By Barb Arland-Fye
I remember waiting impatiently for my youngest sibling to finish watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on public TV in the early 1970s. At age 12, I’d surely outgrown the folksy, kind-hearted stories that Fred Rogers spun in his neighborhood! But truth be told, Mister Rogers had important messages to share with kids — and adults — about compassion, respect, love of neighbor and of self.
Fleeting memories of those days surfaced after a friend posted on Facebook a video clip featuring an excerpt from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1980 and another excerpt from a television awards ceremony nearly 20 years later. Watching the excerpts on All Saints Day, it struck me that I was watching a saint. Fred Rogers — an ordained Presbyterian minister and a gifted musician, author and producer — shared the Gospel by his actions and his words.
In the 1980 episode, a pint-sized 10-year-old boy maneuvers his motorized wheelchair up to the house in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Rogers crouches down to talk with Jeffrey Erlanger about what it’s like to live with a wheelchair. The little boy exudes a positive attitude as he shares his story. At 7 months old he underwent surgery for a spinal tumor, which resulted in his handicap. Shortly before his appearance in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood he underwent another surgery. Despite the physical struggles, he appears every bit a happy boy. Mister Rogers asks Jeffrey to sing with him one of the show’s songs, “It’s you I like.” They sang with sincerity and joy.
The second excerpt features Rogers being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1999. A now-adult Jeffrey makes a surprise appearance, thanking Rogers for his efforts to change the world through kindness. The expression on Rogers’ face is priceless. He gets up from his seat in the audience and walks up on stage to embrace Jeffrey. Rogers asks the younger man to remain on stage. Then the children’s television celebrity gives a speech about the power of television to influence people — for good or for bad and provided examples. He advises those in television to choose to provide good content, to set an example for viewers.
Mister Rogers provided that example, and inspired countless kids, Jeffrey said, including himself. Jeffrey died in 2007, leaving a legacy of public service committed to focusing on constructive advocacy and civil debate, farness, openness and effective representation. That’s according to the City of Madison, Wisconsin, which created the annual Jeffrey Clay Erlanger Civility in Public Discourse Award.
“The award honors Jeffrey Clay Erlanger, who was an individual of integrity, passion, intelligence, and civility,” the city’s website says. “Jeff understood that thoughtful and caring people could have very different views on how to best address our community’s many complex issues and problems … he embraced the similarities that unite us.”
I believe some people are born kind and nurture kindness their whole lives — Fred Rogers and Jeffrey Erlanger are two examples. Others of us need to work at it, to practice kindness like daily exercise.
Father Richard Rohr, in his Daily Meditation on Oct. 31, offered a great opportunity for such exercise — a meditation of Blessed Mother Teresa on the practice of inner silence. Look for and listen to God; love God by loving others. Avoid listening to or spreading gossip or saying hurtful things to others. Avoid all selfishness, hatred, envy, jealousy and greed. This is the same message Mister Rogers shared in his neighborhood, the one I mistakenly thought I’d outgrown at age 12.
(Barb Arland-Fye, Editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)