“Fred was very controversial for most of his career,” said Basil Cox, the executive director of Rogers’s nonprofit, according to the biography “The Good Neighbor” by Maxwell King. “There were always a significant number of people who just didn’t believe him . . . thought it was an act. For the general world, he was the host of a kiddie television show, and that was it.”
The American landscape is hungry for news of Saint Fred during these dark political days, sometimes at the expense of recognizing that he was a real and complex person. He was the host of a children’s television show, but his core ideology was anything but an act. It was a well-thought-out war against a culture that needed kids to feel inadequate to become good consumers.
King’s biography includes a story that epitomizes Rogers’s inner motivation. Smack in the middle of when his show became a modest success on PBS in the early 1970s, Hallmark asked Rogers to collaborate in decorating its flagship store in midtown Manhattan for Christmastime.
Rogers and his friend and colleague Eliot Daley traveled from Pittsburgh to New York to check out the scene. Other celebrities and influencers had created garishly festive and over-the-top displays, but Rogers went a different route.
He went back to his home in Pittsburgh and concocted a design plan. His window display would be this: a Norfolk Island pine tree, the height of a three- or four-foot-tall child. No ornaments or decorations, just a simple green tree, planted in a clear glass Lucite cube so that onlookers could see the roots of the tree. And in front of it there was to be a plaque that simply said: “I like you just the way you are.”
To its credit, Hallmark went with Fred’s plan. His friend Daley remembers going to New York City to see the simple yet powerful vision come to life — in the midst of all of the tinsel and lights, there was that little tree, all alone. He said it was perfect, and that he has no idea whether Rogers ever went to the city to see it on display.
Colleagues have sometimes said Rogers was a difficult person to work with, not because he had explosive outbursts or harassed co-workers, but because he was such a singular person: a driven perfectionist who was decades ahead of everyone else in understanding the importance of developing social-emotional intelligence in children.
Here’s another way of saying someone is a singular person: Fred Rogers was a complete weirdo, unable to fit in, unable to assimilate and smooth his rough edges the way the majority of us can. In the beginning, his friends and colleagues agree that he had more detractors than admirers.
I think about that little tree, and how differently the mind of a pastor and educator and psychologist (for Rogers was all three) works from those of marketers. At first blush it seems beautiful, because it is: centered on a child, a tree just their height, reinforcing the message Rogers most desperately wanted his young neighbors to hear. Working to combat shame, isolation, trauma; working to help build resilience in the lives of kids he could never hope to reach one by one. By creating a tree reminiscent of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” he reminds us that what is small is good, recognizing that even little trees need good roots to grow tall and strong.
Ultimately Rogers was asked by a large company, one that sold greeting cards and wrapping paper and is now quite famous for prestige ornaments and schlocky holiday films, to decorate its store window. And he chose a bare tree with not a whiff of decorations, not a single tie-in to his own show or any other toy or trinket aimed at children. That tiny tree to me is a symbol of the disappointment Fred Rogers felt as he watched as television programming became a part of the American experience in ways that fell short of his expectations: “Until television became such a tool for selling, it was such a fabulous medium for education. That’s what I had always hoped it would be.” I believe he was angry at how most television programs and the companies that sponsored the shows treated children, how it dehumanized them, pandered to them and ultimately trained them to become consumers of products they did not need.
Rogers made the majority of people, at least early in his career on television, uncomfortable — partly because of how deeply ingrained these beliefs of his were. I think, if we were truly paying attention to his life and work, more of us would feel the same. He wasn’t a saint, and he wasn’t a phony. He refused to capitulate to the world around him. The small bare tree in the Hallmark store window was a radical gesture designed to expose the hypocrisy of holidays intended to sell products while centering the emotional well-being of children who might catch a glimpse of his message. It was a rejection of holiday consumerism. It was a countercultural art project in a world of companies that exploited nostalgia for profit. And it was the refusal to accept a world that needed children to feel ashamed of themselves to buy more goods. It was typical of Fred Rogers: It was anger and love, all wrapped together, a Christmas gift I will never forget.
D.L. Mayfield is a freelance writer who lives in Portland, Ore. Her most recent book is the forthcoming “The Myth of the American Dream: Reflections on Affluence, Autonomy, Safety, and Power” (IVP April 2020).
Correction: An earlier version of this piece included the incorrect spelling for Rogers’ friend and colleague Eliot Daley.