“What is Essential is Invisible to the Eye”
When the alarm clock went off this morning, I was instantly dropped into the middle of a conversation on the radio. For some reason, the radio team was talking about Fred Rogers, the host of the long-running Public Broadcasting Service show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
For one brief second, my still groggy mind thought, “Why are they talking about Mister Rogers?” Then it hit me — he must have died. And as I clung to a brief hope that maybe he was in the news for getting some major award, I knew that my first instinct had to have been right. After a minute or two, they confirmed my fears:
Fred McFeely Rogers died overnight due to complications from stomach cancer, on February 27, 2003, at the age of 74.
Mister Rogers’ show was a mainstay of my childhood. Every afternoon, for years, you could find me in front of the TV, watching him feed his fish, or “talk” to Picture Picture, or get a visit from Mr. McFeely, or visit Chef Brockett. My favorite part was, though, the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
I loved the trolley; so much, in fact, that when visiting Detroit, my family made sure we went and saw a trolley on display in a museum. I enjoyed the adventures of King Friday the XIII, X the Owl, Daniel Striped Tiger, Lady Elaine Fairchild, and the Purple Pandas. I remember Bob Dog, the Platypus family, Prince Tuesday, and Donkey Hote. I remember my parents buying me a King Friday puppet, and they also wrote the toy company asking if the Trolley (as advertised on the box) was also available. The company was courteous enough to reply that it wasn’t, and they apologized for that.
I remember Mister Rogers talking with Lou Ferrigno and showing how he got into his Hulk makeup. I remember the time when Mister Rogers had a clogged sink and water spilled over the floor. I remember the models of the Neighborhood that he would sometimes use instead of the Trolley. (Heck, I even made my own models by drawing pictures of the Neighborhood and taping them on wood blocks.)
I remember the songs — I remember when “Tomorrow” ended the show instead of “It’s Such a Good Feeling”. I remember “Tree, Tree, Tree” and “Special”. I loved the jazzy feel of the music, and to this day, those songs can still bring a smile to my face.
I remember Mister Rogers seemingly talk directly to me. I remember his messages of loving yourself and loving those around you. He was my neighbor and television friend.
I probably watched “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” longer than most kids did, but eventually I moved on to other things, such as “Superfriends” and “Scooby Doo” reruns. And I laughed at Eddie Murphy’s parody, “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood”.
But it wasn’t until I was older that I was able to see the subtle textures of the show. King Friday the XIII didn’t bring bad luck like the number 13 and Friday the 13th was supposed to. Donkey Hote was a pun involving “Don Quixote”. And even the name of the Neighborhood, “The Neighborhood of Make-Believe”, never presented itself to be real. It was always described to the children as what it was — a story. Sure, when I was really young, I never noticed Mister Rogers throwing the switch to bring the Trolley into his living room. But you could see that it was never more than the name.
And as an adult, I appreciate that. Mister Rogers always was a safe place where he would talk about problems and then present a story that could tell children how to handle the problem. Or he would introduce the children to some new ideas, and the Neighborhood would explore the same things.
Was Mister Rogers a bit different? Sure. But there was nothing bad about him at all. Unlike “Barney”, he never had a manufactured feel about him; you could tell it was all genuine. As one person said on the radio today, the National Enquirer keeps files on celebrities, trying to gather as much dirt on them as possible.
They could never find anything remotely bad with Mister Rogers.
As an ordained Presbyterian minister, as a children’s television show host, or just as Fred Rogers — husband, father, and grandfather — he simply was a good person.
I have several Mister Rogers stories related to college, of all things. On a trip to Penn State for the Women’s NCAA tournament in March of 1995, we had to switch planes in Pittsburgh. In the airport there was a display set up for the home of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”. I don’t think I took a picture of it; I wish I had, since it was the closest I ever got to seeing the studio and set.
My senior year of college, I dressed as Mister Rogers for a Halloween party. I combed my hair like him, put on a white shirt, borrowed a sweater and 70’s-style tie from my dad, wore slacks and sneakers — and the resemblance to my childhood television friend was eerily uncanny. What clinched the costume, though, was the King Friday puppet. I went up to my parents attic, and I found him in the very first box I searched.
Luck or something more? You decide.
I had the chance to hear Mister Rogers speak at my alma mater’s graduation commencement ceremonies in May of 2001. I did know a few people that were graduating, but I really had no reason to be there.
But I went. Because Mister Rogers was speaking. My childhood neighbor was going to be speaking and receiving an honorary degree. I couldn’t pass up the chance.
He spoke just like I remembered him. He was calm and soothing — but his words were relevant, just like the core concepts of his show still are today. He spoke of remembering those who nourished us at the “deepest part of our being”. He spoke of seeing the eternal present in everyone we see.
And the quote at the beginning of this tribute is a quote from Saint-Exupery’s “The Little Prince”: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” It was Mister Rogers’ favorite saying, and he urged everyone to live their lives that way. Doing so brings us closer to wisdom.
My only wish was that I would’ve been able to shake his hand like some of the students did. I hope that the student who introduced him on stage and presented him to receive the degree really did truly realize how lucky and special she was.
(If you’d like to read a copy of his speech from Dartmouth’s commencement, please go to http://www.indigo.org/mrrogers.html. Although some of the paragraphs are different from the speech he gave at my alma mater, the main message is there and is definitely worth the read. [Edit: May 17, 2013 – Marquette has put a transcript of his actual speech online.])
Two years ago, when it was announced he was ending his show, I remember feeling sad. Even though I knew he wouldn’t be able to put on the show forever, it still was sad to know new episodes wouldn’t be on the air. Interestingly enough, I was unemployed for a good portion of 2001, and I was able to catch the last part of the final new show. And in the end, he told the audience he’d be back on Monday. And he was, but in taped format.
And now he’s left us. His show will live on for as long as the video library lasts; when asked at the announcement of his retirement, it was said there were 300 episodes from 1979 in the current PBS library. But there were hundreds more episodes since it first aired on PBS (then National Educational Television) in 1968.
These facts I’ve learned by reading various online news sources; the emptiness I feel is real. I’m glad his show will live on. Yet, knowing that he’s no longer part of this earth, but now one with the eternal he spoke of, just brings a tear to my eye. He can not be replaced
In this day and age of uncertainty and fear, Mister Rogers’ words from the 1991 Gulf War era still hold true — children need to know that they are loved. Actually, those are words of wisdom that are true no matter what is going on in the world and no matter how old you are, whether you are 6 years old, 22 years old, or 92 years old.
We are all special beings, and we all need to be loved, by ourselves and others. And you can help by loving your neighbor, no matter who he or she is.
Goodbye, Mister Rogers. Thank you for being my neighbor, thank you for being my television friend, and thank you for telling me and countless others that we are special.