On his TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers spoke directly to kids about their feelings. Sometimes enlisting the help of hand puppets, he covered topics from friendship and love to loneliness and divorce, and news like Bobby Kennedy’s assassination and, much later in his career, 9/11. His approach resonated, and Mr. Rogers became a household name soon after his 1968 debut.
One famous scene touched on civil rights. Rogers is cooling his feet in a kiddie pool on a hot day, when Francois Clemmons, a black man who played a police man, enters the scene, doing his rounds. Rogers invites Officer Clemmons to join him for a foot soak. Afterward, Rogers shares his towel so Clemmons can dry off. The commentary on desegregation of swimming pools contained in that simple exchange sparked dinner table conversations among young viewers and their parents across the country.
Clemmons talks about that episode on Finding Fred, a podcast about Mister Rogers that premiered in October. “I bet there wasn’t 10 white men in this country who would share a towel with a black man,” he recalls. “I had no idea that scene would have that kind of an effect.”
The podcast is part of a Rogers revival that has included Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a heartstring-tugging documentary, and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a feature film starring Tom Hanks. For this project, host and former Slate parenting advice columnist Carvell Wallace uses interviews with Clemmons — as well as cultural commentators and critics, a sociologist, and even a rabbi — to discuss what makes Fred Rogers such a memorable figure in modern American history, and why the revolutionary legacy of the man one guest describes as a “genius of empathy” feels so relevant today.
Speakers on Finding Fred grapple particularly with Rogers’ all-encompassing brand of empathy. Once, when Rogers was already a successful television personality, he brought his puppets to do a show for a five-year-old fan, Beth Usher, who had fallen into a coma after brain surgery. Her family tells Wallace that Rogers asked them not to tell the press about his visit, and that while he was there, he seemed saddened that she didn’t wake up. After the girl ultimately did recover, Rogers remained friends with her and her family until his death in 2003. “I think what touched me the most was when he sang ‘I [like] you just the way you are,’” Usher’s mother, Kathy, tells Wallace. “We were just outside the door of the room and I remember hearing that and I looked around and everybody — even my dad — had tears streaming down their faces, and I remember thinking, what am I seeing here? This is incredible.”
In an era where even the world’s most powerful leader is proudly and publicly motivated by personal gain, Rogers’ unrelenting kindness and decency — with no hidden motive yet discovered — can come across as achingly poignant or even disconcerting to the modern observer.
With all his compassion for those in need, Rogers didn’t show hatred for people some may think deserve it. When he sang “I like you as you are,” on the show, he seemed to be singing to everyone — even the bullies and bigots of the world. This may have been a philosophy rooted in his faith: Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, although he didn’t discuss Christianity on his show. Wallace admits he’s struggled, in therapy even, with how to love people who hurt the weakest members of society, whether they deserve to be loved at all, whether Rogers’ approach has a place in society today.
While the podcast borders on waxing rhapsodic about Rogers’ (legitimately impressive) accomplishments, it also touches on his humanity, flaws and fears. When Rogers learned Clemmons was gay, for instance, he told him he’d always love him for who he was (and he seemed to have meant it), but asked him not to come out publicly, for the sake of keeping advertisers on the program. “It was one of the lowest moments of my life,” Clemmons tells Wallace. “I think that was the moment I decided to go back into the closet and stay.” Clemmons remained close friends with him, deciding to sacrifice coming out so black children could continue seeing a black male role model on TV.
Rogers also struggled with writers’ block, with feeling like the final product he’d written wasn’t good enough or that he wasn’t making a difference. When he heard the news in 1979 that a boy in Brooklyn had died trying to “fly like Superman” from his window, he wrote a song for the show that went, “Only birds and bats and bugs can fly,” as if he could somehow teach all the kids of America everything they needed to know to be OK.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood stopped airing after about 900 episodes, a few weeks before September 11th, 2001. Rogers appeared on air once more after the attacks on the World Trade Center, recording public service announcements, including his now-famous advice to “look for the helpers” during frightening news events. Rogers died two years later.
Wallace asked almost everyone who knew Rogers the same two questions: Did they think Rogers had done enough? And would Rogers have thought he had? They always said Rogers had done plenty, but that he always wished he could have done more.