Remembering Mister Rogers: The Man That Raised A Generation
By: Vincent Villani
In May of 2021, HBO Max added an array of content to the library as it does every month. One of these new additions is the 2018 documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, a film that may fly under the radar for most viewers.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” deals with the life and legacy of children’s television icon Mr. Rogers and the philosophy that drove his work of education through television.
Filmmaker Morgan Neville tackles a myriad of topics surrounding Fred Rogers and his long-running show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” (1968-2001), detailing what made the series and the man truly one in a million.
As a young man, Fred Rogers studied at Pittsburgh’s Theological Seminary and was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1963. He also attended the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Child Development, where his passion for early childhood education was fostered and nurtured.
It was here where he also met his mentor, famed child psychologist, Margaret McFarland.
Drawing from his passion for education, combined with his Christian philosophy, Fred Rogers approached Pittsburgh’s WQED television station with an idea for a new children’s education program. In 1968, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” aired for the first time on National Education Television (NET), which later became PBS.
Even from its launch, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” set itself apart from its contemporaries, in both its look and feel as well as its general focus.
Children’s entertainment at the time usually consisted of action-packed cartoons and series with Hollywood quality production value. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” had the aesthetic and production value of a cable TV show, noticeable sets that did not pretend to be convincingly real.
In terms of pacing, Rogers’ show did not pack every second of the runtime with necessary content. There are points in any given episode that might be silent as Mr. Rogers does something in real time; he would change his shoes, feed his fish and perform other normal tasks in real-time and still be magnetic enough to hold your attention.
Other children’s shows, like “Sesame Street” (1969 –), focused on scholastic educational material: the alphabet, counting, colors, shapes, etc.; necessary components of early childhood education.
“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” focused on the more often overlooked component of children’s education: their emotional intelligence and emotional needs; teaching kids about the world around them and how to address their emotions in a healthy manner.
Rogers addressed social issues and world events and broke them down in a way that children could understand, through visual metaphors, puppets and songs. He created “theme weeks” where he would dedicate a week’s worth of episodes to a particular topic such as divorce, death of a pet or a loved one, sibling rivalry and racism, to name a few.
He approached these issues with tact and respect, opening a dialogue about harsh realities that occur every day rather than avoiding them or putting up some comforting façade just because he’s talking to children.
In the show’s first season, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” aired episodes addressing the events in Vietnam and the realities of war as well as a special episode talking about assassination in response to the assassination of Robert Kennedy.
The documentary demonstrates that Fred Rogers understood that we have an instinct to try to shield children from some of the darker aspects of the world. Yet, despite this, children see these realities anyway and will have questions about them that often go unanswered. Rogers made it his mission to address the children directly and answer their questions the best that he could.
The filmmakers tie Rogers’ passion for education to his early life.
As a child, Neville states, Rogers was quite lonely. He was bullied mercilessly for being overweight and suffered constantly from severe asthma attacks which left him homebound. He had few friends and often turned to playing pretend with stuffed animals.
Fred Rogers was able to take his own experiences as a child and dedicate his life to making sure future generations didn’t feel so alone. He spent his life fighting to make sure children got an emotional education in addition to a scholastic one.
Sadly, Fred Rogers died in 2003 of complications caused by stomach cancer. However, his legacy of kindness lives on. In “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, Morgan Neville puts Mr. Rogers and his philosophy in the foreground for the world to see at a time when it desperately needs his example.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a love letter to a most genuine human being; a man who not only taught children but respected them enough to know that they can handle some heavy conversations. It’s also an invitation to follow the “love thy neighbor” example that Mr. Rogers set over 50 years ago.