February 27 marks 17 years since Mr. Rogers’ death. That’s a long time for someone who in many ways has seemed more alive than ever in the last couple of years as a result of a documentary, a feature film, a stamp, a biography, and other commemorations of his life and his work.
I never met Mr. Rogers, but I was an avid viewer of his show as a kid, and I was one of his Pittsburgh “neighbors” in the last three years of his life, which coincided with the beginning of my career.
I moved to Pittsburgh in July 2000 to work as a “two-year associate” (basically a paid intern) for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A few months later, in November 2000, Mr. Rogers’ production company announced that filming of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood would conclude at the end of that year, and the final episodes would air in August 2001. The Post-Gazette’s television editor, Rob Owen, interviewed Mr. Rogers about the end of the beloved series, and wrote an extensive feature article about him.
I found it cool and a bit surreal that Rob, a coworker and nice guy who lived near me and often rode the same bus to work, got to have a face-to-face interview with Mr. Rogers. I couldn’t imagine doing this myself. Friends of mine had chance interactions with Mr. Rogers over the years, and told of being tongue-tied or saying something cliche about it being a beautiful day in the neighborhood, and I suppose I would have done something similar if I had met him. However, just knowing that he lived nearby was a source of pride and comfort.
Before relocating to the Steel City, I don’t recall associating Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with Pittsburgh, but once I was here, he became a frequent topic of conversation, bringing vague memories from my childhood into sharp focus.
For example, during a newsroom chat, my editor was talking about the graceful moves of retired Steeler Lynn Swann, whose leaps were improved by taking ballet class. I suddenly remembered a favorite episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood that featured a football player in ballet class.
“That,” my editor told me, “was Lynn Swann.” Not being a sports fan, this bit of trivia was impressive to me mainly because of the realization that what Mr. Rogers showed on TV had been real, and that I was actually now living in The Neighborhood.
Snippets of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood are deeply embedded in my memory.
I think fondly of his instructions for making home-made “peanut butter,” which involved breaking peanuts into small bits and mixing them with butter. Even though my mother told me that wasn’t actually how peanut butter is made, this recipe was fun and easy, and more accurate to my young sensibility. (Why call it butter if it didn’t actually contain butter?)
I also loved when he took us on a tour of the Crayola factory, and was disenchanted when he took us behind the scenes of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Seeing how puppeteers brought the characters to life diminished the magic for me. I preferred the illusion.
A kindly man with folksy ways, Mr. Rogers reminded me a little bit of my grandfather, who also had a childish enthusiasm for details of every day life.
When Mr. Rogers died in 2003, I was deeply saddened. On the day of his death, I tuned my television to WQED, the station that broadcast Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. For hours, they ran a loop of his most famous episodes, many of which were included in the 2018 documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” I learned of his kindness to Jeff Erlanger, the young boy who appeared on the show in 1981 in his electric wheelchair and spoke with Mr. Rogers about his disability. Jeff beamed as he sang “It’s You I Like” with Mr. Rogers. His appearance was just one of countless opportunities Mr. Rogers took to include and feature children and adults who were typically overlooked in mainstream media.
But more than that, that evening I soaked in an endless reel of film in which Mr. Rogers seemed to speak to me directly and remind me that “I like you just the way you are.” I was 26, in an unsatisfying job as a marketing writer, and in a strained relationship that would soon end. I felt that my imagined trajectory of success had been upended, and I was feeling particularly low. There could not have been a better moment for me to hear, repeatedly, that I was fine the way I was, just by being me.
Even though I did not have the good fortune to meet him in person, at that moment I felt connected to Mr. Rogers, and his mission of helping people learn to value themselves.
Leading up to the release of the feature film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” I found myself again immersed in Mr. Rogers’ legacy. I read Tom Junod’s article which inspired the film. The article describes the journalist’s interactions with Mr. Rogers both in Pittsburgh and in New York, where Mr. Rogers kept an apartment and where some scenes of the children’s television show were filmed. The article was published by Esquire in 1998, during the time I was a college student in New York City, living just blocks away from some of the events in the article. Watching the 2019 film illustrated to me that not once, but twice, I had lived in close proximity to Mr. Rogers without ever meeting him.
New York is an enormous city, so it’s not surprising that our paths didn’t cross on his brief business visits. Even if they had, it’s unlikely I would have been close enough to speak to him, or that I would have found the words to do so. But I am left with an additional sense of loss. It feels like I was so close, and yet so far away from Mr. Rogers.
However, I didn’t have to see him face to face to absorb his optimism.
Several years back, there was a backlash against the “you are special” message of Mr. Rogers. It was the source of young people’s sense of entitlement, went the argument.
This was false. Mr. Rogers didn’t tell children they were entitled to anything other than an intrinsic sense that they were worthy simply as human beings. This belief is deeply rooted in the religious idea of being created in the image of God. It’s a concept that is supposed to engender respect and decency, and is one that our society needs now more than ever. Imagine how much better our world would be if we all treated each other like someone who is special.
Seventeen years after Mr. Rogers died, his messages of kindness and of remembering how children see the world resonate more than ever. Mr. Rogers nurtured our child-like sense of wonder and desire to connect with others. Perhaps all the celebrations of his legacy, on film and otherwise, will inspire us to carry on his legacy.