Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Proving that a little kindness can go a long way, Fred Rogers took that simple premise, made a kids’ show with that as its base and was on the air for 40 years. Success in every respect. Showed many how wide and far reaching the influence of one man can really be.

In 1968 Fred Rogers began a kids’ show called Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. It was not your typical show in that it was based on loving your neighbor as much as yourself. Lessons like respecting the value of others and and that each human had a worth. Generations were taught to value themselves and the different things they had to off the world. Some found it corny while many more found it comforting. His soothing voice and positive messages made it a show that parents didn’t mind kids watching.

Some of his messages continue to resonate even today. Especially the ones about how walls need to be torn down and not built up (yes, I am looking at you United States). Timely!

Puppets like King Friday the XIII (all voiced by Fred Rogers) and characters like Officer Clemmons (a black police officer, which was quite progressive for the 60s) had their parts to play within the show. An accomplished pianist, Fred Rogers would sing songs he wrote himself. He purposely made a “slow” show while other kids programming became louder, crazier and more violent.

A group of people who were close to Fred like his wife Joanne, son, cellist and friend Yo-Yo Ma, a fellow minister, and the actor Francois Scarborough Clemmons who played Officer Clemmons are interviewed to round out the picture of the man. Several interviews and clips from the show really show that Mr. Rogers was not just something he turned on for the cameras. It is what he lived. Plus give us a window into the battles he fought and the struggles he went through.

A giant wave of nostalgia hit me while watching this documentary. Maybe it was about the show which generations of North Americans grew up on or maybe it just reminded me of a kinder, gentler time. I also learned plenty I did not know about the man behind the cardigan. For instance, that he was an ordained Presbyterian minister and a staunch Republican. Also, that he went to bat for PBS at a time when President Nixon was looking to slash funding to the station. He defended the station successfully by speaking at a Congressional hearing.

Few documentaries or biographies manage to capture accurately the spirit and demeanour of a human being. This film by director Morgan Neville manages to do just that. You come away with, even if you never watched a moment of his television series, a clear picture of who the man was and what he believed in. It also leaves you with the idea of thinking about who you are as a person and what you want to stand for. Reminds us that we are all born kind and loving and we allow the world around us to erode that away. Be more like Fred and rage against that machine…in a quiet way.

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