Remembering Mister Rogers and the Light He Left

Copyright © 2013 Benjamin Zoba. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

By Wendy Murray

Fred “Mister” Rogers died on this day 11 years ago. I interviewed Fred “Mister” Rogers in October 1999 for a cover story in Christianity Today (March 2000).  

The assignment proved a highlight in my career. And, as time would have it, it was the last major feature article written about Fred Rogers before he died in February 2003, 10 years ago last month. It was also the only feature article to peek into the spiritual side of the Neighborhood, to explore the belief system of Fred Rogers — who was an ordained minister —  embraced  it in his television visits and in his every-day life.  

I miss him. And I dare say the world misses him. He was a light amid darkness.  Mister Rogers, in his silent, subtle, mighty way, rescued children — and grown-ups too — from a world that would warp  souls.

During my visit with him so many years ago  I sat with him in his “office,” a small, cramped, eclectic room in Pittsburgh that was a testimony to the people who have “loved him into existence” (his way of putting it). He sat on a well-worn couch and I in a velveteen chair. These were from  his childhood home of Latrobe, Pennsylvania. It was from this couch that he wrote letters to children and their mothers, and would think about things like “big” and “little.” (He had no desk.) He was flanked by stuffed animals and baseball caps, and sometimes stuffed animals wearing baseball caps, that his many neighbors had given him over the years.

He called his viewers “neighbors.” For him, the world was a place filled with neighbors. He called himself a neighbor. And his daily half-hour children’s program, called Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, was his invitation for children and mothers to come to a safe place filled with quiet moments, like feeding the fish, and moving narratives — like Lady Elaine Fairchild sabotaging King Friday XIII in the Neighborhood of Make Believe. “Do you ever feel like Lady Elaine did?” He would ask his television neighbors. Then he would sing a song. What do you do with the mad that you feel . . . ?

In his office he showed me a sign that he kept on the table near the door: Freddie, I like you just the way you are. “It was my Grandfather McFeely who said such things as that,” he said. “We used to visit him in the country almost every Sunday. He was the kind of person who would say, ‘You know, you’ve made this a special day by being here.'”

What most people don’t realize about Mister Rogers and his Neighborhood is that behind the puppets, the tennis shoes, and the simple songs lies an abiding faith and weighty theology. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ordained Fred Rogers as “an evangelist to work with children and families through the mass media.” He did not bring evangelism in its churchly sense to this calling, and neither did he introduce religious themes in his programs. But his daily neighborhood visits with children would sow seeds that awoke something elemental in their hearts. It took the form of hidden growth, like the parable of the seeds sown in secret.

Then he opened his wallet to show me pictures. “I love to know about people,” he says. The “tour through the wallet” included photographs of people he’d known, children of the people he’d known, and, in some instances, people he didn’t know but heard about and cared about:

“Did you know Henri Nouwen? Here he is with Chris de Vinck,” he said, explaining that Chris de Vinck was compiling a book of essays about Henri Nouwen. “These are Chris de Vinck’s children.”

“This is one of my special friends, Yo-Yo Ma, who is a cellist, and his son,” he said. “He’s a great man. Oh. This is Jonathan Kozol—he writes about children.” There was a picture of Mother Martha and “some of the kids in the Bronx”; a little boy from his church; and another boy with autism who was fixated on hangers. There is a picture of a woman whose husband “was sucked into coal slag and suffocated”; and there is a picture of her two children.

“That’s Chef Brockett.” He paused.

“Oh,  that’s what I was looking for: here is Dr. Orr, and Mrs. Orr. She’s still living.”

He told me that in seminary he studied systematic theology with Dr. William S. Orr and that “from then on I took everything he offered; it could have been underwater basket weaving.He was a great influence on many of our lives. Not just because he was brilliant. He was the kind of person who would go out on a winter’s day for lunch and come back without his overcoat.

“Every Sunday my wife and I used to go to the nursing home to visit him. One Sunday we had just sung ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’ and I was full of this one verse. I said, ‘Dr. Orr, we just sang this hymn and I’ve got to ask you about part of it.

” ‘You know where it says—The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him. For, lo, his doom is sure . . . . one little word will fell him? Dr. Orr, what is that one thing that would wipe out evil?’

“He said, ‘Evil simply disintegrates in the presence of forgiveness. When you look with accusing eyes at your neighbor, that is what evil would want, because the more the Accuser’—which, of course, is the word Satan in Hebrew—’can spread the accusing spirit, the greater evil spreads.’ Dr. Orr said, ‘On the other hand, if you can look with the eyes of the Advocate on your neighbor, those are the eyes of Jesus.’ I’ve never forgotten that.”

That day he bequeathed to me wisdom of kind that is so elemental and exhaustive it is easy to forget.

“Life is deep and simple, and what our society gives us is shallow and complicated,” he says. At its worst television can be “degrading, reducing important human feelings to the status of caricature or trivia,” and even “encouraging pathology,” he says.

“Life isn’t cheap. It is the greatest mystery and we all only have one life to live on earth. Through television we can demean or cherish it.”

“I have seen in my life too many indications of what is wonderful about human beings. I think the Accuser would have us be so despairing that we wouldn’t do anything good at all. But you know the effect of one little candlelight in great darkness. That sounds simple, but it’s true. The older I get the more impressed I am with simplicity and silence.

“I do believe that that’s where we can be inspired. Whenever I give a speech now I give a minute of silence for people to think about all those who have helped them to become who they are. Invariably, that’s what people will remember—that silence.”

I asked Mister Rogers if he thought the Neighborhood could be a metaphor for heaven. “We deal with a lot of gritty stuff on the Neighborhood —death, divorce, the need for childcare, separation,” he says. “The Neighborhood is not a Pollyannish state.

“When I think about heaven, it is a state in which we are so greatly loved that there is no fear and doubt and disillusionment and anxiety. It is where people really do look at you with those eyes of Jesus.

“The underlying message of the Neighborhood,” he said, “is that if somebody cares about you, it’s possible that you’ll care about others. ‘You are special, and so is your neighbor’—that part is essential: that you’re not the only special person in the world. The person you happen to be with at the moment is loved, too.

“God, in his great mercy, accepts us exactly as we are. Who could ever stand if God’s faithfulness did not endure?”

Before my day with Mister Rogers came to an end, I asked if I could take his picture.

“Oh, let me take your picture,” he says. “I love taking pictures of people.”

I sit on his couch—he wanted the illustration of X the Owl and Henrietta Pussycat in the background—and he took my picture. Then “Mr. McFeely” (David Newell) took our picture — Fred Rogers and me, together on his couch, X the Owl over our shoulders, sitting, smiling and safe,  together, as neighbors.



Read Fred Rogers’ thoughts about the media here.

Wendy Murray’s book on Fred Rogers will be out later this year.

Almighty God, bestow upon us the meaning of words, the light of understanding, the nobility of diction, and the faith of the true nature. And grant that what we believe we may also speak.

Saint Hilary (c. 315-368), Bishop of Poitiers

Follow me on Twitter: @WenMurray

About Wendy Murray

Wendy Murray is a veteran and award-winning journalist. She served as associate editor and Senior Writer at Christianity Today magazine and has written extensively for other publications such as Books & Culture and The Christian Century. She has written 11 books.