Today, March 20, is Mister Rogers’ birthday — the children’s TV host would have been 84. To celebrate him, PBS will be airing a new documentary on select stations (check local listings) called “Mister Rogers & Me,” about MTV producer Benjamin Wagner’s experience living in a summer home in Nantucket next to the famous entertainer. The documentary will also be available on iTunes and DVD.
Mister Rogers was a television pioneer, an educator and a cardigan-and-Keds fashion icon, but most of all, he was a person who wanted to help everyone feel good about themselves. I know because, like Wagner, I knew Mister Rogers.
My father, Jim Judkis, was the photographer for Rogers’s series of children’s books (“Going to the Potty,” “Extraordinary Friends,” etc.), and he would occasionally bring me to work with him. Sometimes, this resulted in me being on the show, as in the video clip below, with Rogers singing “Everybody’s Fancy.” I’m the toddler at 4:25 (“Girls are girls right from the start”).
People always wonder if Mister Rogers’s gentle personality on the show was an act or a character he played. It was not. Mister Rogers cared deeply for children, and each time I met him, I always remember him crouching down to talk to me at my level, so he could look me in the eyes. When my then 2-year-old brother had cancer, Mister Rogers, who was deeply religious, told my father that he prayed for him every day.
Rogers also rented out an amusement park near his hometown of Latrobe, Pa., for the children of his employees every summer. One year, a ride based on his show was opened in the park, and Mister Rogers chose my brother, whose hair was still growing back from the chemo, to share a seat with him for what my father said was his first-ever ride on the attraction that bore his name.
Though all of my encounters with Mister Rogers were when I was young — he passed away in 2003, when I was in high school — Mister Rogers’s kindness was not only for children, as Wagner’s documentary demonstrates. Wagner encountered Mister Rogers in Nantucket, and when he was embarrassed to admit to the PBS host that he worked for flashy, crude MTV, Mister Rogers told him, “I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.”
Wagner set out to talk to other adults about the example Mister Rogers set for them, because his own deep and simple lessons may have been packaged for children, but they are applicable at any age. Esquire’s Tom Junod witnessed his magical effect on adults in an excellent 1998 profile, a long but worthwhile read: “The moment Mister Rogers got out of the car, people wouldn’t stay away from him, they respected him so much ... ‘Oh, Mister Rogers, thank you for my childhood.’ ‘Oh, Mister Rogers, you’re the father I never had.’ ‘Oh, Mister Rogers, would you please just hug me?’ ”
So, on Mister Rogers’s birthday, I’ll leave you just with the words that concluded his song above: “You’re just fine the way you are. The way you’re becoming the person that people know, and love. Isn’t that a good feeling?”
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