When I moved to Pittsburgh in the summer of 2017 for a new job, I made a list of places to explore to get to know my new city. Near the top of the list was a visit to the statue of Fred Rogers in a park near the confluence of the city’s three rivers. I was interested in this piece of public art because I appreciate other work by its sculptor, Robert Berks, whose sculptures are often called “biographies in bronze.” I also wanted to learn more about Mister Rogers, one of Pittsburgh’s most famous residents and someone with whom I was very familiar, having watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood during my childhood. To my dismay, the statue and its site, known collectively as the “Tribute to Children,” were both undergoing refurbishment some 10 years after the dedication of the site. No field trip for me.
Fred Rogers’ Hometown
But the impulse to rediscover Rogers in his hometown would not let go. I often heard his name mentioned during my work at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, which was his alma mater. He had graduated from PTS in 1962 with a Master of Divinity degree after eight years of part-time classes while he worked full time in television production. Until his death in 2003, Rogers quietly slipped into the back row of classes at the Seminary and volunteered his time at the Miller Summer Youth Institute. The Seminary named a special room for children and families in its theological library for him and created The Fred McFeely Rogers Award for Creative Ministry to highlight the work of recent graduates who serve ministries in pioneering ways like he did. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers did not follow the traditional route into a pulpit. He understood his call to be a public ministry engaged through children’s television, not through parish-based service.
When the documentary film Won’t You Be My Neighbor? came out in the summer of 2018, I went to the movie theater in Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood where he had lived, and watched the film with Pittsburghers. It took my breath away to see clips from shows that I had viewed for the first time sitting on my mother’s lap in Nashville, Tenn., in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I was also moved to witness the tears of my fellow theater-goers, for whom Fred Rogers was real, loved, and approachable. I thought about Rogers’ presentation of neighborliness – kindness, curiosity, generosity – as an attainable way of living, one that he himself modeled. I marveled at how unattainable that now seemed in our politically divided world. We sat in the darkened Manor Theater and longed for a vision of community offered to us by Rogers, and we seemed to realize how far we had fallen short. Would Fred Rogers recognize the nation where he had lived?
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
Then, on Oct. 27, just a few months after the film came out, an anti-Semitic shooter fired upon a Jewish congregation worshiping at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill during morning Shabbat services. In the deadliest attack on a Jewish community in the history of the United States, 11 worshippers were killed, and six were injured – in Mister Rogers’ old neighborhood. The Tree of Life is only a couple of blocks from the house on Beechwood Boulevard where Rogers lived while he and his wife, Joanne, raised their sons. On his daily walks to WQED, the public television station where he filmed the program, Rogers would likely have passed by the synagogue. He probably knew at least some of the members of the congregation, who would have been his neighbors. I made my own pilgrimage to the memorial at Tree of Life the week after the shooting, standing in line with fellow Pittsburghers as well as visitors from out of town. Together, we wept about what had happened. I lamented what Mister Rogers’ neighborhood had become, asked myself whether he’d comprehend his own city in the aftermath of such violence. I wondered how we might tap into his wisdom to see us through.
Following the shooting, dozens of memes appeared on Facebook and Twitter, some of them pointing toward Rogers’ sage teachings for children. The words, “Look for the helpers,” were plastered across images of Rogers in the familiar cardigan, smiling benevolently. These memes quoted part of a well-known statement he had made on the program, which is now repeated during a variety of natural and human-made disasters: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” On one level, this felt like a nice sentiment, a positive way to approach a horrific situation, but it also struck me that this use of an insight meant for small children was not entirely compatible with the very adult world of public grief and anger over domestic terror. It seemed too blithe, too simple, too pat, and it made me uncomfortable even as I hit “Like” buttons to demonstrate solidarity with friends and colleagues in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.
A day or two later, an article appeared in The Atlantic, which spoke to my mixed feelings about these images. Ian Bogost wrote in “The Fetishization of Mr. Rogers’s ‘Look for the Helpers’” that Rogers’ “original message [had] been contorted and inflated into something it was never meant to be, for an audience it was never meant to serve, in a political era very different from where it began.” Looking for helpers is not a bad thing to do at a serious and dangerous moment, but adults have more responsibility than that. We have an obligation to address the root causes of the violence itself, to stop people from using guns to kill people, to transform ourselves and society. But how do we do those things? I strongly felt that Rogers had something to offer us in this moment, something not based on the idealized versions of his message and his romanticized public image, but grounded in his actual way of life. I looked for answers there.
In the months since my arrival in Pittsburgh, I had read books about him, including Amy Hollingsworth’s memoir about her spiritual friendship with Rogers, The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers (2005), and Maxwell King’s extensive biography, The Good Neighbor (2018). In very different ways, these books helped me to imagine Fred Rogers as a real person, not simply as a one-dimensional, beloved icon. I had also begun reading Michael G. Long’s Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers (2015), which views Rogers as a quiet but radical and persistent Christian pacifist who believed, with the Quakers, that “Attitudes are caught not taught.”
To me, this meant that his manner of living might be of greater interest in our current situation than his pith messages for children, despite their loveliness and simplicity. Rogers’ way grounding himself as a whole human being and then digging into something he cared deeply about is an approach we might “catch” from him in responding to current public calamities and collective heartbreak.
Fred Rogers himself lived in tumultuous times – born in 1928, he witnessed wars, devastating economic downturns, mass protests, violence in the streets, social upheavals, the Watergate era, and more. He saw the dawn of the age of television and its presentation of violent and depressing images for adults and children alike. Despite the turmoil around him, Rogers managed to be a tender, thoughtful, creative, and passionate person. He did this by sleeping eight solid hours each night, spending time each day in prayer, swimming daily, eating healthy vegetarian food, writing long, caring letters to friends and colleagues, playing and composing music, and volunteering his time for causes he believed in. To ensure he carried out his professional work in the most informed manner possible, he studied child development on a weekly basis with the University of Pittsburgh’s Dr. Margaret McFarland, an expert in child psychology who founded the Arsenal Family and Children’s Center with the famed pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock and the internationally renowned psychology expert Dr. Erick Erickson. It is notable that, rather than study with one of the two famous men, Rogers became a life-long student and friend of McFarland, whose well-respected work with children and families deeply informed the lessons presented on his television show.
Rogers was dedicated, slow-paced, and constant, even in the thick of public upheaval. One powerful example is his testimony before Congress in 1969 to secure the budget for public television at the peak of the Nixon era, when funding for Vietnam eclipsed domestic concerns. Using plain, direct language, Rogers comported himself with a serenity and confidence that shocked hardball Senators into considering his argument, and they eventually softened and defied Richard Nixon’s directive to cut half of the $20 million public television budget. In just a few minutes, Rogers, a man of almost-monastic habits, managed to transform the heated theater of political decision-making just as he was changing the exploitative domain of children’s media each day on his program. This Fred Rogers, who chose to live simply and unconventionally, who brought forth a message that diverged from competitive, consumerist popular culture, who refused to comply with his era’s notions of masculinity, is much more helpful to us after the Tree of Life shootings than the sweet meme going around Facebook.
Mister Rogers’ City
Recently, I was able to visit the “Tribute to Children” on a cool, beautiful fall afternoon. As I walked along the river, the bronze statue of Fred Rogers shone in the sunshine, a beacon overlooking the city he loved. The sculpture itself, set high upon an observation platform created from the remaining piece of the old Manchester Bridge, is framed by the pier’s repurposed architecture. Mister Rogers appears as though he were still on television. I climbed the stairs onto the platform and heard the voice of Rogers himself, in the form of piped-in snippets of monologue and song from his program. At first, I found it jarring to listen to a recording down by the riverside, but then, settling in, I came to appreciate his voice, which was calming for me after a hectic week at the Seminary. Robert Berks’ sculpture, dated 2006, is made in the sculptor’s typical style: flat pieces of material layered over and adjacent to one another to create a likeness that is not smooth and idealized, but is as messy and accessible as a real human life. In it, Rogers is sitting, one leg crossed over the other, as he finishes changing his shoes. It is as though he were welcoming me into the opening frames of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and comforting me in times of trouble.
Yet the monument offers more than comfort. It provides an implied social critique of the status quo, just as Fred Rogers’ whole life did. The monument of this mild-mannered man sits on the Allegheny River, near to the anchored USS Requin, a Trench-class military submarine named for the French word for shark. All around the “Tribute to Children” in North Shore Riverfront Park are military memorials to the veterans of various wars, including World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Nearby are both Heinz Field, where the Steelers play football, and PNC Park, where the Pirates hit baseballs. Statues of famous athletes line sidewalks. The streets next to the park are filled with bars and saloons, hamburger and beer joints, steak houses and flashy commercial establishments meant to entertain, amuse, and distract us. Amongst all of these testaments to the violence, competitiveness, and divisiveness of our way of life, the statue of this kindly man in his sweater and sneakers sings out from the north side of the river, helping us to imagine a city of neighborhoods where people are considerate and compassionate, where bridges connect us to each other and deepen our relationships, and where our creativity and intellect are employed in the interest of helping others and improving our social and political engagements. For Fred Rogers, this was not only an imagined way of life, but one he lived and urged us to live as well. I realized that it is up to us to unfold lives of wholeness that Rogers embodied, to create the kind of world to which he dedicated his whole life, to be the Fred Rogers that we want to find.
Shan Overton is the director of Pittsburgh Seminary’s Center for Writing and Learning Support. In that role, she provides direct writing and learning support for master’s and Doctor of Ministry students in a constructive and enriching atmosphere. Overton has authored a number of published works and has presented on theology and writing, including as the keynote speaker at the Association for Theological Education of South East Asia in Singapore in Fall 2019. She is a member of the American Academy of Religion, Association of Practical Theology, and Association of Writers & Writing Programs, and she has served the Episcopal Church through various committees and as a lay chaplain. This essay first appeared in a slightly different form in The Porch Magazine in December 2019 and can be found here: https://www.theporchmagazine.com/recent/2019/12/9/looking-for-mister-rogers-shan-overton.