Recently, in my getaway attempt from the Dallas inferno, such was my driver’s fatigue and the heat of the highway that I felt compelled to pull into a generic interstate hotel in Amarillo en route to Santa Fe.
Drenching me while checking in, a powerful storm knocked out the electricity and Wi-Fi. With several hours of twilight ahead, a dispirited me headed to a cinema that still had power where, serendipitously, I met an old friend. With popcorn in hand, I entered into Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, via the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor.
Now it was I, rather than my small children decades ago, being soothed by the voice of Fred Rogers.
As a young mother in my salad days when Americans watched a handful of channels in real-time, I knew the exact time I could plant my little ruffians in front of Mr. Rogers and make a meal, or take a shower, or have some downtime. His simple set and his Land of Make Believe where hand puppets acted out little scenes exploring childhood fears, anxieties, and questions were equally as fascinating as superheroes to my preschoolers.
However, it was not until viewing this documentary that I learned what a tour de force this ordained Presbyterian minister was.
He conceived the show, acted, directed, composed all the songs, designed the sets, hired the cast, and was the puppeteer as well.
How did this Pittsburg self-effacing man fund it? He went before a hardened Congressional committee seeking to cut money to the arts and walked away with $22 million dollars after reading the lyrics to his song, “What Do You Do With the Mad You Feel?”
He was dismayed at the cultural messages and violence young children were exposed to and his passion was to let each and every one know that he/she was special and “I like you just the way you are.”
During the bitter swimming pool desegregation in the South, he invited the Neighborhood’s black policeman, Officer Clemmons, to rest and join him in a cooling footbath where he shared his towel. His love of water extended to his daily swims, which led to a chubby little boy maintaining an adult weight of 143 pounds. His daily weigh-in delighted him, because the three numbers corresponded to the letters in the great Valentine of life, “I LOVE YOU.” He found miracles everywhere. That night he was mine.
Len Bourland can be reached at [email protected]