Long Read: America’s Holy Fool

Tom Junod, from the Esquire archives, profiles a man he calls a hero:

ONCE UPON A TIME, a long time ago, a man took off his jacket and put on a sweater. Then he took off his shoes and put on a pair of sneakers. His name was Fred Rogers. He was starting a television program, aimed at children, called Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He had been on television before, but only as the voices and movements of puppets, on a program called The Children’s Corner. Now he was stepping in front of the camera as Mister Rogers, and he wanted to do things right, and whatever he did right, he wanted to repeat. And so, once upon a time, Fred Rogers took off his jacket and put on a sweater his mother had made him, a cardigan with a zipper. Then he took off his shoes and put on a pair of navy-blue canvas boating sneakers. He did the same thing the next day, and then the next…until he had done the same things, those things, 865 times, at the beginning of 865 television programs, over a span of thirty-one years. The first time I met Mister Rogers, he told me a story of how deeply his simple gestures had been felt, and received. He had just come back from visiting Koko, the gorilla who has learned—or who has been taught—American Sign Language. Koko watches television. Koko watches Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and when Mister Rogers, in his sweater and sneakers, entered the place where she lives, Koko immediately folded him in her long, black arms, as though he were a child, and then … “She took my shoes off, Tom,” Mister Rogers said.

Koko was much bigger than Mister Rogers. She weighed 280 pounds, and Mister Rogers weighed 143. Koko weighed 280 pounds because she is a gorilla, and Mister Rogers weighed 143 pounds because he has weighed 143 pounds as long as he has been Mister Rogers, because once upon a time, around thirty-one years ago, Mister Rogers stepped on a scale, and the scale told him that Mister Rogers weighs 143 pounds. No, not that he weighed 143 pounds, but that he weighs 143 pounds…. And so, every day, Mister Rogers refuses to do anything that would make his weight change—he neither drinks, nor smokes, nor eats flesh of any kind, nor goes to bed late at night, nor sleeps late in the morning, nor even watches television—and every morning, when he swims, he steps on a scale in his bathing suit and his bathing cap and his goggles, and the scale tells him that he weighs 143 pounds. This has happened so many times that Mister Rogers has come to see that number as a gift, as a destiny fulfilled, because, as he says, “the number 143 means ‘I love you.’ It takes one letter to say ‘I’ and four letters to say ‘love’ and three letters to say ‘you.’ One hundred and forty-three. ‘I love you.’ Isn’t that wonderful?”…
***********
ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a boy who didn’t like himself very much. It was not his fault. He was born with cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is something that happens to the brain. It means that you can think but sometimes can’t walk, or even talk. This boy had a very bad case of cerebral palsy, and when he was still a little boy, some of the people entrusted to take care of him took advantage of him instead and did things to him that made him think that he was a very bad little boy, because only a bad little boy would have to live with the things he had to live with. In fact, when the little boy grew up to be a teenager, he would get so mad at himself that he would hit himself, hard, with his own fists and tell his mother, on the computer he used for a mouth, that he didn’t want to live anymore, for he was sure that God didn’t like what was inside him any more than he did. He had always loved Mister Rogers, though, and now, even when he was fourteen years old, he watched the Neighborhood whenever it was on, and the boy’s mother sometimes thought that Mister Rogers was keeping her son alive. She and the boy lived together in a city in California, and although she wanted very much for her son to meet Mister Rogers, she knew that he was far too disabled to travel all the way to Pittsburgh, so she figured he would never meet his hero, until one day she learned through a special foundation designed to help children like her son that Mister Rogers was coming to California and that after he visited the gorilla named Koko, he was coming to meet her son.

At first, the boy was made very nervous by the thought that Mister Rogers was visiting him. He was so nervous, in fact, that when Mister Rogers did visit, he got mad at himself and began hating himself and hitting himself, and his mother had to take him to another room and talk to him. Mister Rogers didn’t leave, though. He wanted something from the boy, and Mister Rogers never leaves when he wants something from somebody. He just waited patiently, and when the boy came back, Mister Rogers talked to him, and then he made his request. He said, “I would like you to do something for me. Would you do something for me?” On his computer, the boy answered yes, of course, he would do anything for Mister Rogers, so then Mister Rogers said, “I would like you to pray for me. Will you pray for me?” And now the boy didn’t know how to respond. He was thunderstruck. Thunderstruck means that you can’t talk, because something has happened that’s as sudden and as miraculous and maybe as scary as a bolt of lightning, and all you can do is listen to the rumble. The boy was thunderstruck because nobody had ever asked him for something like that, ever. The boy had always been prayed for. The boy had always been the object of prayer, and now he was being asked to pray for Mister Rogers, and although at first he didn’t know if he could do it, he said he would, he said he’d try, and ever since then he keeps Mister Rogers in his prayers and doesn’t talk about wanting to die anymore, because he figures Mister Rogers is close to God, and if Mister Rogers likes him, that must mean God likes him, too.

As for Mister Rogers himself…well, he doesn’t look at the story in the same way that the boy did or that I did. In fact, when Mister Rogers first told me the story, I complimented him on being so smart—for knowing that asking the boy for his prayers would make the boy feel better about himself—and Mister Rogers responded by looking at me at first with puzzlement and then with surprise. “Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.”…

Here in the Real World, even in the Reality-Based Community, we don’t have a good way of talking about people who choose to live their lives the way Fred Rogers chose to live his. But there has long been a narrative about such people, a narrative cruelly debased by grifters who chose to steal the forms of Fred Rogers’ faith as a way to amass more attention and wealth and power. (That’s a pretty old narrative, too.) People like Fred Rogers, or Francis of Assisi, or Siddhartha Gautama — all of whom came from prosperous families who loved them, who might’ve expected them to do more with all their opportunities. One of those people even got appointed the patron saint of puppeteers — like Fred Rogers.

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61 replies
  1. 1
    rikyrah says:

    I loved Mr. Rogers. Did not really appreciate what he did until I was older.

  2. 2

    Lovely piece, AL. I’m an atheist, but one of my favorite books is Brennan Manning’s The Importance of Being Foolish: How to Think Like Jesus. Manning is a priest who has walked the walk, living for decades in a poor section of New Orleans (?) and ministering to the needy. The first section is all about barriers to righteousness, including “addiction to security.” It’s a really radical statement.

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Impo.....0060834536

    (More people may know of his book The Ragamuffin Gospel.)

  3. 3
    sylvainsylvain says:

    Thank you, Anne.

  4. 4
    brantl says:

    I don’t know if Fred Rogers would be very comfortable sitting next to me, but I would be very comfortable sitting next to Fred Rogers, what a wonderful, wonderful man.

  5. 5

    And for people who are religious (Christian, specifically) and want to live their values more:

    http://www.bostonfaithjustice......t-the-gate

  6. 6
    kbuttle says:

    It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

    Thanks Anne.

  7. 7
    Punchy says:

    Wontcha be my, wontcha be my, wontcha be…my neighbor?

  8. 8
    NotMax says:

    Yuck. Wanna frow up now.

  9. 9
    Ash Can says:

    Great post!

  10. 10
    raven says:

    And he wasn’t a sniper.

  11. 11
    Cermet says:

    Yet the right wing denounced all PBS as commie propaganda … worse, he helped young kids learn who were … not all white using tax money!!! Those people gained something for free off the backs of poor white people’s taxes; you know, the takers took and the hard working poor paid for it. I mean, how else can the 0.01% get more tax breaks and more of the poor’s wealth if those people are also taking a few pennies – this was terrible.

    By the way, we are just a short distance North-east (!) of Baltimore and currently have nearly two feet of snow and now half an inch of sleet on top of it and hoping that this doesn’t change to rain! More snow tonight!(ugh!) Haven’t used the snow blower for years … could get ugly (have a 100 yard’s plus of driveway (dirt/gravel.)

  12. 12
    OzarkHillbilly says:

    OK, now that we got that out of the way, on to the really important stuff:

    Happy Pitchers and Catchers Day everyone!

  13. 13
    NotMax says:

    As AL has said to treat her threads as Open Threads regardless, repeating for those who may not have seen it:

    A nice tidbit about the late Shirley Temple of which some may have been unaware included in a short reminiscence here.

  14. 14
    Cermet says:

    Oh damn, it is now raining on top of two feet of snow; how long power stays will be the real question. So much for living in the boonies … .

  15. 15
    OzarkHillbilly says:

    I must be a bad boy. I went to moderation time out for blaspheming on a Mister Rogers post and saying,

    OK, now that we got that out of the way, on to the really important stuff:

    Happy Pitchers and Catchers Day everyone!

    I’m sorry….

  16. 16
    OzarkHillbilly says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Who says apologies don’t work?

  17. 17
    raven says:

    US hokey on.

  18. 18
    raven says:

    US hokey on.

  19. 19
    Poopyman says:

    @Cermet: Down here 20 miles SE of DC it’s already changed to rain, but we’ve only gotten about 4″ snow. But they’re saying it’ll switch back to snow late this afternoon. Loverly, a rain sammich.

  20. 20
    Cermet says:

    Yeah – the rain has turned back to snow! (odd’s aren’t good and hoping.) I guess I’ll go this all day until night when the weather will turn cold (no doubt just after we loose all power. Generator’s (and fuel) can only run so long; also, have to shovel out a place for the things. No power no snow blower, either (use’s 110 v to start.)

  21. 21
    Cermet says:

    @Poopyman: Its the ice that forms on top that causes tree’s to fall down. Of course, these tree’s are mostly next to power lines for people buried in the snow.
    Did know that this storm had bands that would kill some areas and not others … of course, I have always been in that area that gets killed; knew I should have moved this last summer!!!!

  22. 22
    NotMax says:

    @raven

    What a wondrous typo!

       Ya put yer big stick in
       Ya put yer big stick out
       Ya put yer big stick in
       And ya shake it all about

  23. 23
    raven says:

    @NotMax: Ha, and we are Hokies!

  24. 24
    David in NY says:

    Not a long read, really. Beats a tweet.

  25. 25
    OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Cermet: Get an inverter for your car. Converts 12 volt DC to 110 AC. The simplest types plug into your cigarette lighter.

  26. 26
    Manyakitty says:

    I lived in Mr. Rogers’ actual neighborhood for my first few years. My parents said I loved to play pickup sticks with him, and that Chef Brockett brought me cookies.

    Thanks for the early-morning warmth and memories.

  27. 27
    blonde moment says:

    We’ve got about 13.5″ here in the eastern panhandle of WV – fortunately, no rain or sleet in sight. I’d much rather have straight snow, even if we’re likely to wind up with two feet of it!

    And I loved Mr. Rogers! And loved the story you gave us.

  28. 28
    currants says:

    @NotMax: Hm. Yes, though there are other perspectives on some of that.

  29. 29
    currants says:

    @Cermet: I’m slightly south and west of Boston, and DISAPPOINTED we’re not getting 2 ft!! The forecast has ranged pretty widely the past 24 hours, from 4-6 to 8-12, so we’ll get something in the middle, I’d guess. For some reason I’ve really loved the snow this year.

  30. 30
    hello rochester says:

    Stories about Mister Rogers make me cry. Always. I grieve for the fact that I couldn’t get my kids to connect to him when they were very small.

  31. 31
    dopey-o says:

    Christ in a cardigan

  32. 32
    geg6 says:

    Fred Rogers is one of my personal heroes. A truly loving and gentle soul and I can personally attest to that. Met him a couple of times through a friend who worked at WQED. I have a sweatshirt that has the trolley and the Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood logo on it and I wear it proudly.

    Incidentally, Handyman Negri (Joe Negri) is one of the great jazz guitarists of our time. Seen him play many, many times and he’s just fantastic.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Negri

  33. 33
    Cermet says:

    @currants: Just wait – you may get more; hopefully, no freezing rain! Best of luck for some more snow – you can have the rest of mine! It is heading Northeast towards you.

    The winds will pick up here and that spells trouble; here you guys are or will be getting winds big time.

  34. 34
    currants says:

    @Cermet: Yes–I’ve heard that there will be wind, but so far, just a fine snow, not adding up to much. Still, a very good day to stay inside and make this parmesan kale soup for dinner. Hang tight!

  35. 35
    rb says:

    He was a hero and, to this atheist, no less than a saint.

    He was also one of the most effective persuasive speakers in the history of anything. That this talent and his impeccable priorities existed in one person was a once-in-forever stroke of luck.

    Example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXEuEUQIP3Q

  36. 36
    TaMara (BHF) says:

    Thanks AL, that really started my day off on the right, gentle, blue canvas shoed foot.

  37. 37
    currants says:

    @rb: Yes. I loved his sweet, calm, predictable presence. As a young uneducated parent I was pretty much a know-nothing, but the only TV I let my kiddo watch was Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street, even if never both in the same day.

  38. 38
    Vlad says:

    I was lucky enough to meet him once, when I was interning at a magazine that operated out of the same building where he filmed his show. He was exactly the same way in person that he was on TV.

    It’s nice to have your faith in people rewarded.

  39. 39
    rb says:

    @currants: It’s amazing to think of the impact he had on children like yours, but also on children whose homes were less than whole. The number of comments on that youtube video above that say in essence “this man was an angel on earth; he raised me and made me who I am” is both terribly impressive and terribly sad.

  40. 40
    Jacquie says:

    What a wonderful piece, Anne, thank you so much for sharing it. I could hear his voice throughout, and I’m honestly a little teary now.

  41. 41
    john (not mccain) says:

    @NotMax:

    Mr. Rogers would pray that you don’t choke on your puke. He’s nicer than me.

  42. 42
    Howlin Wolfe says:

    @NotMax: I thought you were driving the Porcelain Bus. Feeling better now?

  43. 43
    Howlin Wolfe says:

    @Cermet: The apostrophe police have a warrant out for your arrest, Cermet.

  44. 44
    Mnemosyne says:

    @raven:

    However, it is true that he was friends with George “Night of the Living Dead” Romero. And Michael Keaton worked on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Basically, if you lived in Pittsburgh and had any kind of ambition towards working in movies or TV, you got your start working for Mr. Rogers.

  45. 45
    Barbara says:

    One aspect of Mr. Rogers that I have yet to see remarked upon is his great admiration for the working man & woman. He used to visit factories and yes, viewers got to see how baseball bats and tricycles were made, but it was his conversations with the workers that struck me — which were like all his other conversations of course, supremely respectful of, and intensely focused on the other person.

    Needless to say, unlike many other TV interviewers, he never tried to score points at the other person’s expense — he really wanted to learn from the guy who poured the wax into the crayon molds or the gal who dumped ingredients into the giant mixer. He thought they had something important to say.

    It was obvious he honored those who work with their hands, and didn’t subscribe to any hierarchy of one kind of work being more honorable than another. I always thought those interviews were highly subversive, in their way, going against the idea that it’s only the people at the top who are noteworthy.

  46. 46
    No One of Consequence says:

    Mister Rogers had an only-realized-later effect upon my life. If I could only be half the man he was, I might be 10 times the father I will end up being to my son.

    We should celebrate such gifts to our society as the life and work of this man. Words fail and profundity reveals itself in silence. Please, dear kind-hearted soul, read the whole thing, try to maintain a dry eye, and spend a few moments of quiet for a gentle being who is much missed.

    Peace,

    – NOoC

  47. 47
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Barbara:

    That was one reason I used to like “Dirty Jobs” with Mike Rowe. He always seemed to go in with an attitude that these were jobs that had to be done that people did not appreciate, and he was going to show you how hard the people who do them work to help the rest of us.

    I remember one that was about oyster shuckers where he was talking to a woman with kids. He put his arm around her shoulders, pointed her to the camera, and said something like, Kids, this is what your mom does all day to support you. You need to appreciate her.

  48. 48
    Thursday says:

    Thank you for posting this article.

    I never watched Mr. Rogers growing up. PBS wasn’t a station much on at my house. Yet I’m sitting here crying, tears running down my face, after having finished reading that.

    I pretend to be an optimist to my loved ones, but at heart I’ll always be a cynic. It’s so hard to believe good things about this world. I look around and there’s just so much stupidity and spite.

    The presence of a Mr. Rogers is a note of grace. In some ways it actually helps to know there are people of such goodness out there, that people actually can live lives of such love. In a couple of hours I’ll be back to hating the world, but for at least a while I can know that it’s all worth it.

  49. 49
    NotMax says:

    @Howlin Wolfe – @john (not mccain)

    It was the overly cutesy, contrived construction of the piece which raised my gorge, not its topic. (Although anyone, of any stripe, who revels in the smugness of his/her spiritual certainty triggers my skepticism antennae.)

    The copy editor sorely needs a vacation.

  50. 50
    Interrobang says:

    I must confess, I am one of those kids who just never really connected with Mister Rogers. I don’t know whether it was a generational thing, or whether I just wasn’t his target audience, but even when it was allegedly age-appropriate for me, I always sort of felt he was talking down to me (maybe that’s because I got a lot of experience with that sort of thing early because people who work with handicapped kids often talk down to them in a way that winds up sounding very Mister Rogersish). I vastly preferred Sesame Street and Mr. Dressup. For what it’s worth, another long-running kids’ show in my area, The Polka-Dot Door, had pretty much the same effect on me, so it wasn’t just Mr. Rogers.

    As an adult, I really admire the stands he took to defend PBS and his other political work.

    On the other hand, as a handicapped adult, I found the section in the article where he asks the handicapped kid to pray with him to be very off-putting, as was his attitude about handicapped people just having so much more “grace” or whatever than the able-bodied folks. That shit, where some able-bodied folks just kind of want to hang us on a wall somewhere and bask in our ostensibly reflected glory because we’re so braaave and stuff just for existing (which ties in nicely with the Plucky Cripple narrative, and winds up getting you tarred with its negative avatar, the Angry Gimp narrative, if you get pissed off about it), can DIAF ten years ago or sooner.

  51. 51
    Zoogz says:

    @NotMax: Agreed, I thought the article was rather poorly written. And yet, the content of Fred Rogers’ character still shone through.

    @Thursday: You may have been in my head saying the exact same things about cynicism and optimism.

    The one thing that took me aback about the article was the desire of Fred Rogers to not only find ways to bridge to other people, but to let us all know that we’re kids at heart, and that imperfection pretty much is the common denominator for everyone. The anecdote that struck me most was Mr. Rogers and the kid carrying the “death ray”. Not a single word of admonition ever crossed his mouth… he wanted nothing more than to build people up. Man, I wish I could look at the world like that sometimes.

  52. 52
    ruemara says:

    I love Mr. Rogers. Unabashedly. He was and is a pure soul. I have never had a reason to trust adults or people. He was one of the very few that I knew I could believe in. His word was gold and his gentleness shone. I will always love Mr. Rogers and if I get the chance to watch a Mr. Rogers, I do so. He’s one of the few blessings tv has conveyed on us and I don’t know if we’ll see his like in a lifetime or more.

  53. 53
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Interrobang:

    On the other hand, as a handicapped adult, I found the section in the article where he asks the handicapped kid to pray with him to be very off-putting, as was his attitude about handicapped people just having so much more “grace” or whatever than the able-bodied folks.

    In defense of Mr. Rogers (but not the writer), I suspect that was something Rogers did with everyone, able-bodied or handicapped. He was, after all, an ordained Presbyterian minister. Hell, he probably would have asked Koko the gorilla to pray for him if he could have figured out how to do it in her sign language. But I agree with you that for the writer to present that story as especially heartwarming because, you know, handicapped kid! is falling straight into the stereotype.

  54. 54
    TooManyJens says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    I must be a bad boy. I went to moderation time out for blaspheming on a Mister Rogers post

    It looks like you went to moderation because the brain-dead FYWP spam filter saw the name of a certain game of chance in the URL of the link you posted.

  55. 55
    Fred says:

    My ex-wife and I used to make fun of Mr. Rogers. You know, we was cool and not into any of that crap. Mr. Rogers came up with my sister and I told her, well I don’t recall but you get the gist. She told me that her son loved Mr. Rogers. My nephew is autistic and it seems Mr. Rogers was one of the few TV shows he could watch without getting up set.
    God bless you Mr. Rogers.

  56. 56
    E. says:

    My second-grade teacher was named Mr. Rogers and he looked like him. I think I was probably 14 years old before it occurred to me that they were different people. I never once went home and asked my Mom if they were the same person because to me it was perfectly obvious they were the same person. After all, he was teaching me how to read, which I regarded then as now as the greatest gift imaginable.

  57. 57
    ruemara says:

    I think you may not be reading the prayer part right. When you’re down, the kindness of people often takes a tone that is grating. They mean well, but you get the full sense of being lesser because others have to do for you. When you are asked to do for others, it’s a boost. You’re reminded-if you’ve ever known-that you have agency, power in your own right. Whether or not Mr. Rogers fully comprehended that, that’s what the boy got from it. A boost that told him that someone he respected felt that he wasn’t bad, wasn’t lesser, but was possibly closer to the divine than he was. That’s very powerful. It’s not magical sick boy stereotype.

  58. 58
    LanceThruster says:

    One of my favorite Mister Rogers’ quotes —

    “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers–so many caring people in this world.”

    From The World According to Mister Rogers

    And one of my favorite anecdotes was when he told of a man who came up to him to tell him that as a boy, he grew up in an abusive household. He said that hearing Fred Rogers tell him, “I like you just the way you are” made him feel like he had a friend and was not alone, even if it was just a voice on the TV.

    I am an atheist and I still miss Fred. He’s good peeps.

  59. 59
    greenergood says:

    Mr Rogers delivered the commencement address at my college TWO YEARS AFTER I graduated – i was so pissed off that it wasn’t my year. (many years ago). The (printed) text of his speech made me cry, as it was all about kindness and bravery and this was in 1981 when the Cold War was ratcheting up and Reagan was busy devouring the country. I wish I could find it just now – but may try when I’ve got some time to go googling

  60. 60
    Mnemosyne says:

    @ruemara:

    I can see why the story would grate on a disabled adult, though, since they have to deal with people treating them like they’re children all the damn time despite being adults. But I agree with you that Mr. Rogers had his own unique perspective and way of approaching people.

  61. 61
    sherparick says:

    I grew up pre-Mr. Rodgers (Captain Kangaroo was my mentor and Bob Keesham shared a lot of traits with Fred Rodgers).

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