A Neighborhood Called Kindness

            The Sippican Historical Society once again brought great programming to the South Coast region when Maxwell King, author, journalist, editor, and well-known executive in philanthropic circles, gave a presentation on the life of his friend and colleague, Mister Fred Rogers.

            King knew Rogers for decades, working with him directly and indirectly. King was at one point the executive director of the Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania and director of The Pittsburgh Foundation. But it wasn’t his professional resume that informed King’s presentation, it was his very real very human remembrances of Rogers, the man. And so, after introductions, the audience joined King in a return to the beginnings of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

            “Eighteen years after his death, people still find him relevant,” King began. The publication of Fred Rogers’ biography took King years to write, he confessed. Yet it is Rogers’ continued relevance that comes as no surprise to those who knew him well. King posed a question to those in attendance: “Why is he so current?” King would answer that question in many ways throughout his talk.

            King said that Rogers’ work as a producer, director, and performer of children’s television programming and his interactions with everyone he came in contact with were deeply entwined. King said that, number one, Rogers believed that television programming could provide quality educational opportunities and, number two, Rogers “was an exemplar of human values.”

            Born into a very affluent, old money Pittsburgh family, the young Rogers was an only child until his sister was adopted into his family many years later. His mother, ever fearful that her beloved child would be stricken by an illness, cloistered him in their lavishly appointed home. He suffered from asthma made worse by the foul industrial air coming from coal burning factories throughout the Pittsburgh area.

            Rogers would spend weeks at a time basically alone in his room. One can easily conclude that being left to his imagination for entertainment didn’t weaken his character or intellect but instead it became stronger and provided contemplative fertile ground.

            Albeit much loved by both his parents, it was Rogers’ mother who played the larger role in shaping the man he would become. Through education and the cultivation of his artistic talents, his mother supplied the needed tools and opportunities.

            They attended plays, concerts, presentations of all sorts. Rogers learned how to play the piano and compose musical scores. He was educated in the classics and thoroughly addicted to learning. King said Rogers was “a lifelong student.” He was first in his high school graduating class and then headed off to Rollins College where he saw a television for the first time in 1949. What Rogers saw “horrified him,” King said.

            The slapstick noisy, meaningless, prat-falling, comedic programming pushed Rogers to make a decision that would one day transform not only children’s television but the manner in which children would be educated and even nurtured.

            Rogers went home on break from college and told his parents he wanted to leave school and pursue a career in television. His parents, while clearly shocked by this announcement, supported and trusted their beloved only son. His father, who had connections with people at NBC, got Rogers an internship. “NBC had high aspirations for the educational potential of television, its potential to improve culture and society,” King said. Rogers found himself in the middle of an emerging industry – television.

            There would be attempts and false starts in his effort to produce quality children’s programming, but it would be the intersection of Rogers’ efforts to do just that and his relationship with child psychologist Dr. Margaret McFarland, a leader in early childhood education at the University of Pittsburgh, that would bring his programming style into focus.

            Rogers took several courses that McFarland was teaching. What Rogers knew intuitively, he would come to understand empirically: A child’s key learning years are 0 to 5. This was new thinking, exciting thinking, and Rogers found himself in the middle of it all, King explained.

            King further explained that during this time, a span stretching from the 1930s through 1950s, leaders in a wide variety of disciplines were all coming up with breakthrough concepts on best practices for educating children. Those heavy hitters including McFarland were pediatrician Dr. Berry Brazelton, psychologist Erik Erikson, and, of course, Dr. Benjamin Spock.

            “New thinking began to evolve. Old Victorian notions of children being seen but not heard were blown up,” King stated. Rogers was in the right place and the right space in time. Rogers was one of the leaders in what is commonly included in modern educational models known as “social, emotional” development.

            Beyond Rogers’ brilliance in bringing to the masses a new type of children’s programming that not only educated them but gave them liberty to “feel” and express emotions, Rogers the man held a deep Christian belief system that guided him throughout his public and private life.

            Rogers was a devout Presbyterian whose deep convictions also propelled him to study ancient religions and modern concepts. He plumbed the depths of his own beliefs to better understand other points of view on God and the universe. “He took Christian values so much further, studied other cultures, religions throughout time, finding the same core values, respect, responsibility, compassion, fairness, and, above all else, kindness,” King shared.

            Those values are evident in the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood children’s series, which ran on public television from 1968 through 1976 and picked up again from 1979 to 2001. Rogers understood that children didn’t want or need flashing highspeed high jinks but rather gentle, thoughtful, and thought-provoking themes.

            Rogers demonstrated through song, through puppetry, and through careful messaging that it was alright to be scared, to talk about difficult feelings, and express oneself. Rogers told children that it’s alright to be different, look different, sound different, and act differently. Rogers told the children they were valued, reminding them over three decades, “I like you just the way you are.” And he truly honestly did.

            To learn more about Rogers, read King’s masterful biography, “The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers” or view his presentation at vimeo.com/574058850.

By Marilou Newell

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