5 Moments That Prove Mr. Rogers Was the Greatest American
Once in a while, a publication asks who the greatest American of our lifetime is. And while Cracked would never presume to answer that question, we absolutely can. Is it Zombie Teddy Roosevelt? The puppeteer who made Ronald Reagan come alive? Former San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson?
You have to admit he's a frontrunner.
Strong contenders, all, but no. Sit down, neighbor, and hear of a man who did not conquer the world, but did it one better; he reminded us that the world needs unity rather than conquest. He walked among us as a man, although he was a hand-to-God saint. They say the difference between a saint and a psychopath is empathy, and Mr. Fred Rogers had an ocean of it, which makes him either the sanest man in history or the craziest hero we ever had.
If you're from some country that doesn't have puppets and never heard of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, it's OK! He loves you anyway. In fact, he'd want to introduce you to all of us so we could learn from you. So go tell us something wonderful about your people in the comments.
As for the rest of us, here are amazing videos of Mr. Rogers that prove Tom Junod's Esquire profile of him accounts for his greatness in the grime of the real world. Go ahead, read it. It is the only permissible instance of the phrase "[Mr. Rogers'] bobbing nudity."
All set? At my signal, take off those ironic smirks and don your extra-strength smiles, because your faith in human beings is about to get an upgrade.
He Gave All of Himself to Strangers
Imagine for a second how many letters Mr. Rogers got in a day. He was neighbor to 13.6 million kids, and by the time they were too old to watch his show, they'd been replaced by 13.76 million kids. Every day, America 5 & Under waited for Mr. Rogers to come in and don one of his trademark sweaters.
Therefore, you may find it unbelievable that Mr. Rogers answered all of his fan mail, which was pretty much ALL of the fan mail.
(Those sweaters, by the way, were all made for him by his mom, just so you know how wonderful the Rogers family is.)
The amount of free time that man had in the day could be measured in hummingbird heartbeats. But he sincerely believed that each of us is special and interesting. He knew that the real world is not like the Neighborhood, and he wanted people to be able to carry its lessons with them.
In lieu of video of his penmanship, please accept a clip of him discussing these same very serious issues with Arsenio Hall, and -- bonus! -- wearing a sweet ultra-'90s jacket:
Why It Made Him Great
Answering that much mail is a Sisyphean task, but if Mr. Rogers were pushing a boulder up a hill, I guarantee it would end with the boulder tearfully admitting that it had been abandoned by its father. Because when Mr. Rogers undertakes an impossible task, that task had better start writing its last will and testament.
The only person who gets more mail from kids than Mr. Rogers is Santa Claus, and Mr. Rogers didn't have to bribe them with toys to receive it. He just generally wanted to know if you were doing well. And Santa doesn't answer his fan mail, so we're giving this one to Fred Rogers.
See, the thing of it all ... the real thing that makes him amazing is not that he was so impossibly good; there are people like that out there in the world. It's that he was so impossibly real. He was aware of his image, but it wasn't something he maintained. Off-camera, he revealed sides of himself that didn't appear on the show, but all of them were in accord with the persona we saw on PBS. As he once said, "Kids can spot a phony a mile away."
Virtue Unlocked: Integrity
Nature Itself Recognized His Greatness
Naturally, everyone loved him, because he loved them, unconditionally. Really, guys -- EVERYONE. Koko the gorilla learned sign language, and the most important thing she needed to tell us was that she's a big fan of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. That makes sense, because you don't leap interspecies language barriers without recognizing that humans have some pretty good stuff going on. So when she met him and was asked about love, well ... just watch:
"Love YOU," she signs. "Love you visit." Then she pulls him in for a hug. What you don't see is that after that, she tries to take off his shoes, because gorillas ... unlike celebrities, they're just like us!
Wait, sorry, that's the kind of joke I would normally make. But we're all the same. I know this because Mr. Rogers taught me to see it in others.
Why It Made Him Great
Well, the animal kingdom itself bent down to praise him. That's only happened to three other people: Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi, and Bambi. Truly, this was a great man. He tamed a wild animal with the power of love.
Virtue Unlocked: Harmony
He Found Delight in Little Things
Mr. Rogers was 143 pounds his entire adult life, and back in a time when we wore magical devices on our belts called pagers, that number was how drug dealers told each other "I love you." You know who invented that letter-counting code? Mr. Rogers, in the episode "Transformations":
According to Esquire, every morning, Mr. Rogers stepped on the scale, and every day, the first message he received was "I love you!" This tickled Mr. Rogers to no end, and sent him out into the world on the right foot to tell everyone he loved them, too.
Why It Made Him Great
Now this seems like nothing more than an adorable quirk. But what it implies is that here's a man who made a decision to be healthy and happy.
Nobody can maintain the same exact weight for 30 years, let alone 143 pounds. That's approximately how much the average left thigh weighs in America. In cities with a great barbecue scene, you'll find pigeons that weigh more than that. And Mr. Rogers loved them, too. But he didn't eat animals, probably because they spoke to him.
But it wasn't just a little cute thing. Apparently this was a thing Mr. Rogers was known to do, like when he started signing letters to a reporter "IPOY," or "I'm proud of you."
That annoying text shorthand that makes previously respectable people sound like robots that have been hit by cars is actually a fine tradition started by a man you respect. In the Neighborhood, everything means something, and the messages are here to help us improve.
And now you see that the problem was you -- or if not you, then the world's English majors, our nation's richest source of SMS snobs. Now that you have seen the face of Mr. Rogers in the heart of everyone you speak with, you realize it's the message, not the medium, that matters, and the message is love.
I know you're waiting for some snark to season that schmaltz, but: nope! Fred taught me it's OK to say stuff like that.
Virtue Unlocked: Bliss
He Effected Change Through Rational Debate
Look, I know you've heard this one. But I'm going to ask you to consider it from a different, still-amazing angle.
As our own Doc Sargent has noted, PBS hadn't even gotten started before Nixon tried to chop its budget in half. Imagine I cut 50 percent off of you. You'd either die of blood loss or become one of those limbless torsos that shrieks all night until its caretakers muffle it with a laudanum-soaked handkerchief. Nixon wanted you to live in a world where PBS was a screaming, limbless torso. And even though that would still do less damage to their brains than The Annoying Orange, I don't think kids should be exposed to it.
Mr. Rogers charmed away that idea with the power of lyric poetry:
And you think file sharing's a problem now? Back in the day, a trillion-dollar industry was nearly aborted because the threat was too great that people might watch Three's Company Too on their own schedule. Meanwhile, Mr. Rogers thought you should be able to go out and play, then watch his show at your leisure. Naturally the Motion Picture Association of America was there to howl and moan about it with ridiculous hyperbole. Guess who the Supreme Court backed? Mr. Rogers, right?
Ho ho! No -- this is America. Shrill hyperbole always outshouts the voice of reas- wait, this can't be right. It says they did indeed side with Mr. Rogers.
Why It Made Him Great
So yes, we're covering some old ground here when we could have repeated that myth about the time thieves returned his stolen car. But it's important ground to retread, because Mr. Rogers was one of those folks who quietly move mountains. He got things done -- and those things? Those things gave a lot of people the few moments in their lives when they felt loved and capable of greatness.
Even when not soothing the Senate with song like it was some kind of minotaur, Rogers treated everyone the same way he treated children ... which is to say, respectfully. In plain, fair, frank language, he explained good ideas rather than trying to win fights, which makes him the antithesis of the Internet. If Mr. Rogers had heard Rebecca Black's "Friday," he would have thought it a wonderful thing that she had a passion, and parents willing to invest so much in it.
Because at the end of the day, when we're offline, don't most of us want the same things for the people we love? Mr. Rogers just had a much bigger Google+ circle than most of us.
Virtue Unlocked: Respect
He Understood the True Meaning of Religion
If you live anywhere in America, you've probably been cornered at one point by a stranger who really, really wants you to know about the only way you'll get to heaven -- maybe it's faith, maybe it's good works, maybe it's buying the new iPhone. Who knows? But definitely not that last one.
Fred Rogers, faithful Presbyterian minister, was not in the business of telling you how to feel bad about yourself. All he cared about was educating you to the fact that you were born a human being with dignity and respect.
In 1997, he won a Daytime Emmy, because for some reason they didn't just divide those evenly between Mr. Rogers and Muppets. And here's what he said:
Not only did he thank everyone, he asked if everyone else would, too -- not because it's gracious, but because it's good for us to do. And then in 1999, he did it again at his TV Hall of Fame induction. (That clip comes at the end of one of his best episodes, when he met Jeff Erlanger and had just the nicest conversation.)
Fred Rogers knew that a spiritual leader should elevate the people in his care to be their best. He did not waste his time hating things or making fun of people's efforts. He sliced through the exterior and talked to the child inside them or the adult they would be. If he had lived to see Honey Boo Boo, he would have told her that she has an inner beauty that no judge can take away from her. And if he had endured 9/11 with us, he- oh, he did:
Why It Made Him Great
"I know how tough it is some days to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead," he says. He didn't live in a world full of songs and puppets. He brought songs and puppets to a world that was scared and tired and vulnerable. A lot of people of a lot of faiths are waiting for the Messiah, but even if one arrives, how are you going to tell the difference between him and Fred Rogers?
He explained death and divorce and disease to kids so that they'd learn which fears were justified and which they could relinquish. His job wasn't only to help children grow up, but to remind adults, always, that they had been children once, and that someone, somewhere, had loved them.
And when he died himself, of stomach cancer -- which you might recognize as The Cancer Nobody Deserves, But Especially Not Mr. Rogers -- he left us all, yes, poorer, but so much richer. He gave a lot of us the tools to be kind to each other. And any praise would give a short measure of the man, so the only worthy testament to who he was is the life he lived, without judgments, without politics, with selflessness and love. He was our neighbor, and he loved us.
He saw a beautiful world, so he created a beautiful world, and all the people around him -- all the cynical, sarcastic, tired, busy people -- knew that we were seeing something that would not happen twice in our lives. And we all respected what he had made, because he made it for us -- even when he himself was tired and busy.
Virtue Unlocked: Selflessness
March 20th is the greatest American's birthday, and we should all remember what he taught, not only that day, but every day. If Congress has any memory at all, it will go further than the resolutions honoring him and make his birthday a national holiday. The man gave literally a third of this country something that only some of us got at home if we were lucky: an adult who cared about them, and a teacher of the human spirit.
But we can't wait for Congress to mark it. We have to make sure we remember Rogers Day, and the other 364 days, by telling people we love them just the way they are. Surprise people with kindness, and make the most of the gift he gave us. Let's turn our world into his Neighborhood.
Brendan McGinley means it.
For other times Brendan got mushy, check out Love and his Letter to My Unborn Son.