Time has a way of wiping the memory, compacting chunks of years into months or even days in the mind, glossing over even those recollections we once held as precious. There is much I’ve misplaced about my childhood, but one thing stands out even now: those long days when I sat prostrate in front of the television, my knobby knees tucked under myself, back straight and eyes forward, waiting for Mr. Rogers to come on.
It was much the same with you, I would imagine. Generations of people grew up visiting Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood each day. We grew up with him. Learned with him. No matter who we are or what we’ve become, our childhoods have him in common.
Growing up, he was my hero. I wanted a sweater like his and a sandbox like his, and I pined for a magical train that would run through my house to distant lands. It was time that separated us, no longer made us neighbors. When a boy (or a girl, for that matter) reaches a certain age, Mr. Rogers is no longer cool. Mr. Rogers becomes a nerd. A dork. He’s no longer a friend, he’s the weird old man down the street.
How stupid we all are.
In 1997, after 33 years of teaching us all how to look and listen and act, Fred Rogers was given a lifetime achievement award at the Daytime Emmys. It was quite an odd sight, seeing him and his wife among some of the most famous and powerful people in Hollywood. And yet he took the stage to receive the award accompanied by a standing ovation that ended when he stood in front of the microphone. What happened next can only be described as magical. I ask you to take three minutes out of your day to watch:
Video from KarmaTube
How wonderful is that? How beautiful that this humble man (who was an ordained minister to boot) stood upon that glimmering stage in all that pomp and circumstance, holding a statue coveted by so many, and made it all not about him. And more than that, he reminded everyone else that it wasn’t all about them, either. It was instead about the ones who had been there to support them, to love them, to help them. In an age defined by the individual, Fred Rogers taught us in ten seconds that we are all connected to one another.
But there’s more. What struck me most watching that speech was that such a powerful truth had been given with such meekness and humility. How hard do you think it would be to convince a crowd of Hollywood actors and actresses to pause for a moment and think about someone other than themselves? To forget their fancy dress and their high status? And yet Mr. Rogers did just that, and merely by looking at his watch.
“I’ll watch the time.”
That’s all it took. There is a small rumble in the crowd, a few chuckles, and then utter silence. Because Mr. Rogers wasn’t kidding. He was serious, he wanted them to do this. And when Mr. Rogers asks that you do something, you do it. Not because you’re scared or intimidated, but because a part of you knows that he loves you.
Because he’s your neighbor.
As a result, Fred Rogers got exactly what he wanted that night. Not applause, not a statue. He convinced all of those people that they are indeed special, not because of what they’ve become, but because of who they loved and who loved them.
And that is why Mr. Rogers was my hero growing up. And now that I’m grown, why he’s my hero still.