IN FRED WE TRUST
by Sally Kalson
Who else but Fred Rogers would be the subject of a book-length tribute
that begins with three pages of denunciation? Hysterically funny denunciation, yes;
denunciation that turns out to be a kind of revival-tent device, emphasizing the writer's
sins in order to dramatize his conversion; but dununciation nonetheless.
one I can think of. But then, no one except Fred Rogers has spent the last quarter-century
speaking so slowly, gently, honestly and yes, fearlessly to the inner-most concerns
of small children.
Only Mister Rogers' low-wattage persona, his direct simplicity,
his utter lack of guile or self-parody could inspire the kind of hilarious essay that
Bob Garfield wrote as the forward to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: Children, Television
and Fred Rogers, published this spring by the University of Pittsburgh Press.
book is worth reading for Garfield's essay alone, because it so neatly sums up everything
that's wrong with out culture's distortions of childhood and, by contrast, everything
that's right about Fred Rogers' work.
It is to the credit of editors Mark Collins
and Margaret Mary Kimmel that they used this piece as the book's forward, in essence
leading with their left. Because a lot of what follows is very serious indeed. At
times it's almost reverential, although not inappropriately so, given the fact that
no one else in television has done as much to reassure children of their special place
in the world
Yet it would have been disingenuous to ignore the perverse reaction
that such stunningly straightforward sincerity brings out in so many cynical adults-who,
for some bizarre reason, seem to think Fred Rogers should be playing to their jaded
sensibilities instead of to their children's innocent ones. And by beginning the book
as they do, the editors disarm the naysayers before they have time to get off the
first misguided shot.
The forward is not the only reason to read the book.
The 13 original essays that follow, each analyzing a different aspect of Rogers' work,
go a long way toward explaining why his nonsectarian TV ministry to children has endured
for so long.
Pittsburgh-based writer Jeanne Marie Laskas, who has done so many
articles on Rogers over the years that she must surely have earned a Ph.D. in Fredness
by now, reveals the man behind the TV screen to be exactly the same as the man inside
the TV screen, only more so.
Long-time WQED producer Mary Rawson offers a surprising
glimpse of Rogers' devoted fans at the other end of the age spectrum-the older adults
who drink in his message of respect and acceptance as thirstily as do their grandchildren.
essays cover Mister Rogers' use of make-believe; its theology; its messages to parents;
its music (via an interview by Eugenia Zuckerman with Yo-Yo Ma); its puppetry.
psychologist Nancy Curry, who trained with Rogers under child-development specialist
Margaret McFarland, explains Rogers' use of make-believe as a gateway to a child's
reality. Paula Lawrence Wehmiller explores his contributions to the teaching of tolerance.
Marian Wright Edelman's afterword describes why "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood"
has never been needed more than it is right now.
Moving through these writings,
you cannot help but realize the depth of knowledge and understanding of children and
child development that lie beneath the deceptively simple sets of "Mister Rogers'
And if you grew up watching television in Pittsburgh as
I did, you can't help but feel a personal connection to Fred Rogers and his work.
should note here that "The Children's Corner" with Fred Rogers and Josie
Carey was not high on my childhood viewing list. By the time I discovered it on the
fledgeling WQED, my heart already belonged to Hopalong Cassidy, Johnny Mack Brown,
Annie Oakley and Lash LaRue. I was absorbed in their clear-cut images of good and
bad, their thrilling chases on horseback, and, in the case of Lash, that bullwhip
that was as much a threat to evil as any six-shooter. The simple puppets and gentle
voices never really had much chance of being heard among the bang-bang, shoot-'em-up
that marked my fantasy life.
So it was not as a child that I came to sit in
one of Mister Rogers' television pews. It was-and is-as a mother. As a mother, I have
come to appreciate the special genius of Fred Rogers far more than I ever, as a child,
appreciated the whipmanship of Lash LaRue.
As a mother, I am raising a child
in a world where the bang-bang shoot-'em-up is not fun fantasy, but appalling reality.
And in that context, it's hard to find a safe haven for children today that will still
be safe tomorrow. That's the role that "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" fulfills.
trust Fred Rogers with my daughter, and she loves to "be" with him. We both
know he will reassure her, speak kindly to her, tell her that lots of kids are afraid
of clowns or big dogs, and that it's okay to have those feelings. We trust him to
lead her throuugh an orange juice factory asking all the questions she would ask.
I even trust him as a music teacher. It was, after all, because of a "Mister
Rogers" episode that she pointed weeks later to a cellist on TV and, at the age
of two, said: "Yo-Yo Ma."
I trust Fred Rogers never to belittle her,
or scare her, or confuse her. And in the current TV market, that's saying a lot.
a mother, I abhor the crazed, frenetic children's TV that whittles kids' attention
spans to a nano-second; the trafficking in sexist and violent images that desensitize
children in the name of ratings and profits; the view of children as little consumers
who, once stoked with enough desire for some toy or cereal, will nag their parents
until they get it.
A friend would never do that to your child. A friend would
tell your child what Fred Rogers tells mine all the time: It's her he likes. It's
not the things she wears (light-up sneakers with Sesame Street characters not required).
It's not the way she does her hair (even if she did cut off a whole handful above
the ear as an experiment). But it's her he likes.
You'll hear that voice again
and again in this book, but only as conveyed by other people. Rogers himself was not
asked to contribute an essay. That, says editor Kimmel, was intentional. "Our
purpose was to publish a thouughtful analysis of his contribution," she said.
"We wanted it to be about his work, not about him."
In the end, however,
it's clear that the two cannot be separated. "Mister Rogers Neighborhood"
could only have been produced by Fred Rogers. And this book, while not technically
conceived as a testimonial, inevitably had to become one.
One of the shots
in Lynn Johnson's closing photo essay shows why. It depicts a young woman at her college
commencement, dressed in cap and gown and triumphantly holding aloft a Daniel Striped
Mister Rogers has kept faith with America's children, and America's
children have kept faith with him.
Sally Kalson is a journalist who writes
a weekly column for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.