Won’t You Be My Neighbor? a Tribute to Mister Rogers' Enduring Legacy
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How can you fault a man who believed in the goodness of mankind and preached a simple message without preaching it that we are all special in our own way?
You can't. But that is who Fred Rogers was. The beloved man who hosted the Mister Rogers' Neighborhood television program for more than 33 years simply wanted to help people realize, especially children, that we should love our neighbor as we would love ourselves. If this sounds Biblical to you that’s because it is.
Blessed with the ability to reinforce what the root of human behavior should be, Mister Rogers demonstrated a quiet nobility, unheard of in a society that seems content to relentlessly pursue the opposite. That is what made his show stand apart from the glut of children’s programming that have come and gone over the years.
Now, 15 years after his death, a new documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, chronicles what made Mister Rogers so special. Directed by Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom), the film opened recently to rave reviews and can be currently seen in select theaters nationwide.
I recently spoke with Dr. George Wirth, Mister Roger’s friend and former pastor who served as a key contributor to Won’t You Be My Neighbor? He shared with me that the man who dispensed such valuable wisdom on television was exactly the same person in real life.
When did you first meet Fred Rogers?
Fred Rogers and I met each other in November of 1983. A mutual friend of ours had died, a Presbyterian minister like both of us, and I was in the service, said the prayer, and Fred Rogers was sitting toward the back of the sanctuary. That afternoon he called me out of the blue and he said, “I really was grateful for your prayer. I could tell you and Bob Holland were close friends. If you’d ever like to talk about it, I’m available.” The next day we had lunch in the east end of Pittsburgh, and we spent two and a half hours laughing, crying, praying, talking, and at the end of that conversation, he looked me in the eye and he said, “You know, I’m sad about losing your friend, and my friend too, maybe you and I could be friends,” and that was the beginning of quite a journey.
I am one of many, many thousands of people who grew up watching Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. As a matter of fact, it was probably my favorite show when I was a little kid. He was just such a seemingly gentle and compassionate man. Did you find him to be the same way, as his friend and pastor?
Yes, and it’s an important word that you just used “seemingly,” because some people on TV who are personalities and well known aren’t exactly in person the way they are on the screen. You understand that. But Fred Rogers was the real deal, and the gentle, kind, loving compassionate person that you saw in the neighborhood who wrote all the scripts and did many of the puppets himself, he was the same person, the one you would sit at lunch together and talk for hours, and I think it was one of the unique things about him, Chris, and I use the word “incarnate ministry” for Fred Rogers. He was able to touch millions of people through the screen, through the TV, through the books and through commencement addresses. But he also touched God knows how many one-on-one or in small groups, especially people who were down and out and hurting or disabled in any way. He had a compassion for people who were struggling. He truly had an incarnate ministry.
Fred Rogers passed away in 2003, but yet he is as well known and popular today as he was 25-30 years ago. Why do you think he’s still so beloved all these years later?
Well, you are a good example of someone who grew up watching “The Neighborhood” who not only remember him but who to this day are able to express gratitude for his work, for the programs that he put together. You are really part of the living legend of Fred Rogers. And that’s one of the reasons I think he is still popular today and remembered. Also I’m glad that they kept one of the programs, not the same program but Daniel Striped Tiger is a cartoon that you may have seen. That’s still on TV now. My grandchildren now are watching that show. So the idea of Fred Rogers and the characters he created, that’s still alive. What I’m so grateful for is that this film Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is something of a major resurrection for the Fred Rogers Ministry, and God knows our country needs it with all the struggles we have in so many ways. This is helping us remember that being kind and loving, gracious and forgiving towards one another, treating people with respect and with civility, that is still at the heart of who we’re supposed to be.
As you mentioned, we are living in a very different world today than we were when Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was on the air. From your perspective, what do you think Fred Rogers would be doing now about the breakdown in civility and kindness that’s going on in our world today?
That’s a great question, Chris. I think he would be doing exactly what he was doing when he was making the shows, because you’ll remember, he actually addressed questions about death. In 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, Fred Rogers had on his program a conversation with the children about what happens when you are killed, when you are actually assassinated. And he dealt with racism. François Clemmons, who was his great friend on the show was African American. There is a scene in the film where Fred and François are washing their feet together in the tub. Those two men were exemplifying something about the way God made us all different kinds of colors and different kinds of sizes and shapes. He was addressing it back then, and so I think in answer to your question he would continue to do that today. He was always addressing issues and always in a kind and gentle way, never on the attack but always raising the issues and saying, “We need to do better. Our ‘better’ angels are calling us forward.”
You were a friend of Fred Rogers and now there’s this documentary about his life. What are some things that audiences should look for in this film, some good objective life-lesson type things that they could get out of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
The faith perspective made Fred Rogers not only who he was but helped him do what he did. That faith perspective was evident, it was never pushed in an overly zealous way, but it was underneath and was in everything that he did, television, books, commencement addresses and relationships. A second thing was his care for people who were on the margins. When you saw that interview of that young boy in the wheelchair, which is one of his most famous interviews ever, that interview revealed Christ-like love for another human being who really had been dealt a tough deck, and Fred had compassion for people like that. This was, for Fred Rogers, at the heart of who he was and what his ministry was all about, and I was overwhelmed to see how consistent it was, and this movie brings that out. Look for the faith perspective, look for the deep and inviting who love dimension from the Gospels, and look for the special care and consign and compassion for people on the margins, because that was one of Fred Rogers’ most important callings in life. And finally look for his family, for his wife Joanne, his friends, grandchildren. He loved them more than life itself, and his family was at the center for him, and he did not neglect them. He was close to them. The movie brings that out.
What’s your greatest hope for Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
That people would leave the theater together with tears in their eyes, joy in their heart. I hope a resolve to be more kind, to be more loving, a resolve to be faith in action, a resolve to reach out to the marginalized people, a resolve to be a better person of faith, a hope that people will take away a resolve to be who God has called us to be, whatever faith dimension we’ve got. In many cases, for people who have no faith dimension, I hope that they will have a resolve to actually be more like Fred Rogers.
Watch a trailer for Won't You Be My Neighbor?:
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