Wissot: Mr. Rogers was the real deal | VailDaily.com
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Wissot: Mr. Rogers was the real deal

If you haven’s seen the movie about Mr. Rogers, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” go see it. You won’t be disappointed. Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Mr. Rogers is very good, but the remarkable life Mr. Rogers led until his death in 2003 was even better.

The movie details the real-life relationship Mr. Rogers had with a journalist, Tom Junod (his name is Lloyd Vogel in the movie) who interviewed him in the late 1990s for a piece he was writing, “Can you say …. Hero,” for Esquire.

In the process of doing the interview, Junod not only got a story that earned him the National Magazine Award for that year but received the same singular, special attention Mr. Rogers gave to preschoolers on public television for 33 years. Very little in the movie corresponds to the actual events in Junod’s life except for the fact that the time he spent with Mr. Rogers helped him overcome years of repressed anger locked deep inside him dating back to childhood. 

Mr. Rogers was a real hero to generations of children who relied upon him to validate their feelings and deal with their fears. When he testified in 1969 at a congressional hearing on whether to increase funding for PBS, he said the main purpose for his being on television was to simply explain to children that their feelings were both “mentionable and manageable.”

Mr. Rogers was different things to different people. He was a godsend for many parents who spent the same number of years going to bed watching Johnny Carson as their children did waking up to Mr. Rogers. His program along with “Sesame Street” on PBS were the first and finest examples of how television could deliver quality early childhood education on a mass scale to preschoolers.

For his critics, mainly on the political right, he was the personification of “evil.” A “Fox and Friends” broadcast in July 2007 took issue with the fact that Mr. Rogers told children, “You’re special because you’re you,” thereby, in the estimation of the hosts, negating the importance of hard work in achieving success, and setting them up for damaging expectations of entitlement.

Where some adults misunderstood what Mr. Rogers was doing, children didn’t. They got him.

They understood that Mr. Rogers was teaching them to process in an age-appropriate way their feelings about real-life challenges like death, divorce, violence, bigotry, bullying, not to mention their daily encounters with anger and disappointment.

One scene in the movie illustrated the genuine affection children felt for him. Mr. Rogers is with Mr. Junod on a New York City subway train when a group of black teenagers recognize him and spontaneously begin singing his show’s theme song, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.” Soon they are joined by the adults on the train and the surreal experience began to resemble the shooting of a cinematic musical. Junod said that unlike many of the events in the movie, this one actually happened.

I’ll take his word for it even though I’ve used the NYC subway all my life and the only noticeable behavior I ever witnessed (not counting pickpockets and screaming lunatics) involved riders who spent their days hopping from train to train to beg for money.

One aspect of Mr. Rogers’ life the movie fails to adequately address was his deep faith and religious conviction. He may not have been a saint but the always apparent kindness and gentleness embedded in his DNA were of a saintly quality. All of God’s creation was important to him. He became a vegetarian because he couldn’t stand the thought of eating something that had a mother.

Prayer was a meaningful part of his daily routine. He would recite the prayer, “Let some word that is heard be thine” before every broadcast. He once said that his ministry was the “broadcasting of grace through the land” and that the space between the viewer and the television set was “holy ground.” One observer described him as a “televangelist to toddlers.”

In re-reading the Junod Esquire article of 21 years ago, I came across an incident, a moment in time, that was vintage Mr. Rogers. He traveled to California to visit a boy with cerebral palsy who revered him. Before departing, he leaned down and whispering in the boy’s ear, asked him to pray for him.

Questioned later by Junod as to why he did that, Mr. Rogers replied, “I asked him to pray for me because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be close to God.”

Using that premise it is plausible that any of us who have been painfully challenged in life could be closer to God than we think. I don’t know if that is true or not. I do think, however, that if anyone’s prayers brought him closer to God, it was Mr. Rogers.

Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at jayhwissot@mac.com.


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