At some point, all of us who grew up with him got too cool for Mister Rogers. We reached the age where we were embarrassed to admit that we ever liked the guy and were still stupid enough to believe our classmates when they claimed that they had never liked him either. Later, we laughed at the parodies. The wonderful National Lampoon bit with Christopher Guest as Mister Rogers interviewing a stoned bass player (Bill Murray) about his craft ("What does a big guy like you think about when you're playing the bass? Because I thought of sheep ... and fresh little candies"), or Eddie Murphy's "Saturday Night Live" sketch "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood."
So how did so many us find our way back to Fred Rogers, who died of stomach cancer this morning at 74? If not to actually becoming once more faithful viewers of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," then at least to acknowledging that we just loved the guy? How do you go from being too cool to like Mister Rogers to acting the way a Boston University graduating class did some years back when the school presented Fred Rogers with an honorary doctorate and the graduates rose en masse to join him in singing "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"
I think the answer has something to do with the fact that the older you get the more grateful you are for anyone who talks straight to you. Fred Rogers' much-mimicked voice -- that calm, soothing, thin, high voice that seemed as if it was coming out on the merest exhalation of breath, that rose only slightly when he was talking about what it felt like to be mad or scared -- was the essence of the man. Mister Rogers talked to us -- without talking down to us. He wasn't some ding-dong dressed up like a clown, a cowboy, an astronaut screeching, "Hi boys and girls!" He treated his audience like people.
That was startling enough back in 1968 when Fred Rogers started doing "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" from WQED in Pittsburgh. Back then, his only competition for "quality" children's programming was "Captain Kangaroo," a now-forgotten CBC production called "The Friendly Giant" that ran here on NET (this was back when PBS was National Educational Television), and the countless local versions of "Romper Room." "Mister Rogers" remained unique even after "Sesame Street" introduced its brand of toddler vaudeville, and certainly now when good children's programming means a dumbed-down imitator like "Barney" that wallows in the nicey-nice sap Fred Rogers avoided.
The oft-quoted line that opens L.P. Hartley's novel "The Go-Between" -- "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there" -- applies to nothing so much as to our own childhood selves. It's very easy to forget how difficult naming or even admitting your fears can be for young children. To do that is, for a child, almost to will those fears into being. Fred Rogers found a way to name those fears and to tell kids that admitting them was a way of being strong enough to deal with them. The softness of his approach, the determined zipper-cardiganed and tennis-shoed niceness of it, shouldn't obscure the greatness of his achievement.
And that achievement shouldn't be confused with feel-good self-help therapy, with the emotional fascism of Oprah-speak that tells people it's important to express their feelings (no matter how they make anyone else feel in the process), with the security blanket mentality that denies every unpleasant reality and complication of life. The comfort that Fred Rogers offered children was not the false protectiveness that Philip Roth in "The Human Stain" calls the abrogation of "the moral obligation to explain to one's children about adult life ... in favor of maintaining in them every illusion about adult life." Fred Rogers didn't want to cocoon kids from heartbreak and fear. He worked to ease them into the realities of adult life, even if in doing that, it meant they would reach an age where they would leave him behind. In that, he was an exemplary surrogate parent, offering kids safety and comfort along with the implicit message that one day they'd be strong enough to be on their own, and offering his faith that we'd able to lead good lives.
It was important, he said during the renewed nuclear fears of the Reagan years, that children be allowed to have a childhood. The Associated Press report of his death this morning ended with the words he used during the Gulf War: "All children shall be well taken care of in this neighborhood and beyond -- in times of war and in times of peace." The report concluded, "and he asked parents to promise their children they would always be safe."
Even more than hearing about his death, it broke my heart this morning to have a friend tell me that his 4-year-old daughter, who's been watching the reruns of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," told her dad that she wanted to visit Mister Rogers in his playhouse (the same thing my kindergarten classmates and I wanted the year he began broadcasting). My friend explained to her that the shows were taped a while ago and that he wasn't doing them anymore. He hoped, he told me, that she wouldn't hear about Fred Rogers' death from her friends at school. And I understood why. Let Lucy have a childhood. Mister Rogers would have wanted it that way.