Missing Mister Rogers

We mourn the passing of Fred McFeely Rogers, our neighbor and dear friend

As comic strips and radio serials shaped children of earlier generations, so television shows formed the children of the 1980s. Ours is a generation that can sing the opening strains of the Sesame Street theme song, a generation that read along with Lavar Burton and a generation that can name the majority of the Muppets. Because ours is a generation of children reared on television, college students felt a personal sense of loss on learning last week that Mister Rogers, the television neighbor of our childhood, had died of stomach cancer at 74.

For more than 30 years, Fred McFeely Rogers zipped his cardigan, replaced his shoes, and taught children how to come to terms with a sometimes-frightening world. With songs, educational films delivered by the speedy deliveryman and an ironclad routine of clothes-changing, fish-feeding and trolley visits to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood lent our young lives a reassuring sense of order. It was not the use of stunning visual effects, the gripping nature of the plot line, or the intensity of the characters that kept us watching the man who played piano when he’s mad (he liked to get his feelings out through his fingers), but the knowledge that every one of Mr. Rogers’ 870 entrances and trademark disrobings would bring a half-hour of serene predictability.

Through his television show, Mister Rogers taught us both how to confront our fears about issues like death anddivorce, and to use our imaginations. Most of all, Mister Rogers encouraged us to be comfortable with who we are. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers was said by those who knew him personally to be the same person in real life that he was on the air—kind, generous and calm.

As an educator, Mister Rogers tried to impart these qualities to his young viewers. It is a testament to his gifts as a teacher that even today, many young adults retain the lessons Mister Rogers taught them in their childhood; our neighborliness, our ability to confront our fears and even the routines we perform each day upon returning home are attributable at least in part to the kind man in the red cardigan who visited with presidents, filmed an episode in communist Russia, won an Emmy Lifetime Achievement award and asked us to be his neighbor.

For those of us who owe an enormous part of our childhood education to programs like his, we know that we are no longer as easily put at ease by television as we once were. This week we mourn not just Mister Rogers, but also the part of ourselves that dies with him. Not only will we miss the man who came into our homes to provide comfort, but also our ability to be comforted by him.