Locals share life lessons, insights from 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood'
FARGO — As a child of the '70s, Heather Bjur grew up hanging out almost daily with Fred Rogers, or “Mister Rogers,” on TV.
“I specifically remember the crayon episode,” she says, noting that, “Back then, the best gift was simply a new box of new crayons — with a sharpener.”
As a longtime fan, she was drawn to the 2019 movie of Rogers’ life, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” starring Tom Hanks. Now a counselor with a faith-based view, Bjur has an even greater appreciation for Rogers’ work.
“From the perspective of a counselor, I thought the movie was absolutely profound,” she says, adding that, as a parent, she also found it insightful and inspiring.
“The fact that there was a man out there who wanted to help children know there are such things as feelings, and deal with their emotions — it’s such an incredibly novel idea,” Bjur remarks. “I think the entire world could benefit from that — every man, woman and child.”
In our American culture of extremes, where “we kind of go all in, or we’re passive and silent,” she says, Rogers’ manner of relating seems needed more than ever.
“There was just something so sweet, inviting and caring about him,” Bjur says. “Emotions can be terrifying, but to be given permission to feel, like he did, is healing.”
She found the movie itself deeper than expected, becoming excited to realize the secondary character, a magazine reporter, would be undergoing a transformation.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to be a redemptive story. Who doesn’t love that?’”
Bjur also mentions a scene at the end, involving the reporter’s dying father, who asks Rogers to pray with him.
“The intentionality of some of (Mister Rogers’) phrases really blew me away," she says. "He gave a whole sermon to that father, saying 1,000 words in two sentences.”
Back in her college days, Becky Burns recalls walking by the TV lounge in her dormitory, where the education majors were circled around, “glued to ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,’” and thinking how silly it was. “I thought, ‘Why are you drooling over this drivel?’” she says.
But when she had children, her perspective flipped.
“Mister Rogers became a very wonderful thing, because of the honest way he talked to the children,” Burns says. “It wasn’t for the adults. His focus was on the children, and that was so special.”
She also appreciates how the tenets of her Christian faith were hidden within Mister Rogers' teachings. “They were always there, but he never slapped you in the face with it.”
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Katherine Tweed says her family watched a lot of “Mister Rogers” as her daughter, Kara, was growing up. The recent resurgence of interest in him doesn’t surprise her.
“For a certain generation or two, he’s a really big deal. I always had such respect for him,” she says, noting how she chose recently to insert his picture into her Facebook profile to brighten her day.
Now an adult, Kara still talks occasionally about the things she’s learned from the show, including: “Do one thing at a time, and do it very, very well.”
“When children are little, their attention span is pretty short. So that was always a reassuring message for her,” Tweed says.
Mister Rogers helped her in her mothering, too.
“The subtlety of Mister Rogers appealed to me. He made courtesy, acceptance of others, cardigans, changing shoes when you come into the house and smiling — with the mouth and eyes — appropriate. He was real in every sense.”
And though his faith lessons weren’t overt, they were there, she agrees. Tweed says she recalls learning in Sunday school as a child that Jesus came to us “so people would know what God was like with skin on,” commenting, “Mister Rogers reinforced that lesson by modeling that we all have a place and importance in this world.”
She also appreciates the reinforcement of "it's a beautiful day," a phrase from the show's intro song.
“A lot of days don’t seem very beautiful, but sometimes it’s just nice to think about, ‘It is a beautiful day. Maybe not this moment, but it is a beautiful day.’ That’s a positive reinforcement that even I often need,” she says.
Mister Rogers’ facial gestures were always gentle, she says, especially his eyes.
“They would twinkle, and it looked like he was in deep concentration. He was one of the rare people on television who looks out from the screen and it seems as though he’s right there with you,” she says.
Tweed says the anger that fills society right now could use a little Mister Rogers.
“Having the reminder of gentleness and caring for other people just because they exist, just because they’re there, is comforting,” she says, adding, “Feeling that love and generosity of spirit and kindness that Mister Rogers just gently laid before us for a half hour every day… If we could all take the time to renew ourselves for a half hour every day and think about those things, it would be a bonus.”
Salonen, a wife and mother of five, works as a freelance writer and speaker in Fargo. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, and find more of her work at Peace Garden Passage, http://roxanesalonen.com/.