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Restoration in the Land of Make-Believe: The Legacy of Fred Rogers

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In 1965, a thin, soft-spoken man sauntered into Pittsburgh's WQED, the nation's first public television station, to pitch a show targeting young children. The concept was simple enough: convey life lessons to young children with the help of puppets, songs and frank conversations. It doesn't sound like much. That is, until you realize that the man was Fred Rogers, and the program was "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

It's been 10 years since he filmed his last show, but childhood memories still flood my mind at the mention of his name. The sound of the trolley's bell reverberates from my past, and the thought of King Friday or Daniel Striped Tiger brings a smile to my face. I can still see him slipping off his jacket and putting on one his cardigans, famously knitted by his mother, Carolyn. He said he was my friend, and I believed him. During my formative years, Mister Rogers and I met often to talk about life, and his gentle candor made him the best neighbor any kid could ask for.

But Rogers was more than a great neighbor or good host; he was a restorer. According to Gabe Lyons in "The Next Christians," a "restorer" is someone who views the world as it "ought to be." Faced with the world's brokenness, restorers are "provoked, not offended." They work to make the world a better place by "creating, not criticizing" and by "being countercultural, not relevant." Using this definition, Rogers may be one of the greatest American restorers of the 20th century.

Rogers got into television because he "hated" the medium. During spring break of his senior year in seminary, he encountered television for the first time, and what he witnessed repulsed him. "I got into television," he recounted, "because I saw people throwing pies at each other's faces, and that to me was such demeaning behavior. And if there's anything that bothers me, it's one person demeaning another. That really makes me mad!"

In the wake of World War II, when men, many of them veterans, were having trouble expressing their feelings, Fred Rogers recognized that the children of these quiet giants might have problems expressing their emotions. He worried that the type of programming that was becoming normative would create a generation of emotionally bankrupt Americans.

Faced with the decision to either sour on television itself or work to restore the medium, he chose the latter. He dropped out of seminary and began pursuing a career in broadcasting. Fourteen years later, he would create one of the most beloved American television shows of all time, and one that would shape entire generations of children.

While both the show and its affable host may be easy to caricature, a closer look at "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" uncovers the handiwork of an uncommon artisan. Each show was crafted to meet the psychological and emotional needs of young viewers by delivering what Rogers called "a neighborhood expression of care." He worked closely with Dr. Margaret McFarland, the administrative director of Pittsburgh's Arsenal Family and Children Center, a division of the University of Pittsburgh's medical school. Before each episode was taped, a team of experts in child psychology would read and discuss the script's effect on a child's cognitive and emotional development.

When cameras were rolling, Rogers spoke sincerely about emotions such as trust or anger. When his pet goldfish died, Mister Rogers didn't just purchase a new one; he used the occasion to talk about loss and sadness. Never one to shrink from a difficult conversation, Mister Rogers held the hands of our children as they walked through a plethora of difficulties -- "Vietnam and Watergate, Chernobyl and Challenger, Ethiopian famine and ethnic cleansing, Oklahoma City and Littleton, Polly Klaas and JonBenet Ramsey." When the world was grieving and pulling its collective hair out, children found a place of calm and coping alongside a neighbor that would make State Farm jealous.

As I've gone back to re-watch forgotten episodes, I've noticed a depth I never recognized before. Mister Rogers talked to children like adults, teaching kids to face the world's brokenness, not shrink back from it. "The world is not always a kind place,'' he once said. ''That's something all children learn for themselves, whether we want them to or not, but it's something they really need our help to understand.''

The dialogue often felt so personal that they would often trigger a verbal response from young viewers, a "byplay," in which they "may respond vocally to a question and Rogers, anticipating the reply, may follow through to his next point." He imagined himself as something of a surrogate parent, which is why other children never appeared on the show. He didn't want to create a sentiment of "sibling rivalry." When Rogers would encounter a child who watched faithfully, he might say, "Why, I think you've grown!" The child would often proudly respond, "I thought you'd notice that, Mister Rogers."

The primary goal for the show was not relevance or entertainment value, but something deeper. Rogers aspired to produce quality programming that ran counter to what others were producing and connected with the inner needs of viewers. As a result, children connected to him in ways they didn't connect with other hosts, and he inexplicably competed with slick and fast-paced cartoons in similar time slots. Such success earned him many deserved accolades -- a Presidential Medal of Freedom, four Daytime Emmys, the honor of being the longest running personality in the history of public television and the lifetime achievement award of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. (Watch Fred Rogers' acceptance speech for the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 Emmy's.)

But Rogers' impact on culture stretches far beyond television and into the realms of both government and technology. Unbeknownst to many, he single-handedly saved two iconic acronyms: PBS and the VCR.

In 1969, PBS was in danger of losing its $20-million federal funding allotment due to national budget cuts, so Rogers went to Washington to articulate his mission before Congress. In just six minutes, he shared his philosophy with the grizzly Senator John O. Pastore.

"I give an expression of care every day to each child to help him realize that he is unique," he said. "If we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health."

Pastore responded that Rogers' words gave him goosebumps, and that he "just earned the 20 million dollars" for PBS's budget:

When the VCR landed in the American marketplace, it was illegal to record television shows from home. The debate over copyrights and freedom was fierce, but a calm and respected Rogers argued to Congress that recording a program like his was important because it allowed working parents to watch his show as a family. His testimony swayed enough votes to allow a change in the law, and the VCR began showing up in homes all across the country.

Rogers was a devout Christian that almost never explicitly talked about his faith on the air, but the way his show infused society with beauty and grace was near-biblical. We may never know how much he has shaped or even saved a generation of children from a life of emotionless stoicism through his thoughtful approach to television and his daily encouragement.

"You've made this day a special day by just your being you," he'd famously sign off. "There is no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are."

In many ways, the lasting legacy of Fred Rogers will not be the greater emotional stability of generations of children or even a reinvigoration of imagination. It will be his example of how to restore the world through impassioned creativity and craftsmanship. For nearly four decades, Rogers entered our homes and entered our hearts. And each day without fail, he left our collective neighborhoods better and made our days a little bit more beautiful.

Jonathan Merritt is a faith and culture writer whose work has appeared in outlets such as USA Today, and CNN.com. He is author of the forthcoming "Beyond Politics: Following Jesus Without Fighting the Culture Wars" and "Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet," which Publisher's Weekly called "mandatory reading for churchgoers."

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