My Friend, Mr Fred Rogers, Gave Us All That Special Kind of Attention That Lives on Forever
Mr. Rogers of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood fame would have been eighty years old this past March. Thirty years ago, I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time to keep him on PBS. Our local station, the most powerful of the PBS buying group, had decided not to purchase him again. I was Executive Director of a non-profit which was addressing the impact of heavy TV viewing on children and their families. One of my “deep throats” in the Industry told me this terrible news. I wrote a letter asking what they were going to air for small children. They had no other “product”, thank goodness. Fred went on for the next twenty-five years to make a huge difference in the lives of thousands of kids.
I know, because when people learn about Mr. Rogers and me, that we became friends and colleagues over the years, they tell me their stories. It doesn’t matter where I am, in what part of the country. I’ve been dragged by a new acquaintance through his house on a Sunday night to see a framed newspaper clipping of Fred that was in their bathroom. One woman told me that when Fred died, she realized that her children’s childhood was over. Another young mother told me that she’d been very angry with him, because he wouldn’t come out of the screen to be her dad. More recently, a woman told me that she sat with her young child all the time watching together, because he was really her surrogate father.
I called The Neighborhood office at the time of Fred’s birthday to talk to David Newell, Mr. Mc Feely, who played a vital part in the Rogers’ organization. He shared a story about a recent award that had been given in the Children’s TV arena to one of Fred’s old competitors; the recipient admitted to the audience, “Thirty-three years ago we made fun of Mr. Rogers. But he was right. We did decrease children’s’ attention spans.” That was a very proud moment for the Mr. Rogers Neighborhood crew.
It’s been falsely rumored that Fred Rogers was a Navy Seal during World War II. He was actually an ordained Minister, a musical composer and broadcast pioneer. He created his show for kids out of his sensitive caring, warmth and passion to communicate with the youngest among us. He knew that our children are our greatest natural resource and could use all the positive friends they could get. He was the best friend a child could have on TV. He spoke to the insides of kids, so they could feel his attention. He made them feel safe, connected, respected, included and acknowledged; that kind of attention never is forgotten. He once told Henry Schuster, a CNN Senior Producer, “The whole idea is to look into the television camera and present as much love as you possibly could to a person who might feel that he or she needs it.” He paced his show to give kids time to listen and to absorb what he was saying. He did not need to use gimmicks. He gave his audience unconditional love.
I have a very special story of a time I was in Washington at the national Book Convention with my son and my granddaughter. We were in line to get one of Fred’s books signed, and a man came and cut the line right off in front of us. I quickly said, “You can’t do that!” He asked, “Why?”, and I said, “Because he’s my friend,” and I gave him my name. He went up to where Fred was autographing books. Immediately Fred came back and took us to the head of the line. I have the picture I took to prove it!
During his thirty plus years on television, Fred used to sit in his rocking chair wearing the long sleeved sweaters that his mother made for him and told kids how he felt about them, showed them how things worked, how to do things for themselves and for each other. Today, his chair and his sweater live in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. I wish we had more Fred Rogers today, who knew the endless power of genuine attention!
Alice Aspen March, Expert on Impact of Attention, TheAttentionFactor(R).
Speaker, Published Author, Workshop Leader, Exec. Dir. of Non-Profit, FACT: impact of TV on Children and Families; kept Fred Rogers Neighborhood on the air as Chair of KCET Community Advisory Board, Co-Produced Emmy-nominated, Latch-Key Kids, narrated by Christopher Reeve; appointed by Calif. State Senate to two State Commissions.