Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers, by Michael G. Long ***-****

peaceful neighborI confess I was intrigued by the title and description of this biography. Mr. Rogers came on television when I was entering adolescence, and so I didn’t watch it for myself. When I had children of my own, I tried to limit their time spent in front of TV, and so I tended to watch Sesame Street with them and then reach for the off button. But my son wanted to see Mr. Rogers, and I confess that although the magic escaped me—who wanted to watch this dull man with the puppet on his hand, seriously?—my son, who was three years old, thought differently. I watched the little smile play on his lips as Mister Rogers spoke to him, face straight into the camera. It made my kid feel better. And so I decided to plunge into this biography and see if I could figure out what made the show so appealing to little kids. I went all the way through a Master’s degree in education and came out still clueless, so why not? Thank you to Net Galley and Westminster John Knox Press for the DRC. The title was published in March and is available for purchase.

On the whole, I never did find the magic, but from an analytical standpoint, I could see where the work done by Fred Rogers was effective. He treated small people with respect. He was an expert in the psychology of very young children, and his show was crafted around gently, reassuringly addressing some issues that parents might not know how to talk to their children about. This is not to say that he had a superior attitude or spoke down to parents, when he acknowledged our presence, but I was a mom who had spent my entire pregnancy unemployed, sitting around the house reading books about pregnancy, childbirth, and the raising of young children, and I had no idea that my son had been afraid he might go down the drain after the bath was over. And I watched his little face light up when Mr. Rogers sat at the piano and sang, “You can never go down, never go down, never go down the drain!”

The first twenty percent or so of this biography deals with Rogers’ religious beliefs, and I nearly had to stick myself with a pin to stay awake through it. The guy was a pacifist, and so although he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, his belief system and his quiet, subdued manner was largely that of the Friends, or Quakers. So for those who have a strong interest in examining the intricate details of faith as it relates to war and children, this will be more absorbing than it was for me.

Just at about the point at which I had decided that grabbing the galley had been a mistake—seriously, 176 pages and I had only read twenty percent? It felt like forever—and gave myself permission to skim and review this thing, it became more interesting. And although I think the author very much overstates his case in calling Rogers “subversive”, I agree that he openly, if subtly and carefully, disagreed with Presidents Reagan and HW Bush about the wars in the Middle East, and before that, with the Vietnam War. He never carried a sign, our writer points out several times, but chose to work behind the scenes and to use his television show as a platform for peace.

“War isn’t nice.”

He was no radical; during the Civil Rights movement, rather than encourage integration, he held fundraisers to buy supplies for the African-American schools that were separate and entirely unequal, to try to level things out a little bit, one school district at a time. Good luck with that.

But the real gift that he gave to small children was that of absolute acceptance. Children were valuable no matter what they looked like. He acknowledged that we feel mad sometimes, and talked about ways to work out the mad without hurting anyone. He recognized that sometimes girls want to play with machines, and sometimes boys might like to hold a doll, to dress it and pretend to feed it. His was a gentle persona, and he let everyone know that men can also be nurturers. And when a company presumed to use his likeness on a tee shirt with a gun in his hand, he took their ass to court and made them not only stop selling those shirts, but destroy every last one they still had in their possession or for sale.

He also had blind spots. He was raised in a wealthy family—Mr. McFeely, the neighborhood postal character in the Make Believe neighborhood where Mr. Rogers filmed, was also the name of his grandfather, who built the family fortune. And at Christmas time, the staff of Mr. Rogers’s TV show each got a nice card with a note saying he had made a gift in their name to a charity; but one of the staffers pointed out to the author that some of them were paid very low salaries, and sure could have used the holiday bonus instead.

A documentary that was filmed about Fred Rogers was made with the understanding that the cameras must not show “the tasteful opulence of my home”.

Ahem.

The writer does a fine job of analyzing where Fred Rogers stood on all of the key issues of the day before his rather sudden death due to stomach cancer. If this man was important to you, or if you have an interest in the connection between social justice and religion, or children’s television shows, this might be a great book for you. If you are not interested in religion, you may want to skim through the first chapters and get to the meatier parts.

Either way, Fred would’ve liked you exactly as you are now.

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