Mr. Rogers didn't put on a sweater or change into his sneakers before addressing Goucher College graduates yesterday. But he did lead the Class of '93 in song.
And what song? Oh, you can guess:
"It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood . . ."
Indeed it was. A spotless May day, brilliant in green and blue, with just enough of a breeze to ruffle the tassels. A special day, with a male student, John Finegan, giving the senior class address for the first time in the college's history, and Mr. Rogers, the embodiment of all things calm and good and true, to send the graduates out into the world.
Who would be more supportive of the 217 graduates than Fred Rogers? For 25 years, he's been easing children into life around "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," the public television program he created. And though the Goucher grads were a little taller than his usual audience, his approach was no different.
"I'm proud of you," Mr. Rogers began in mellow, measured tones. "Does that sound familiar? It seems I say that a great deal in our neighborhood. We all want to know that we're accepted. We need to know we're worth being proud of."
And why is Mr. Rogers proud of the graduates?
Well, there's the obvious accomplishment that everyone had come to celebrate. But for Mr. Rogers there's more:
"I'm proud of you for the times you've said 'yes' when all it meant was extra work for you . . . for the times you've said 'no' when all it meant was a loss of pleasure . . . for the times you've come in second or third or fourth . . . for standing up for something that you believe in."
He asked the graduates to "think of the children first" as they go through life. And, of course, he told a story to make his point:
There was a young girl about to have minor surgery on her ears, he said. The child was with her parents in the hospital when a doctor abruptly hauled her off to the operating room, frightening her. When her mother asked to accompany the girl, who was now screaming, she was told she could not.
Though the youngster recovered from surgery, she continued to carry the scars of being "ripped away" from the security of her parents. The child was abused in the name of medicine, Mr. Rogers said.
"You will be the senators and the doctors and the nurses and the lawyers and the mothers and fathers of the next generation," he told the graduates. "You will be the ones who will make the decisions. You will be the ones who will make the difference. Think of the children first."
For thinking of children first for a long time, Mr. Rogers received an honorary doctorate from Goucher. And during his address, he gave the graduates a gift.
"This may be unorthodox," said the gentle man, "but I would like to give you all something -- the gift of a silent minute to think about any of the people who have helped you.
"Anyone who has been able to sustain good work has had at least one person, and maybe many, who has believed in him. So let's just take a minute of silence and think about all the people who have helped us to become who we are.
"I wish you a life filled with opportunities to help others," he added when the minute was up. "And I wish you a life filled with opportunities to become the best you can."
So long, neighbor.