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OPINION | DEBRA HALE-SHELTON: Wisdom and grace from Mr. Rogers

by Debra Hale-Shelton | August 23, 2020 at 10:49 a.m.

When she was little, my daughter enjoyed watching television programs like "Caillou," "Dragon Tales" and "Sesame Street." She liked "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" too, and so did I, for the PBS program's namesake was more than a celebrity and the program was more than entertainment.

From all I've read or seen, Fred Rogers was a good man who also was wise, famous and no hater. Someone once described the man in the red sweater and tennis shoes as "a singing psychiatrist for children." And that he was.

Rogers, who died in 2003, was a Presbyterian minister who delivered lessons of hope and kindness to his young viewers. He knew when to stop talking and start listening, not just to his elders but to the children, and not only the ones who pushed their way to the front or raised their hands.

Away from the TV studio, he read the Bible and swam daily, He played the piano, was a vegetarian, and dabbled in international relations in the 1980s when he was a guest on Moscow's "Good Night, Little Ones" program. Later, that program's Russian host visited "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

Rogers was also a puppeteer and a musician who wrote the melodies and the lyrics to more than 200 songs--among them, "Won't You Be My Neighbor."

I didn't care for the program the first time I saw it, but Mister Rogers and his neighbors--from Mr. and Mrs. McFeely to royal telephone operator Miss Paulificate--grew on me, as did residents of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, especially the shy puppet Daniel Tiger and the bearded King Friday XIII.

Mister Rogers was humble and was no pseudo-miracle-working televangelist. He didn't preach on TV or expect people in his neighborhood to extol him as a "reverend," though his messages to his young audience often reflected the tenets of Christianity.

"You don't need to speak overtly about religion in order to get a message across," he once said. Amen.

Rogers was married for over 50 years--no annulments or divorces, no known strippers on the side. He was the father of two sons. He was a lifelong Republican, his widow, Joanne Rogers, told ABC's "Nightline" in 2018.

That party affiliation didn't mean Joanne Rogers thought her husband would approve of President Trump, a Republican.

"We have somebody leading us right now who is not a forgiver," she told ABC. "His values are very, very different from Fred's values--almost completely opposite."

According to ABC, she said "she could imagine her husband coming out and speaking up against political leaders with such distinctly different values than his."

"I think he might have to," she said, although "That would be political"--something he had tried to avoid.

In 2016, a Trump supporter said with obvious sarcasm that she wasn't voting for Mister Rogers. But what if she had, I later thought, and what if he had won?

• Mister Rogers would have behaved properly, even been polished, a trait some voters wrongly attack. He would likely have practiced good etiquette and spoken with candor but also with diplomacy, subtlety and even grace when appropriate. When negotiating to avoid nuclear war, for instance, I'd prefer a polished diplomat any day to a person who inserts hand, penis and button sizes into debates.

Rogers would also have used good grammar and pronunciation while not faulting the less-educated. Rather than insult them, he would have sought the advice of former presidents, including the one who invited Trump into the White House shortly before inauguration.

• Mister Rogers would not have used Twitter to tease a teenage climate activist. Rather, he might have offered her encouraging words, maybe a song of hope.

• Mister Rogers would not have used vulgarities or other coarse language at public events, especially before a crowd of Boy Scouts. And he surely wouldn't have been caught on tape bragging about grabbing a woman's vagina.

• Mister Rogers would have followed the example of Jesus and the guidance of mental-health experts and cared about children, not caged them or locked them in detention centers. He'd not cancel his own country's responsibility by blaming the parents.

Had Mister Rogers read no further than the New Testament's first book, he'd have found this passage in Matthew 19:13-14:

"Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them.

"But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven."

• Mister Rogers would have never referred to the unleavened bread which Christians partake of during communion as "my little cracker."

• Mister Rogers would not have called women "nasty" just because they were strong women who dared disagree with him.

• National newspapers could have quit worrying about whether they had Trump's latest version on Stormy Daniels' hush money and focused instead on life-and-death issues, as perhaps they should have anyway, both during the Trump and Bill Clinton presidencies.

• Mister Rogers would have thanked John McCain for his courage during the Vietnam War and not demeaned him, especially in death. When a congressman from either party died, Rogers would have offered kind words and not have been vindictive by playing games with the nation's flag.

• Mister Rogers would have never mocked a reporter or anyone else with a physical disability.

• Mister Rogers would have tried to unite Americans of all races, religions and socio-economic classes, not strive to divide them and encourage hate.

• Mister Rogers would find it easier to tell the truth instead of fabricating a lie.

Debra Hale-Shelton can be reached at dhaleshelton@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @nottalking.

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