I can't say that I am a regular reader of The Elks Magazine. That is generally Pa-pa's territory. But when I saw this month's cover featuring a picture of Mister Rogers wearing one of his trademark sweaters, my curiosity led me to the cover story on pp. 26-30.
In many ways, Victor Parachin's article, "America's Favorite Neighbor," is another wonderful tribute to this great man we all know for the gentle, affirming manner he used to impart self-esteem and basic values to generations of children. Most of us know that his PBS career in children's programming spanned "[t]hree decades and nearly 1,000 episodes" (29).
We marvel at the talent, the drive, and the diversity that garnered him a B.A. in music composition, a master's in child development, and a seminary degree. We have seen the picture of him smiling and kneeling by his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and may be aware that his awards include four Emmys and two George Foster Peabodys. We are not surprised to learn that one of his sweaters is in the Smithsonian. We can see why, the year before his death on February 27, 2003, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
And yet, despite the importance of the late, great Fred Rogers' compassionate, respectful message to his impressionable young viewers, what impresses me about this article is not so much what he said to those children as what he has to say to us as grandparents.
First--and I find this awesome--Rogers' TV personality and philosophy had their roots in something his own grandfather once said to him: "You know, you made this day a really special day, just by being yourself. There's only one person in the world like you. And I happen to like you just the way you are" (29). It is obvious that those words stayed with Rogers and inspired in him a new kind of attitude toward children's programming. He proved that you don't have to be a clown or a cowboy to appeal to kids; you just need to be yourself.
In fact, Parachin tells us that Rogers turned down an offer to move from educational to network TV because an executive there insisted that he wear a costume in order to entertain his audience. In response to this, Rogers replied, "The greatest gift you can give anyone is your honest self. It's the only unique gift anyone can give" (29). That observation, in its simplicity, is profound.
Parachin points out that, at the final taping of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, there were many tears among audience and crew. However, Rogers himself was not so sad as he was thankful, telling a reporter, "My overriding sense was . . . just enormous gratitude for having been able to do this work" (30). The utter selflessness reflected by that remark is hard to imagine.
A sidebar to this article, the writer of which is identified only by the initials "PH," gives us one last Fred Rogers quote to ponder: "It's the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives" (28). This brings me to what I want to say about the relevance this fine piece has for me as a grandparent of young children--and perhaps for you as well.
Give those babies your honest self--that is a great, great thing. That is all they need from you. You are not in a contest for their attention. You don't have to be extravagant. All you have to do to is play, and, in so doing, affirm them for who they are. Most of all, be grateful for them, and for your time together. This is a wonderful and miraculous gift.
No one understood that better than the unassuming Mister Rogers, who, every day, would enter his living room, zip up his cardigan, and tie his sneakers while we looked on. It is a beautiful day in the neighborhood of grandparents, and he would want to make sure we know that.