"My Turn"

Daniel E. White is a member of Keawalaʻi Congregational Church. A former resident of Maui, he and his wife Judy now live on Oʻahu. Daniel served as the former headmaster of Seabury Hall in Makawao while living here on Maui. He later moved to Oʻahu to become the founder of Island Pacific Academy in Kapolei, Oʻahu. He served as the headmaster of the academy until his recent retirement a few years ago. He has maintained a blog where he continues to share his manaʻo.

In mid-summer the documentary film “Won‟t You Be My Neighbor?” opened in theaters across the county. The film explores the life, lessons and legacy of Mr. Rogers as an iconic children‟s television host. The following comes from an entry Dan made on his blog, on July 9, 2018.


Make Room for Mr. Rogers

“Won't you be my neighbor?”

You, People of a Certain Age, who are around my age did not, in all likelihood, grow up watching Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. But, I bet few of you have not heard about him. He was an icon to millions of children, valuing slow over fast, love over hate or indifference. He made clear that he cherished the spirit and soul of every child with whom he came in contact, in person or on TV.

We saw the documentary about Fred Rogers playing in theaters, “Won't You Be My Neighbor?” The film chronicles Rogers and the phenomenon he embodied on a medium where most other programming for children was inane or violent or both. Can you imagine anybody these days in any of our entertainment media putting a clock on the counter, setting it to tick for sixty seconds, and saying to the audience, “Let‟s find out how long a minute is,” and then staying silent to watch?

Or having a child fix her eyes on a hand puppet while Rogers used one of his many voices to talk, not trying to pretend that he was doing the talking? Some special neighborhood.

“Love your neighbor, love yourself”

Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister who summarized his theology as “love your neighbor” and “love yourself.” Anybody was his neighbor. Presbyterians don‟t canonize but if they did, St. Fred Rogers would be enshrined. Acerbic TV host Tom Snyder once asked Rogers if his square, upright, kind and gentle image was really him. By all accounts, it was.

Rogers' goals started with the desire to make every child feel special and wanted, just as he or she was. Critics didn‟t get him. They thought he was fostering the sense of entitlement epitomized by such actions as giving every child a trophy for excellence or rewarding good behavior what should have been expected behavior. Critics often do not understand goodness.

Rogers was talking about a child‟s spirit. His was the plainest explanation of the Christian belief that every child is a child of God. He knew that every child wants to love and be loved, and there are no trophies for that. It ought to be how we all behave, every day, child or adult.

A spot in heaven

The film suggested that his own childhood was not entirely a happy one, the affluence in which he grew up notwithstanding. He was a plump kid who was bullied. That might help explain why he wondered about his own self-worth his entire life. He used his puppets, especially Daniel Striped Tiger, to talk about his own hurts, doubts, and disappointments in a way he could not otherwise do. Indeed, as he lay dying, he asked his wife if she thought he had lived a virtuous enough life to have earned a spot in heaven.

A testimony

Individual children by the millions were his primary audience yet he could touch the hearts of adults profoundly. The film related the story about Rogers testifying before the U.S. Senate. President Johnson had signed the legislation creating the public/private partnership called PBS and described it as addressing the spirit of the nation. President Nixon wanted to stop public funding for PBS, and his chief ally, Senator John Pastore of Rhode Island, held hearings about the funding.

Rogers began by noting that he had prepared a philosophical statement that would take about ten minutes to read. But, he said to Senator Pastore, “I trust that you will read that.” Rogers then proceeded to pour out his heart about children and what a publicly funded PBS might provide in its programming that countered the other kinds of programs for kids. Rogers even quoted the lyrics of one of his songs for children to help make his point.

When Rogers finished, Senator Pastore turned to the rest of the committee and said, “Well, you just got your $20 million.”

Rogers also used his show to make moral statements. When news media splashed the story nationwide about how a hotel owner in the South had poured chemicals into his pool while African American and white swimmers were in it, Rogers had the African-American who played the policeman (another subtlety) share Rogers' wading pool to cool off his feet on a hot day, and Rogers toweled the man's feet dry.

One of Rogers' moral statements late in his career made clear his acceptance of gays. That prompted anti-gay activists to picket his memorial service, the intolerant protesting tolerance.

Acts of kindness and love

Contrast his ways of making a statement with the incivility that makes the news today. Therein lies worry and hope.

Is there still room for Mr. Rogers in the world? On screen, one interviewee asserted that “there are lots of Mr. Rogers out there,” blunting my concern by contending there is not only still room for Mr. Rogers in our world, but that there are real people like Fred Rogers still around.

Their stage might not be national TV. Theirs are neighborhoods, figuratively and literally, and in those neighborhoods there is no litmus test to be a neighbor. They touch the lives of others through profound and simple actions of love.

Mr. Rogers had trouble, in the end, believing that he had made a difference because the challenges are so big. Really, Fred?

For those who try to live their lives doing daily “little unremembered acts of kindness and of love” (Wordsworth via Dad) as a habit, you are a saint.


Past meditations