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A model of gentility for coarse times

Fred Rogers' widow, Joanne Rogers, with a giant

Fred Rogers' widow, Joanne Rogers, with a giant Mister Rogers stamp in Pittsburgh on March 23. Credit: AP / Gene J. Puskar

It was gym class in junior high school, and Jennifer and I were sitting on the bleachers waiting our turn. She began humming a tune, “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” which opened “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” every day on our TV sets.

Suddenly, she caught herself and turned to me in embarrassment. “Please don’t tell anyone I was singing that,” she begged.

Fred “Mister” Rogers was uncool — along with his sincere messages of self-acceptance, compassion and dealing with complicated feelings like anger.

Still, as kids we watched him. As an adult, I sought him out and interviewed him in September 2000 and April 2001 at his modest public television studio in Pittsburgh. This gentle, authentic soul has something to remind us about today.

We’re at an unprecedented moment in our unwillingness to listen to each other or to recognize our shared humanity. Express a wrong political thought, and you’re unfriended on Facebook. Cocktail party chatter is kept consciously anodyne. We jump the line at the deli counter because we can. Where is the bottom of this spiral of coarsening culture?

Fred Rogers died in 2003, but his ethos is needed now. The Postal Service honored the host of the 33-year TV series with a stamp last week. In this 50th anniversary year of the show’s launch, the service said Rogers “inspired and educated young viewers with warmth, sensitivity, and honesty.”

Earlier this month, WNYC radio named Rogers the first inductee to its Masculinity Vision Board, which is anticipated to contain “portrayals of masculinity, real or fictional, that you find commendable or challenges what’s seen as the status quo.”

When the status quo includes the leaders of North Korea and the United States bragging about the size of their nuclear buttons, you know there’s a need to alter what it means to be manly.

In January, a documentary about Rogers was screened at the Sundance Film Festival, and TriStar is working on a feature film starring Tom Hanks. Director Mirielle Heller has said the script “truly feels to me like an antidote to our very fractured culture.”

Rogers is an antidote in so many ways. For one, he was always curious. He would take his TV audiences on field trips to see how things were made — paper, for example, or crayons. Contrast that with the Trump administration banning words such as “science-based” or “endangered” in government documents.

Rogers thought the entertainment industry should be self-regulating. “We should be thinking, whatever we produce, would we want our families to see it?” he said during one of our interviews.

On the air, Rogers wanted to give kids “the gift of [my] honest self.” He told a story about an invitation he accepted to try out for commercial TV in Manhattan. The producer asked what sort of costume he would wear. He wanted Rogers to come as a clown or something snazzier than a regular guy in a cardigan, so that kids would pay attention. Rogers replied, “Well, it seems to me as if our interview’s over.”

Generations of children paid attention anyway.

The recent focus on a man who stood for honesty and decency is heartening. It might be too idealistic to hope that a commemorative stamp and a film or two could release his spirit to soothe and uplift us.

But, we must have hope. As Mister Rogers liked to remind us, stay in touch with “that deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive.”

This is one delivery the Postal Service has executed with perfect timing.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.

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