There is indeed a story: a difficult childhood; a quest to escape feelings of isolation engendered by his parents' protectiveness, and by their great wealth; a struggle to remake himself in a mold of his own choosing; and after he found his vocation, a lifelong drive to meet the highest standards he could discover. Mister Rogers wasn't a saint; he had a temper, he made bad decisions, and on occasion he was accused of bad faith. He had difficult times with his own sons when they were young. Despite his deep empathy with the tiniest children, he could, at times, be tone-deaf in relating to adults. The man who conveyed a Zen-like calm on television saw a psychiatrist for decades.
But his powerful connection to America's parents and children has persisted, even years after he stopped making television. In 2012, almost ten years after his death, hundreds of thousands of Americans turned to Fred Rogers for comfort in the wake of the elementary-school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. Four months after Newtown, when deadly bombers struck the Boston Marathon, once again Americans across the nation looked for solace in the words of Fred Rogers.
Sadly, they did so yet again after the May 22, 2017, bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, in which twenty-two people lost their lives, including young children.
After each unspeakable tragedy, Rogers's words, sought out on the internet, were forwarded everywhere: "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news," Rogers had told his young viewers, "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."
Few indeed are the TV personalities whose capacity to console survives them in this way.
Along with his skills as an educator, Rogers possessed a unique and powerful ability to give reassurance and comfort to others, including many whose childhoods were far in the past. He helped generations of young children understand their evolving world, and their own potential in it.
Through his program, his many television interviews and family-special productions, and his dozens of books and articles, he helped parents grasp the critical importance of early childhood learning, and to understand their own role in making their children's lives more joyful and rewarding.
He also influenced subsequent generations of producers of children's television. Rogers's work is still distributed by PBS and the Fred Rogers Company, though it is no longer broadcast regularly. Its impact resonates in ongoing programs, such as Blue's Clues and Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, that speak to small children gently and understandingly, as Mister Rogers did.
As journalist Mary Elizabeth Williams put it on Salon.com in 2012, on what would have been Fred Rogers's eighty-fourth birthday: "One of the most radical figures of contemporary history never ran a country or led a battle.... He became a legend by wearing a cardigan and taking off his shoes.... Rogers was a genius of empathy...fearless enough to be kind."
Rogers's former colleague Elizabeth Seamans adds: "Fred was quite daring. People think of him as conservative, in the little fifties house with the cardigan sweater, but he was completely fearless in his use of the medium and as a teacher...I think he was brilliant—a genius."
Musician, bandleader, educator, and guest on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood Wynton Marsalis observes: "Fred Rogers was one of a kind—an American original, like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Johnny Cash. There was no one like him.
"Every original and innovator doesn't have to have psychedelic hair. There's a cliché version of who's an original. It's always somebody making a lot of noise, and being disruptive of some status quo. His originality spoke for itself. He was so creative. He spoke very clearly, and he showed a lot of respect [for his audience]. And he also integrated a lot of material."
Marsalis adds: "Fred Rogers tackled difficult issues, like disabilities. He expanded kids' horizons of understanding and aspiration. He raised the bar." There is no better illustration of Fred Rogers's true daring in the medium of television than the seminal 1981 episode featuring Jeff Erlanger, a quadriplegic, highly intelligent ten-year-old who'd been in a wheelchair since age four. The camera zooms in on Mister Rogers asking Jeff about the mechanics of his wheelchair in a tone no different from one he might have used when asking the young man about his favorite flavor of ice cream.
"This is how I became handicapped," says the sweet-faced boy with a self-awareness that would put most adults to shame. As Jeff details his medical condition in a calm, measured way, Mister Rogers listens intently and praises Jeff's ability to discuss it in a way that might help other people: "Your parents must be very proud of you."
Together Jeff and Mister Rogers sing "It's You I Like": "It's not the things you wear / It's not the way you do your hair / But it's you I like / The way you are right now / The way down deep inside you / Not the things that hide you."