The enduring guidance of “Mister Rogers” on both children and adults

Author Gavin Edwards delves into his new book about our favorite neighbor and asks us to find our inner Fred

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 29, 2019 4:05PM (EDT)

Kindness and Wonder by Gavin Edwards (Harper Collins)
Kindness and Wonder by Gavin Edwards (Harper Collins)

If I were to pick one person I know to entrust with the story of Mister Rogers, it would be my friend Gavin. Not just because Gavin Edwards is a pop culture expert whose previous books focused on beloved American icons like Bill Murray and Tom Hanks. It’s more because he’s been my friend for over 20 years, so I know he's one of the nicest, gentlest, most generous souls on the planet. Everybody loves Mister Rogers, but Gavin is one of those rare individuals who actually embodies him. The good neighbor is in good hands.

One half biography, one half practical guide to life, “Kindness and Wonder: Why Mister Rogers Matters Now More Than Ever” reads like a balm to the anxious soul. It’s a reminder of the courage that it takes to be decent, and a call to find the good neighbor inside all of us. I talked to Gavin recently via phone about the inspiration for the book, and what he learned from Lady Aberlin.

You are very clearly drawn to certain personalities who are extremely American and extremely captivating in the public imagination.

I always look for the big American story. Some people really live up to that. Bill Murray and Fred Rogers are very different guys, but it's hard to imagine them in any other context. People outside the country are slightly puzzled by them. I talk to Spanish press about Bill Murray and they're like, "Really? This happens? This is real?" Outside the United States and maybe Canada, people don't really know who Mister Rogers is. But in this world, it just feels like they're central to human existence.

Especially if you're of our generation, it's hard to imagine not just the pop culture, but your own personality, without being informed by them.

Yes. I know when I was a teenager, I could see David Letterman changing my brother's sense of humor. At the dinner table, I could see him delivering things in a Letterman-esque fashion. I don't have conscious memory of Mister Rogers molding me that way. But I know that happened. I remember watching that show, and I remember every day, there was this guy talking to me. I remember the kindness and the warmth that I felt.

I think you take it on faith, the same way when you're a parent, you read to your kids when they're six months old. You know they're never going to be able to say, "Oh, what was that book you read to me?" But you're doing it because you're filling them up with love, you're providing the framework that they need, and you're molding who they are.

There are so many books about Mister Rogers, so many documentaries about Mister Rogers. What made you say, "You know what? I've got something to say, and I've got a perspective that will make it different?"

Aside from the hubris of, "I'm just going to do this because it's me and I care,” what I wanted to do that had not been done was explicitly help people draw on those buried memories of Mister Rogers, and give them guidelines on how you could use them in your life now. A lot of people have tried to write biographies, or go through the history of the show, or in some cases, explore his motivations. But the show, as much as I love it, is not really around anymore. You can watch it. It's online, and there are DVDs. But we still care about him. Many, many people grew up on this and were raised by Mister Rogers in many ways. So what does that mean?

As he got older, in his last years of life, and he would do maybe five or 10 shows a year, but what he did a lot of was going out and doing college graduation ceremonies, and giving speeches, and trying to inspire people. There's this sense that the work was not complete until he went back and checked in with the adults who had grown up in his neighborhood one last time, and reminded them of these lessons of being kind to other people, and communicating with other people, and reaching out, and just making the world a better place. If they grew up on that, it only really needs a reminder in many ways. I'm hoping that I'm continuing that work by just asking, "You know why you care about Mister Rogers even if you haven't thought about him? How can you bring this into your own world?"

For obvious reasons, that feels critical right now.

There are so many ways in which it feels like the world is on fire. In some cases, it literally is on fire. In our lives, I think we have seen the culture get nastier and meaner, and I'm not a puritanical person. I like snark and irony. We live in the 21st century. I'm not saying the solution to this is to cut yourself off from all modern life. But I think that almost everybody, even if just a couple times a day, could say, "How would Mister Rogers handle this?"

I spoke with a puppeteer. He was the puppet captain on the Tom Hanks movie that's coming out, "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood." He got to live and be in Mister Rogers' sneakers for a while. He was doing the puppets. He was doing what he did. He was replicating his puppetry style. It left him with this appreciation for the art that he made, but also it gave him more moral structure in his life. Whenever there's a big decision now about, "Should I do this project? Is it worth it?" He takes a beat and says, "What would Mister Rogers do?"

I think of his great quote, which came from his mother, to look for the helpers. I always say, now that Mister Rogers isn't here, we have to look for the helper inside ourselves. We have to be the helper.

You always will see a helper, but you should be the helper for other people. For him, it was especially with children. But it’s really whatever you do to push the world even a little bit in the right direction. You don't have to take on the whole weight, but just, "Okay. Which way am I pushing things right now?"

I was really struck this time reading his story that he was a rich kid. We're so used to the rich kids of Instagram. We're so used to the idea of rich kids just inherently being horrible, that the idea that a rich kid could grow up with all of this wisdom, and generosity of spirit, and kindness and compassion seems almost impossible. I think that that is a good object lesson for us right now.

His classmates remembered that he had seven pairs of corduroy pants. But he was the richest kid in town. Noblesse oblige is a phrase that you don't hear a lot anymore, but I think it was a real thing to them, that we have the good fortune and the privilege to have more materially than many of the other people in the town, and so it's our moral obligation to share that with other people and to help them. His mother is making bandages for soldiers and volunteering at the hospital, and she's knitting sweaters for people. So every time Mister Rogers puts on a sweater to begin his show, he's not just showing kids the informality, he's showing the spirit of giving and donation. It's a physical reminder on his body that this is something his mom did, and showed him the way to help other people.

I think we live in a culture that doesn't necessarily treat kids as babies, but does almost see them as peers. A lot of adults treat kids like they have to be in their cool T-shirts, building their brand when they're eight. To have someone who understood that kids are worthy of respect, worthy of time, that they have things to tell you that we should listen to, but also that they are developmentally at a different stage, and they need a lot of consistency and reassurance and to feel safe, is so, so lost right now.

One of the stories that I'd not seen before that I found in my reporting was he was on an airplane, and there's this little girl in the row in front of him. She is terrified, and she's flying alone. The flight attendants are trying to calm her down and say, "Oh, don't cry. You've got nothing to worry about." She's freaking out. Mister Rogers passes her a note saying, "There are lots of reasons to cry, and they're all fine. If you want to talk about it, I'm here, and I'd be happy to talk to you." Just accepting that kids have these emotions and validating them, and saying that it's okay to be mad and sad and to have just normal human emotions, instead of needing to be a polished mini-adult at all moments, was one of his great gifts.

That's why it's still so resonant. The idea that it's not about fixing your feelings, it's about managing them. That's the phrase that he uses. "What is mentionable is manageable," and understanding how to live inside of your feelings rather than cure them is so important.

The other thing that I really love is that anecdote about the little boy he asked, "Can you pray for me?" It is so restorative an act to do anything for anyone else. Our culture is all about, "I got mine." We certainly see that that is actually a political strategy, a career strategy, where it's, "Get yours. Burn it all down. Who cares?”

And you're a sucker if you don't do that. Not only is it okay to do that, but what kind of loser doesn't go get theirs?

That that also comes down to the niceness thing. The idea that you could be a gentle person, that one of your biggest life lessons could be forgiveness, is seen as weakness. Imagine the amount of fortitude it must have taken to carry everything that he carried with him every day, the stories that people told him every day, and to approach people with that level of respect, when people were doing parodies of him. To have that kind of dignity, I can't imagine how much strength that takes.

He would still have been a great man if he did the show and provided that solace and guidance to children all over the country. If then he, in his private life, was smoking cigars and barking at people, he still would have made the world a better place. But that's not who he was. The show was him putting forward his authentic self in the universe, which is another small miracle to me in an age where it seems like it's all about polishing the brand and shine yourself up. He just went out and he was Mister Rogers.

In doing this, was there something that just made you think, "Now I understand him on a deeper level. Now I can apply Mister Rogers to my own life in a different way that I didn't know before"?

Betty Aberlin, Lady Aberlin on the show, once said essentially, "It was like being yellow in one of Van Gogh's paintings." I found that really inspiring, the idea that when you're caught in something larger that is doing good in the world, being part in the movement, part of the vision. Even if you don't feel like you're the person who's initiating that, you can still be caught up in it and know that you're pushing things in the right direction.

Because it feels really daunting to be Mister Rogers. How could anyone pull that off 24 hours a day? But I think we can imagine maybe being a visitor to the neighborhood, and maybe being the color yellow, and maybe that we take some of that away with us.

It's about also leaning into your own humility, and not always being the hero in what we think of in the traditional sense.

He would reach out to a little girl going into a surgery, or a family that lost a child, or just a guy having a bad day when he's in college — whatever the scale of it is, he knew that it was important to that person at that moment, and he really valued that he had the ability to help people. That was the gift to him. He didn't need a new car. He took pleasure in the fact that he had the ability to help people, to minister to people. That was his great gift.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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