Occasionally I get the opportunity to do a presentation that grew from my friendship with the late Fred Rogers, of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Though I doubt he’ll ever be canonized, Fred was about the closest thing to a saint that I ever knew, and his constant example of acceptance and kindness worked miracles in the lives of countless children.
When I imagine what Fred might say if he were among us today, I don’t think it would differ much from what he said during his life. He constantly encouraged people to love and appreciate themselves as the person God made them, to accept and love others with kindness, and to be thankful.
His emphasis on thankfulness didn’t come out as much on his TV program as it did in his personal life and in his messages to grownups.
Fred didn’t draw attention to it, but it was his habit to rise early every morning. Then he would read his Bible and pray for a long list of people before going to the Pittsburgh Athletic Club to swim laps before going to work.
I never heard Fred make a specific reference to texts like Psalm 100, which calls us to be thankful for God’s presence and goodness toward us, but I’m sure it must have been one of his favorites, because he frequently encouraged others to be thankful.
Fred was often asked to speak at graduation ceremonies, and he did so as often as he could: a quick internet search will bring up several of them on YouTube, and most of them had some commonality with his address for North Carolina State University in May of 1995.
He had invited me to attend and sit in the president’s box at Carter-Finley Stadium (talk about feeling special!). When Fred stood up to speak, he started by leading the whole stadium full of people in singing “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
We all could say we had sung along with Mr. Rogers.
After congratulating the graduates on their hard-earned accomplishments, he encouraged them to think about all the people who had made it possible for them to reach that point in their lives: Their parents or grandparents who had raised them. Teachers who had cared for them. Coaches and ministers and friends who had helped them become who they were. People still on earth and people in heaven.
Fred reminded them of people who had loved them into being, had smiled them into smiling, had sung them into singing.
And then, as he often did, he said something like: “I want to ask every person here to stop for a minute and think about those special people who have loved you into being you and who helped you along the way. Just one minute of silence to be thankful for those who helped to make you who you are. I’ll watch the time.” And the whole stadium fell silent as people pondered the importance of gratitude for those who had blessed them.
When Mr. Rogers received a Lifetime Achievement Award during the Emmy Awards in 1997, and again in 1999 when he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame, he did the same thing – he asked that audience to think of people who had wanted the best for them and encouraged them to become who they are.
The TV producers allowed for only 10 seconds of silence rather than a minute, but many proud “stars” and “celebrities” were reduced to silence and tears as they stopped to remember that they didn’t get where they were without the sacrifices of others.
At some point in this Thanksgiving season, perhaps we should do the same.
Fred was a big believer in prayer, and in thanking God for the blessings of life. The first time we spoke, he promised to pray for me, and asked me to pray for him. When he was in a group and someone who was praying concluded, he would often add, “Thank you, God.”
I am thankful for Mr. Rogers, and for his continual reminder to be grateful for the people who have blessed, and who continue to bless our lives.
Thank you, God.