The late Rev. Fred Rogers fills his pastoral role, once again

During the past few days, how many of you have either (a) seen this picture and the following quotation on Facebook or (b) have received an email with a URL that points you toward this material?

The quotation, of course, is this one:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.” — Mister Rogers

The Washington Post Style team noted this trend and turned it into a gentle story in the midst of the ongoing rush of painful Newtown, Conn., coverage. This is fitting, since we are all experiencing this tragedy in the age of omnipresent social media. The top of the story noted:

As America reeled from the news of the shootings at Sandy Hook, parents looked for a way to explain the unexplainable to their children. But they also needed an explanation for themselves — someone to help process the magnitude of what it means to live in a world where 20 children can be gunned down amid storybooks and crayons.

That person was — and will always be — Fred Rogers, known to children everywhere as Mister Rogers. After 170 Million Americans for Public Broadcasting shared the children’s television host’s quote about helpers, along with an image of a tiny boy cradling Mister Rogers’ face in his hands, each looking lovingly into each other’s eyes, it began to go viral on Facebook. As of this writing, it has been “liked” more than 48,000 times, and shared more than 88,000 times. It has more than 1,500 comments, many of which echo this sentiment, expressed by Dianne Quigley: “WE can be the helpers … by creating a fabric of love, generosity, understanding and compassion. Smile and help someone today.”

Rogers’ quote and the image even closed Sunday’s edition of “Meet the Press.” David Gregory offered a prayer for the families affected: “May God give you strength and at least you can know there is a country full of helpers here to catch you when you feel like falling.”

So, once again, we see one of the famous faces of the PBS universe providing that service that he provided so well for so many years — serving as a kind of semi-official national children’s pastor.

While he will always be known as Mister Rogers, it would have been good — especially under these circumstances — for the Post team to have accurately noted that his actual name was the Rev. Fred Rogers. This was a key element of his persona, even if he did not explicitly fill that role when in front of television cameras.

As one online tribute to him noted, about the roots of his public-television career:

While with WQED, working on The Children’s Corner, he used his off time to study theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, as well as to take courses in child development. By 1962, he received a Bachelor of Divinity degree and was ordained as a minister in the United Presbyterian Church and charged with continuing his work on creating and contributing to wholesome children’s television programs, which was his passion.

Photographer Jim Judkis — who took this famous photo at The Children’s Institute in Pittsburgh — is also the father of the Post writer who wrote the article:

Rogers was visiting the school to spend some time with the children, and my dad remembers the kids’ first encounter with him.

“This boy immediately went right up to him and held out his hands to touch him, and he said ‘Mister Rogers!’ In total awe. Total awe. And that was the moment of the photo,” said Judkis. “I think it shows the pure attraction, the love … it’s like he’s seeing God, touching God.”

If Mister Rogers were still alive, Judkis is sure that he would be doing anything he could to help the children of Newtown. “In my opinion, Fred is close to a saint,” he said.

I don’t know if Presbyterians have saints, in the formal sense of the word. However, I do know that Rogers was an ordained minister and, with this quote going viral in the aftermath of Newtown, it would be good if that fact was including in this kind of coverage.

This unofficial pastor to the nation’s children was, in fact, an ordained minister. That fact would have helped this story, putting a name on one of the religion ghosts behind this story.

IMAGE: Via Facebook, the photo by Jim Judkis.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://blog.gajunkie.com Steve Salyards

    Thanks for this great analysis.

    For Presbyterians all who are called and redeemed by God are Saints, but for those who are especially honored for their unselfish service Fred Rogers is pretty close to the top of the list.

    Mister Rogers’ unique ministry is an example to us all that there are so many other forms of ministry, ordained and not ordained, that are important and meaningful. When I chaired our local ministers committee I had what I called the “Mister Rogers Test.” When we had a discussion about validating a ministry outside the traditional church setting I would ask if based on what we just discussed about the call under consideration would we also validate the call of The Rev. Fred Rogers.

  • pagansister

    I had not seen that picture. It is wonderful. The pure joy in that little boy’s eyes at seeing Mr. Rogers is unreal. :o)


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