31 January 2005

Single...With Children: Tears Fall In Mister Rogers' Neighborhood

Single with Children: Mr. Rogers' spirit will live on

By Susie Parker
Publication Date: 03/12/03

Have you ever noticed, especially recently, that the cable news shows have taken to attaching a different theme music, appropriately serious and somber, for each major story that the United States is currently involved in? Without even being in the same room as the television, I can predict which story is about to be discussed, whether it's "War With Iraq," "The Axis of Evil" or "The Hunt for Bin Laden," not to mention the music that announces a "Breaking News Alert." The memorization of such tunes becomes fixed in our brains.

Recently, I was flooded with memories courtesy of another kind of music - to be more specific, "comfort" music. Hearing the familiar electric piano and friendly melodies warmed my heart and reminded me that it was playing on all of the news stations for a most unhappy reason. "The neighborhood" felt the shock of the passing of the man who created it.

Of course, anyone who spent any time with a child or grew up in the 1960s and '70s knows that music was, for many of us, part of the soundtrack of our childhood. And while we all know that no one lives forever, it was the most astonishing shock to me when I heard the very sad news that Mister Rogers had died after a short bout with stomach cancer. It was already a rather cloudy, gloomy day in my neighborhood. And it looked so much darker after I learned he was gone. I imagine heaven must have been an extra-shiny place when he was invited.

The story played over and over, always beginning with the familiar tune that signaled the beginning of a new episode of "Mister Roger's Neighborhood." I immediately went to his Family Communications Web site and was startled, although I shouldn't have been, to see that he had even left suggestions on how to break the news to his many young fans that he had died. He was concerned that they could be confused by seeing reruns of his show after being told that he had passed away. He also wanted parents and caregivers to be cautious about saying he died because he was sick, fearing that his young viewers might think that when they get sick with the flu or a cold, they might die as well.

Quintessential Mister Rogers.

That's the kind of forethought and consideration that made him an American icon in the finest sense of the word. If ever there was a child advocate in this world, it was Fred McFeely Rogers.

The tributes were overwhelming. They came from folks of every age, status, ethnicity and walk of life. This didn't surprise me at all, but Mister Rogers was a very humble man, and I can imagine that he would have been kind of amazed to find out the number of times he was the lead news story, which in a way is incredible, given that we are on the brink of war, dealing with a high terror alert and learning about the many uses of duct tape, coping with an economy dangling on the brink of recession and everything else that seems to go haywire on any given day.

Mister Rogers broke through the "hard news" barrier by being one of the softest, most caring fixtures on a medium that doesn't tend to foster or promote such attributes. The one thing that stands out about Fred Rogers is the sheer predictability and hope he offered in a world that seems to thrive on shock value.

He employed no special effects because I don't really think hand puppets qualify as such. He was a kind, gentle man who took the time and trouble to think about how something might be viewed by a young person engaged in the very important business of growing up.

Apparently he felt that lesson was worth revisiting now and again, regardless of the age or venue of his audience. Many times he would quiet applause meant for him, by asking the audience to join him in thinking about someone very special who had "loved them into being," and he would instruct folks to take 10 seconds to give silent recognition to all of the people who had helped them become who they were. Just to prove he was serious and this was no joke, he would let them know that he would watch the time.

The recognition that Mister Rogers received reflected all the things he exemplified.

This evening I am thankful for two things. That our lives are blessed with people like Fred Rogers, who left us with lessons that are timeless and help us make some right decisions in the way we raise our children and re-evaluate the things most valuable in this adventure we know as parenting and living our lives.

I'm also thankful for the invention of videotape and reruns. Mister Rogers may be gone, but his lessons and the example of his life will remind us not only of who we are, but perhaps also nudge us into becoming something more positive and meaningful than we ever imagined possible.

I can't think of a more sterling legacy. Well done, Mister Rogers.

Readers can e-mail Susie Parker at Susiewrites@gmail.com or write to her c/o Amarillo Globe-News, Features Dept., P.O. Box 2091, Amarillo, TX 79166.

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