, was an island of tranquility in a children's mediasphere of robots and antic sponges. And in real life, Fred Rogers, who died last week of stomach cancer at age 74, was evidently as sweet and mild mannered as the kindly neighbor he played on TV. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he didn't smoke, drink, or eat meat, prayed every day and went to bed by 9:30 each night. To cynics and parodists, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was a namby-pamby zone of pint-size feel-goodism, and Mister Rogers himself a wimpy Stuart Smalley for tots.
But part of what made Mister Rogers' Neighborhood great and unique is that, for all its beautiful days in the neighborhood, it was also the darkest work of popular culture made for preschoolers since perhaps the Brothers Grimm. Mister Rogers was softer than anyone else in children's TV because so many of the messages he had to impart were harder. That your parents might someday decide not to live together anymore. That dogs and guppies and people all someday will die. That sometimes you will feel ashamed and other times you feel so mad you will want to bite someone. He even calmed fears that may seem silly, but to a child are real and consuming -- like being afraid to take a bath because you might be sucked down the pipes. Mister Rogers gently sang, "You can never go down/ Can never go down/ Can never go down the drain."
In other words, Fred Rogers knew that childhood, which we misremember as carefree and innocent, is a time of roiling passions, anguish and terror. His show, the first version of which debuted in 1963, was his professional way of doing what he had done as a boy in Latrobe, PA, when he played with puppets to calm himself after hearing scary news reports. And perhaps one reason his death touched adults so deeply is the feeling that Mister Rogers left us when we could especially use someone to teach us to manage our children's fears, and our own.
The last original episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood aired on Aug. 31, 2001 -- a scant 11 days before we needed him to explain the biggest Big Inexplicable yet. He returned to tape public-service announcements on how to talk to kids about the Sept. 11 anniversary, but the anxiety has only built since then. War jitters, orange alerts, and duct-tape mania have rendered literal our most childlike, monsters-under-the-bed fears: that a tall building can collapse like a house of cars, that something bad can seep in ghostlike through your window and hurt you.
To get us through it, we instead have Mr. Ridge. The Homeland Security Secretary, likewise, is a soft-spoken Pennsylvanian trying to be reassuring yet realistic. He has not had an easy time of it. During last month's orange alert, the fatalistic talk about contingency plans and three days' supplies of water hinted at a message no one would tell Americans plainly: we believe a terrible thing is coming, and we will not be able to stop it. Ridge had a basically Rogersian task -- getting Americans to accept a terrible eventuality that they could not prevent. So Homeland Security offered a slogan -- Don't Be Afraid ... Be Read -- which seemed immediately preposterous to citizens who (having grown up on Mister Rogers) knew that being afraid is normal, reasonable and O.K.
It is not an entirely fair comparison. We relied on Mister Rogers to explain death and hurt and sadness, not to eradicate them. But if Ridge faces something of an inspiration gap, he might take a few lessons from Mister Rogers. For instance, that an explanation of a bad thing is only reassuring if it is straightforward and direct. Mister Rogers spoke softly, but he never soft-pedaled. And he knew how to be both compassionate and authoritative. He was "Mister" Rogers, after all, never "Fred." He wore a tie even when dressed down. He also respected children's intelligence, and while he used the Land of Make-Believe to teach lessons, he never puffed up kids with false promises of fantasy. There is no more un-Disneyfied sentiment in children's pop culture than the title of his song Wishes Don't Make Things Come True.
PBS' website offered tips last week for helping children cope with Fred Rogers' death. "You may be surprised," it said, "to find that you're more upset than your child." But that should surprise no one. Kids, after all, will have hundres of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood reruns to help them through their spooky moments. But who is out there today, in any neighborhood, to reassure grownups that we can never go down the drain?
Mister Rogers went onstage to accept the award — and there, in front of all the soap opera stars and talk show sinceratrons, in front of all the jutting man-tanned jaws and jutting saltwater bosoms, he made his small bow and said into the microphone, "All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Ten seconds of silence."
And then he lifted his wrist, looked at the audience, looked at his watch, and said, "I'll watch the time." There was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy, strangled hiccup of laughter, as people realized that he wasn't kidding, that Mister Rogers was not some convenient eunuch, but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked.
And so they did. One second, two seconds, seven seconds — and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier. And Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said softly "May God be with you," to all his vanquished children. -Tom Junod, Esquire