Actually, it was the fellow who played Bob Dog on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood who introduced us. He was the father of a fellow student in college. Fred was on my college's board and I was busing tables one of those alumni/trustee get-togethers, part of my campaign to take every annoying job that I could in order to fund my tuition and expenses.
The television station for which Mr. Rogers worked would offer one month internships, usually in the winter, for students interested in television production. I was interested in the everything in those days and told him so. He smiled in that unaffected manner familiar to anyone of any age who ever watched his show, and gave me a name to call. I did and, during the January interim semester, found myself touring the PBS studio and having my duties described to me by a production assistant who would, shortly thereafter, leave for Hollywood to become an actor. He did rather well for himself, as it turns out, even being nominated for an Academy Award.
But the star in those days was Mr. Rogers, albeit the most self-effacing and unassuming star ever to grace the cathode rays. During my four weeks on the show, doing everything from moving about the furniture and puppets to operating the "picture picture", I dabbled in every aspect of television production that the union would permit. I also learned a number of things about Mr. Rogers, namely:
- he was an ordained Presbyterian minister [he had even been a classmate of my cousin's!]
- his cardigan sweaters had been knitted by his mother
- he was a licensed pilot
- he wore sneakers because they were less noisy on set than hard shoes
- the sneakers, at least in my day, were actually Sperry Topsiders, not Keds as is often reported
- he didn't smoke or drink and was a vegetarian
- he was without pretense and was the same in "real life" as he was on screen
I also learned, one day when I clumsily dropped the model of his neighborhood in a rather loud, disrupting, and damaging crash, that he had a favorite swear word.
Born in 1928, Fred Rogers displayed something that's rather lost these days; a determination that is marked by patience, not petulance. During seminary, when he was immersed in the call to make holy scripture relevant when it was becoming rendered distant by time and overwrought piety, he chanced to watch television for the first time at his parents' house. He was appalled. [Imagine what he would make of just one, casual evening in this century watching "reality" shows on basic cable.] He thought, surely, there was a way to make television watchable and educational.
Starting as production assistant at NBC in New York and then as a puppeteer on WQED in Pittsburgh, Rogers learned what was to be his trade from those who had served in television since its nascent period. Recognizing a good thing when they saw it, the powers-that-be in the Presbyterian Church suggested that he forgo pulpit work and continue to pursue possibilities in the cool medium.
Beginning with the Canadian Broadcasting Company as an on-air personality, Rogers would eventually be called back to Pittsburgh to develop further the show he started on the CBC. It would eventually morph into what a couple of generations recognize as Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. By 1968, the show was syndicated and began public broadcasting's long and successful experiment with children's entertainment and education.
By the time Rogers retired in 2000, he had filmed 895 episodes. They are still being shown today. Rogers died in 2003.
While some clergy have sought to use television in its broadest manner, attempting to represent prayer and devotion as a sort of metaphysical lottery laced with appeals for donations, Rogers kept true to his simple message and method of practical, worldly education. I suppose this is why it's his sweater and not some evangelist's hairpiece that's on display in the Smithsonian.
There may, too, be a lesson in his singular ministry for those of us charting Christianity's new and rather different course for this century. A singular and simple mission, rendered in quiet charm, and addressing the world as one's neighborhood, may just be the foundation for continued proclamation.