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
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
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
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
Rogers' Facebook fans aren't happy. At over 6,500 members
strong, some work to persuade PBS stations to keep him on the
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
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
"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
Bring Mr. Rogers back. It's just not the same neighborhood
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia.
See more of Jennifer's stories here.
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