This past year I was mesmerized by Mister Rogers. Since my boys were not loyal watchers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, I am not sure why I am so intrigued–but I am not alone. The documentary I loved and I enjoyed Tom Hanks portraying Rogers in the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood almost as much.
I think my fascination is with the lessons learned from a life well-lived. It is hard to be a good leader if you are not a good person.
In fact, one of the lines in the movie that struck me the most was when the narrator asked Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks) how different was he was the “character” he played in the series. Mister Rogers said something such as: “Character? I am not playing a character. That is me–how I am.”
Who would know Mister Rogers better than a person who photographed him for more than a decade? NPR had a story about Lynn Johnson who photographed “the gentle host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: first for The Pittsburgh Press, then for Life magazine, and then for years after the assignment ended. She was fiercely committed to documenting the man who could deeply connect with the hearts and minds of children. ‘It was a delight being in his energy field,'” Johnson says. This is what I learned from Johnson’s long experience being in the same space as Fred Rogers.
Lessons to Remember
1. Authenticity. “The person you saw on set was what you saw off the set.” What you saw was the real deal.
2. Compassion. “He knew the importance of bringing yourself to a child’s level — to speak with children, never to them.” People of all ages and diversity were equal in his eye.
3. Gratitude. “He’d ask everyone to close their eyes for a minute and think about those who have been helpers in their lives. It is about gratitude and love, and I think that’s the essence of who he was.” Focus on the “other” rather than the self.
4. Emotional Intelligence. “Even when he was short with someone (which was rare), it was not toxic. You could feel him holding on to that space of civility.” Learn to manage emotions and to let go. Holding onto anger is not healthy and a waste of energy.
Wisdom can’t be taught, but it can be shared. My professional mentor, Dr. Elmer Burack, at the University of Illinois-Chicago was my Mister Rogers–my Morrie Schwartz (as in Tuesdays with Morrie). I would not have published any of my books or grown in the way that I did if it were not for Elmer. Every time I saw him, I expressed my gratitude and I never wanted to leave because of the wisdom he would always share.
The last two interview questions and answers are worth repeating below.
How would he have reacted to the intolerance and hate we see too much of in the world today?
I think he would be heartbroken, but he would be working to make it better. He was constantly thinking about how to make complex and scary issues understandable and less traumatic for kids. He was always addressing the question “Is your neighbor worth loving?” And right now, we are not facing that question.
If Fred Rogers were standing in front of you right now, what would you say to him?
I wouldn’t say anything. I would just sit in his presence in silence.