Fred "Mister" Rogers would have marked his 85th birthday today, March 20 (he died in 2003).
And one imagines he might have celebrated with a helping of corn pudding and by totally deflecting the goodwill directed at him onto other people--by focusing on how birthdays made other people feel. Because that’s how Mr. Rogers rolled. And that’s just one of the important lessons this titan of American culture could teach creators.
There are countless reasons to love Mr. Rogers and to spend a few minutes thinking about his legacy. A few of them include:
He Confronted What He Thought Was Wrong And Worked To Change It--With Love
Yes, I said love. It’s weird saying love at work. And Mr. Rogers said it, all the time.
Mr. Rogers was the antithesis of every fame whore clogging the airwaves right now (Mr. Rogers would never call anyone a fame whore. In fact, in the spirit of Mr. Rogers, we’ll call them self-enthusiasts and we’ll like them just the way they are). He didn’t get into television to draw attention to himself, but because when he first started watching TV (at the advent of the medium), he was upset that it depicted people throwing pies at each other. He wanted to offer a counterpoint, programming that would help people--kids--see their own self-worth and explore their creativity.
He also appeared before a senate hearing in 1969 to defend a brand-new PBS from proposed budget cuts (sigh). During that hearing, he described what he did on his show in the gentlest yet most powerful way, at one point reciting lyrics from a song he wrote. During his testimony he said: "I give an expression of care every day to each child." Cranky committee chair John Pastore was defenseless, famously declaring, "You just earned your $20 million."
He was a vegetarian who swam daily and maintained his weight at 143 pounds.
A number he took pleasure from because he translated it to I Love You (one letter for I, four letters for Love, etc).
He fought for the technological advances of the day.
Rogers provided testimony in a 1983 case that saw the entertainment industry square off against Sony over (horrors!) the VCR and the specter of viewers taping TV shows. He said:
"I have always felt that with the advent of all of this new technology that allows people to tape the Neighborhood off-the-air…they then become much more active in the programming of their family’s television life. Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others. My whole approach in broadcasting has always been ‘You are an important person just the way you are. You can make healthy decisions’…I just feel that anything that allows a person to be more active in the control of his or her life, in a healthy way, is important."
But for creators, if you take only one thing away from the example of Mr. Rogers, take this--his utter lack of cynicism and earnest sense of wonder.
In our irony soaked, too-cool-to-care, troll-ridden world where face-meltingly hateful words are just a YouTube comment away, it’s easy to disappear up our own promo pretensions and easier to go for the cheap win at the expense of someone’s dignity. As Bravo and TLC show us daily, there’s a good living to be made from the ugly, shallow part of humanity. Mr. Rogers’ earnest, selfless approach (captured in this excellent 1998 Esquire piece, "Can You Say… Hero" ) is the ultimate zag. Let’s salute Mr. Rogers by choosing, where possible, to celebrate the good part. And maybe putting on a cardigan.
[Image Courtesy of PBS]