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Even in an increasingly noisy world, Fred Rogers proved you don't have to shout to make your voice heard. He demonstrated that you don’t have to be a president or a general or a Steve Jobs to improve the lives of others — for 30 years and 886 episodes! He made a difference to millions over the course of generations through his message that you are important just by being you.
Fred Rogers was a cultural pioneer. He recognized in the earliest days of television that it was going to have a major impact on the world. He wanted that impact to be positive. But he found that the first attempts at children's programming simply were not right: It was not age-appropriate. It was not respectful. It did not respond to children’s deepest fears nor answer their most pressing questions. He believed that young people were thoughtful people, too, who deserved the best programming possible.
Now, you may not recognize the name "Fred" Rogers, but most will have heard of "Mister" Rogers. And some of you reading this post may have had an intimate relationship with him and his neighborhood, as well as the neighborhood of Make-Believe.
According to legend, Fred Rogers began working in television before he even owned one. A year after starting work at his local public television station in the US city of Pittsburgh, he launched a show geared specifically to kids called ''The Children's Corner.'' He then had a stint broadcasting in Canada, after which he took a break, in 1962, to be ordained as a minister. Back in Pittsburgh in 1968, he started the show that made him a #HistoryHero, notable for his diffident manner and homemade puppets. He was the viewer's best friend — and his viewers were the next generation of Americans: preschool children aged 2-5.
''Mister Rogers' Neighborhood'' was ground-breaking for its simplicity. It provided a safe space for Rogers’ youthful audience, especially a safe emotional space.
"The world is not always a kind place," he once said. "That's something all children learn for themselves, whether we want them to or not, but it's something they really need our help to understand." He believed that even the worst fears had to be "manageable and mentionable," one way or another, and because of this he did not shy away from charged topics like war, death, and poverty.
Sometimes Mr. Rogers left his "neighborhood." Like when he chaired the White House Forum on Child Development and the Mass Media in 1968. He also wrote more than a dozen books, with titles like "How Families Grow" and "You Are Special." But his is best remembered for calming and encouraging whole generations of children with exactly that message: he ended each show by saying,
You always make each day a special day. You know how? By just your being you/yourself. There's only one person in the whole world that's like you, and that's you. And people can like you just exactly the way you are.
Mr. Rogers was also one of the country's most sought-after commencement speakers, and if college seniors were not always bowled over by his pronouncements, they often cried tears of joy just to see an old friend from their childhood in his signature sneakers and a colorful zip-up cardigan.
When he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1999, he began his formal acceptance speech by saying, ''Fame is a four-letter word.'' Once he’d gotten the attention of the packed venue of TV's most powerful and glamorous figures, he asked them to think about their responsibilities as people ''chosen to help meet the deeper needs of those who watch and listen, day and night.'' He instructed them to be silent for 10 seconds and think about someone who had had a good influence on them.
You couldn't hear a pin drop.
From assuring kids that differences are Okay to celebrating and embracing those differences when the greater culture often didn’t to reminding viewers to “look for helpers” in time of crises to encouraging kids to use the power of words instead of fists to showing them that they could never, ever get flushed down the drain, Mr. Rogers was the teacher of a generation, or two, or three. He used his soft-spoken power of persuasion during the Vietnam War era to convince the US Congress not to divert funding for Public Broadcasting to the war effort. He was a true Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero and we’re grateful to Rachel Lukens Barden of Nashville, TN, USA, for putting his name forward. She did so after seeing the current documentary, "Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” which is a must see, particularly in our current era of leadership by bullying.