What do car thieves, a gorilla and I have in common?Saturday, February 27, 2010
I remember reading the news online.
"Oh my God! Mr. Rogers died," I gasped.
"No he didn't, Mommy, he's on T.V.," Noah assured me, with the sturdy confidence of a four-year-old.
It's ironic that I learned the news of Fred Rogers' death - seven years ago today - while my children watched a re-run of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood just a few feet away. Since little ears miss nothing, a convoluted discussion about death and the magic of television ensued.
It wasn't pretty.
PBS began airing Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood in 1968, the year after I was born. I was raised on a full helping of "Won't you be my neighbor?" along with my breakfast cereal every morning. Decades later, I watched the airing of the last episode with my firstborn, two-and-a-half years before his death. He sang the closing song as he unzipped his familiar cardigan sweater and took off his blue sneakers:
"I'll be back, when the day is new, and I'll have more ideas for you. And you'll have things you want to talk about. I will, too." The words were the same, but his grief was apparent in his trembling lips and glistening eyes as his voice broke over the words he'd sung at the close of nearly one thousand episodes of the Neighborhood. My heart ached for him.
Rogers' magic was in his simplicity and his ability to quietly convey messages of affirmation and acceptance.
"There's only one person in this whole world like you; that's you yourself, and I like you just the way you are," he told us.
No flashy sets or elaborate special effects were employed to sustain our interest. Rogers wasn't acting, he was just present. His affirmation of us was captivating enough, a model we parents would do well to emulate as we ponder what our kids really need from us - while we're out there scrambling to satisfy them with Ipods and the right jeans.
Rogers once said, in a television interview with PBS's Charlie Rose, "What is essential is invisible to the eye." This quote from Antoine de Saint - Exupery's The Little Prince was one of his favorites and hung on his office wall as a reminder that what is important is connecting with others.
It seems Rogers connected with more than a few unlikely characters, including Koko, the Stanford-educated gorilla famous for understanding English and communicating in Sign Language. Tom Junod's profile of Rogers for Esquire Magazine recounted Rogers' 1998 visit with Koko, an avid Rogers fan: "Koko immediately folded him in her long, black arms, as though he were a child, and then … 'She took my shoes off, Tom,'" he said, just like she'd seen him do onscreen.
Koko wasn't the only one with a soft spot for Mr. Rogers. Remarkably, within 48 hours of the news breaking that his old car had been stolen from a spot outside his studio, it was returned to that exact spot, an apology on the dashboard. It read, "If we'd known it was yours, we never would have taken it."
For some children, especially those with chaotic family situations, their daily encounters with Mr. Rogers perhaps gave them their only sure sense of connection, even if merely a 'virtual' one. But PBS decided to limit airings of Rogers' re-runs to once per week and only a handful of PBS stations - not including Chicago's - do even that.
For his show to be kicked to the curb by PBS in favor of inferior programming when in 1969 he singlehandedly lobbied Congress for continued funding of PBS's very existence is unconscionable.
Rogers' Facebook fans aren't happy. At over 6,500 members strong, some work to persuade PBS stations to keep him on the air.
And last week Family Communications and PBSKIDS announced that fans may now watch classic and never-before-seen clips of the Neighborhood and vote for their favorite of seven episodes at PBSKIDS.org. The winner will be broadcast on television (unclear if WTTW will participate) and on-line March 20th, Rogers' birthday and the third annual "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" Day, when a total of 26 classic episodes will be available online.
I can hardly wait.
Several years ago, when we lived in Pittsburgh, where Rogers taped his show for thirty-three years, my husband and I spotted him crossing the street.
"That's Mr. Rogers!" Todd sputtered in disbelief, like a stunned four-year-old who'd just seen his favorite superhero leap out of a comic book.
"Get his attention," my inner child pleaded.
"Mr. Rogers! Mr. Rogers! Thank you!" he yelled. Much to our surprise, Rogers wasn't just a figment of our imaginations. We were real to him too, and he waved back, just like he always did on television. It took my breath away.
Bring Mr. Rogers back. It's just not the same neighborhood without him.
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