Friday, February 27, 2009

Mr. Rogers: It's Such A Good Feeling

This Day In Boomer History
February 27, 2003
The Death Of Fred Rogers

It was, indeed, a sad day in the neighborhood.

Now, let me state this upfront: I was never really a part of the Mr. Roger's Neighborhood demographic. The show premiered in 1968, so I had already moved on beyond the education-with-puppet type programming and was instead fully entrenched in such fare as The Brady Bunch and The Monkees. (After-school fodder usually ran toward those Japanese anime cartoons, like Astro Boy and Speed Racer, or Mickey Mouse Club reruns.)

But, despite the fact that I was not raised on Queen Sara or X the Owl, I remember being very conscious of the whole production. Probably because I was the oldest of my siblings, so the younger ones probably watched fervently. Heck, the baby of the brood was just one when Fred and company first appeared on our PBS channel - he probably watched the show for years and years, which may explain why I can still sing the entire opening song ("It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood.") as well as the two different end songs ("Tomorrow" for Monday through Thursday; "It's Such a Great Feeling" for Fridays.)

Or maybe I relearned those songs when my own kids were part of the neighborhood. After all, the show ran almost forever, finally signing off the airwaves in 2001, but still appearing in reruns. It's almost a right of passage, this growing up in the neighborhood, and I wish that it will remain so for a long long time to come. I read the headlines and shudder, wishing for an easier time, when our neighbors were Bob Trow and Chef Crockett; when we could count on the grown-ups in the neighborhood to really care about us.

Of course, the real neighbor - the driving force behind the whole thing - really did care, for us and for all children. Fred McFeely Rogers was a minister and songwriter who claimed to seek employment in the TV industry because he hated it. "I got into television because I hated it so, and I thought there's some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who watched and listened."

And we did. We watched and listened, and Mr. Rogers nutured us. He taught us - about safety, respect, fairness, compassion - about love. Outside the world got scary - from the Chicago riots to Columbine, from Vietnam to 9/11 - but in the neighborhood, people cared for each other and encouraged each other and were safe to be themselves. In this neighborhood, all was as it should be, the way we wished it was.

The key, of course, was Mr. Rogers himself. And baby boomers mourned along with their children when this gentle soul passed away from stomach cancer on this date in 2003, a month shy of his 75th birthday.

Back when my oldest son was in second grade, we encouraged him to work on his writing skills by writing to celebrities to request autographs. He received numerous signed pictures in the mail, from TV stars to baseball players, local weathermen, pop stars and even the first President Bush. But there's only one that we've kept. It's still hanging on our wall, a smiling man reminding us to be be good and take care of one another.

"Dear Steven - Listen to your mom and dad and be good. Remember you're special. Love, Fred Rogers."

Thanks for the reminder, Mr. Rogers. And thanks for always being the very best of neighbors.

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