Slow Down and Be Kind
An Interview with Maxwell King,
Author of The Good Neighbor:
The Life and Work of Fred Rogers
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JP: I was moved by that passage in the book. And I feel like that scene of young Freddie upstairs in his room was replayed again and again on the show, when Mister Rogers told children in his audience, “It’s okay to feel. It’s okay to care.”
MK: Exactly. That was terribly important to him to convey. There is a famous moment when another player on the show was performing a puppet character and said to another puppet character, “Don’t cry.” Fred stopped everything, and he said, “We’re not going to tell children—” because of course the puppets were surrogates for the children “—we’re not going to tell children not to cry, not to feel, not to have and show their honest emotions.”
JP: There were a number of times in which Rogers seemed to be able to penetrate the defenses of adults—even adults who had a reputation for being (or at least acting) tough. I’m thinking, for example, of the first time that he was on the Tonight Show with Joan Rivers. He started singing “It’s You I Like,” and he just seemed to cut right to the heart of who she was. It was a lovely moment between Rogers and a comedian with a reputation for being caustic. And then there were the famous hearings with Senator Pastore, who had a reputation for being…
JP: Yes, that’s it. Why do you think he was able to penetrate even adults’ defenses?
MK: I think it was his authenticity. He was very real. He just was who he was in a very genuine way. He didn’t incorporate the usual reserves we as adults incorporate in our dealings with each other. I remember Yo-Yo Ma talked about when he first went to perform on the Neighborhood. Fred Rogers was interviewing him before he performed. Rogers came about six or eight inches from his face and just broke down all of his defenses. He got him to talk in the interview in a very genuine way.
That was also the case with a wonderful writer named Tom Junod. Junod had a reputation for being a bad boy, tough guy journalist, but his editors at Esquire assigned him to do a piece on Fred Rogers. Junod wondered if the assignment was a joke. But Junod and Rogers became fast friends. There was a whole side of Junod that he wasn’t even aware of but that came out through his friendship with Fred. This is what the movie is about that’s being shot right now with Tom Hanks playing Fred Rogers.
Fred seemed simple and gentle. But he was just fearless. He was fearless about relationships with other people, about being honest with people, about being honest with children. And he was fearless about how he used television.
JP: I’m curious about your take on this next question, not just as the author of this biography but also because of your work as the CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation. Place is obviously such an important part of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Can you talk about why it was important that Fred Rogers situated his show in the neighborhood—both the TV neighborhood and the Neighborhood of Make-Believe?
MK: He drew a lot on the neighborhood he grew up in in Latrobe. He was very much a creature of western Pennsylvania. He went away first to New Hampshire to college, then to Florida, then to New York, and to Canada. But he always came back to western Pennsylvania because place was terribly important to him. The comfort he got from his friendships was matched for him by the comfort he got from the familiarity and the love of place. He had that here and he really didn’t want to be anywhere else.
Place is something we’re edgy about in today’s society because we’re losing it a bit. So much of our communication takes place through the ether of the internet. People today move again and again. I certainly have. We are losing a sense of place. And I think that some facet of that phenomenon, the effect of losing place, is part of what has broken down in our civil dialogue today.
JP: You know who comes to mind is the character of Lady Elaine, in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Lady Elaine was ornery. Most real-life neighborhoods have a character like that too. But if you’re committed to a place, you’re not going to pull up stakes when things get tough. You have to figure out how to be a good neighbor to the “Lady Elaines.” One of the things I most admired about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was that there was this very difficult character, and the other characters had to do the hard work of learning how to love her.