Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

1/15 2020

Looking for Mister Rogers

Mister Rogers statue Pittsburgh

During Alumnae/i Days 2019, a group of grads visited the Mister Rogers statue in Pittsburgh.

 

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.

 

Fred’s Theology

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.

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3/23 2018

Mister Rogers: A Neighbor before Neighboring Was Cool

“Won’t you be my neighbor?” For multiple generations of Americans these words instantly call to mind a familiar melody and images of a warm smile, cardigans, blue shoes, and trolleys. I’m no different, by the time I went to kindergarten in the fall of 1989 I’m sure I had heard Mister Rogers’ (at 1962 alumnus of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) sing this song hundreds of times. I loved so much about the program—the Land of Make Believe, the songs, the days we accompanied Mr. Rogers out the back door to join him at the sandbox. Through it all Mister Rogers’ calm, steady presence exuded sensitivity to the anxieties, joys, and curiosities that mark early childhood. It was the kind of thing that made kids like me love accompanying the grandfatherly Mister Rogers though both mundane things like changing his shoes to his trips out into his neighborhood.

Truth be told, as much as I liked the Land of Make Believe and the backyard sandbox, my favorite part of the show was getting to accompany Mister Rogers out into the neighborhood. In the neighborhood we met all kinds of people, from a friendly mailman and a dancer to folks who made things like crayons. (The orange crayon episode was my favorite. There were SO MANY orange crayons in that Crayola factory!) In my corner of rural western Pennsylvania I did not know anyone who worked in a crayon factory. I had no idea how the crayons I used everyday were made. I was so glad Mister Rogers did and was willing to take me along!

 

Looking back I can see that one of the things Mister Rogers did for me—completely without my knowing it—was to illustrate through this trips into the neighborhood how connected all of us were to others.

 

Mister Rogers in the Neighborhood

Looking back I can see that one of the things Mister Rogers did for me—completely without my knowing it—was to illustrate through this trips into the neighborhood how connected all of us were to others. Sure, I might be watching from the comfort of my living room, but just as the camera panned out to show Mister Rogers’ house, not as an island but as a part of a much larger community, so too my life and my little house was part of a much bigger community, a community in which many different kinds of people contributed in a variety of interconnected ways. By taking me with him into his neighborhood Mister Rogers taught me in his gentle way how to better see my neighborhood, my mailman, the people who made things (though not crayons, alas!) close to my house.

 

Who is My Neighbor

In today’s world neighboring has become a topic that is variously hipper-than-hip in some communities and politically suspect in others. We have books like The Art of Neighboring and “sanctuary cities” at the same time as others build literal and figurative walls. In this milieu the scribe’s question to Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” sounds almost contemporary. It is basically a question “Who counts?”

In the simple goodness that children instantly understand Mister Rogers never had that question. He seemed to intuitively know the answer. As I and generations of children with me accompanied Mister Rogers through his day and into his community we learned that the people we met were all neighbors each with unique contributions to make to our community and each worthy of our kindness. It is a lesson that rings with the Gospel. It is a lesson I hope I never forget.

 

The Rev. Dr. Charlie Cotherman ’12 serves as pastor of the church plant Oil City Vineyard in Oil City, Pa., and also as an adjunct faculty member at Pittsburgh Seminary. While a student at PTS, Charlie received The Fred McFeely Rogers Prize in Biblical Studies.

 

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Pittsburgh Seminary invites you to help fund the Fred Rogers Family Room in our newly renovated, soon-to-reopen Barbour Library! With its Neighborhood-like feel, furnishings, and outfitting, the Fred Rogers Family Room will welcome families to explore reading and play that inspire loving our neighbors, welcoming strangers, and seeing every person as a child of God. Make your donation toward our $25,000 goal today!

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10/2 2015

Mr. Rogers is on Netflix!

Mr-Rogers-on-NetflixCall it what you will, but sometimes in life the stars just align and the smallest of moments change our lives forever.

Flashback to my senior year in high school a zillion years ago. I was actively involved in a local telethon to raise money for Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh… a great tradition among local schools. Someone (I don’t remember who) had arranged for a visit from the one and only Mr. McFeely, aka the “Speedy Delivery Mailman” from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to come by for a guest appearance. Mr. McFeely, known in real life as David Newell, is also the public relations director for Rogers’ production company, Family Communications. He arrived at the telethon with a big plastic box containing the PURPLE PANDA costume. Just in case someone missed this along the way, the Purple Panda was one of the characters occasionally seen in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Long story short, someone who was at least 5’8” and who didn’t mind being mauled by children would need to wear the suit. Yours truly quickly stepped up to the plate. (Okay, I probably would have taken out anyone who tried to beat me to that suit.)

Being hugged by a long line of children was excellent, but getting a chance to talk with David Newell became life-changing. When I told him I was planning to study communications in college, he quickly invited me to stop by the “Neighborhood” someday to see what this career path might be like. I did. And one visit led to a series of internships and experiences working with the Neighborhood throughout my college years. Getting to know Fred personally, along with the wonderful characters on-screen and off- who were dedicating their lives and their talents to making good children’s television programming, was nothing short of a dream come true.

The jobs assigned to me were rarely boring. I spent a lot of time stuffing envelopes (typical intern work no matter where you are and yep, that was boring). I gave tours of the set to Make-a-Wish kids and their families. This taught me how much a heart can feel. I learned to speak “Fred” and answered fan mail on his behalf, although he reviewed every single letter and would often request changes before signing them. The words “I like you just the way you are,” eventually rolled naturally off my lips. I got to drive Fred back and forth from a set where the crew was filming episodes, and it was during those drives that we got to talk about life, and faith, and theology, and that maybe I should think about going to seminary. It was in his office one day that he suggested that I consider Pittsburgh Theological Seminary rather than the seminary my college professors were recommending. “Pittsburgh,” he said, “would be a better place for you to find your voice.” I didn’t realize that day how significant those words were, but they came to be true and I have treasured them all of my life.

Every moment of this opportunity in my life was incredible, especially having Fred Rogers as a mentor and friend. Yet one day was particularly special. I actually appeared in an episode and was a participant in a cake decorating contest along with Chef Brockett. (Remember him?) The contest was part of a week-long series of shows on the theme of competition. As the story went, Chef Brockett did not win the contest. Neither did I. He then sadly pays a visit to Mr. Rogers’ kitchen where the two have a talk about winning and losing. Mr. Rogers comforted the Chef by reminding him that his bakery was the very best in the neighborhood. Most important, they had a heart-to-heart conversation about how it feels to be disappointed. Yes, the episode was about competition, but as is so often the case in Neighborhood episodes, there was an underlying message about finding your voice, speaking the truth about your own feelings, and talking the hurt through with someone you trust. Fred was often known to say, “When something is mentionable, it is manageable.” Talking life’s disappointments and heartaches through with someone you trust is so very important. Finding your voice is essential.

In comparison with today’s television production, episodes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood can seem simplistic, choppy, and stilted. But how fortunate we are that these episodes will now be available via Netflix for this and future generations of children? Seldom, if ever, has television tackled the meaningful feelings that Fred Rogers faced head on through the Neighborhood. Fear. Jealousy. Loss. Anger. Family. Differences. Hope. Love. It’s all to be found there in the Neighborhood. When these are mentionable, they are manageable.

It was important to Fred way back when, that I find my voice. Through his honest exploration of feelings, and his unwavering message of acceptance and love to children over the past six decades, I believe I am but one of millions whom he encouraged in this way. The world misses him. I miss him. You probably do, too. Thanks be to God for the gift of his life. And thanks be to God that his message will continue to touch lives.

Lisa Dormire graduated with her MDiv degree from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1986 and now serves as vice president for development at Redstone Presbyterian SeniorCare. Previously she worked at the Seminary as vice president for seminary relations.

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