Fred Rogers, the extravagantly kind and mild-mannered “Mister Rogers” of children’s television from 1968 until 2001, is the subject of an excellent documentary in theaters this summer, and he is the inspiration for a feature film starring Tom Hanks — of course, Tom Hanks — due for release next year.
Mister Rogers is a television legend; he deserves such attention. But the timing of the trip back to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” is what strikes me as remarkable.
At a time when the country’s bully pulpit belongs to a bully, when white supremacists are out in force (and, in some cases, running for public office), when immigrant children need to be reunited with their parents because our government separated them from their parents, when gun violence continues to end or ruin the life of somebody somewhere every day, here comes this sweet, soft-spoken man in the cardigan and sneakers, preaching from the book of love.
This year marks 50 since the show — “low production values, simple set, unlikely star,” in the words of its producer, Margy Whitmer — first aired on WQED in Pittsburgh. The program spread quickly to other public television stations and introduced millions of children to the world’s friendliest man and his faith-inspired mission to teach them about life and the value of simple goodness.
Those children would today be anywhere from 25 to 55 years old, and I suggest they bring some tissues when they go to see, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Morgan Neville’s documentary is not just a nostalgia trip for Gen Xers, millennials, their parents and baby boomer baby sitters. It is a reminder of the positive things that make a difference in our lives: an act of kindness you did not expect, a gift that showed inestimable thoughtfulness, the guiding hand of a genuine and caring grownup, an encouraging word from a mentor or teacher. I will not spoil it for you, but there is a powerful sequence near the end of the film that will open all the doors to your heart. It will leave you feeling grateful or, as so many Baltimoreans put it, blessed.
It will make you reflect on things that get lost in the tumult of our American lives. It will make you resolve, as some sort of promise to the spirit of Mister Rogers, to let your better angels rule.
Those of us who work for the Baltimore Sun Media Group have been attending memorial services and funerals for the five victims of the shooting at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis. There was another service Thursday, a private memorial arranged by the company. The people most affected by the horror are those connected to the devastated daily newspaper in Annapolis. In a tweet the other day, Capital Gazette photographer Joshua McKerrow referred to his colleagues and the series of services they attended: “We are like a traveling team in a grief league.”
At Thursday’s memorial, eulogists spoke warmly of each of the victims, and their voices broke at times, the pain of the loss of their co-workers and friends still acute. These were not tributes to elders who had lived long lives. One was just 34, an advertising assistant who was engaged to be married. The other four victims were middle-aged, veteran journalists still at work, the kind of people who are vital to any newspaper because they possess institutional memory and provide wisdom and guidance for the young members of the staff. The Capital victims were taken from the newspaper and the community it served in a sudden and traumatic way.
“Now we just have to live with this for the rest of our lives,” McKerrow tweeted after Thursday’s service.
Last year, the Pew Research Center conducted an extensive survey of Americans and their experiences with guns. A significant share — nearly 45 percent of us — reported knowing someone who had been shot, either accidentally or intentionally.
This year, a survey of 209 high school students in Baltimore confirmed the prevalence of violence in their lives. Forty-three percent of them said they witnessed physical violence at least once a week. Nearly 40 percent said they knew someone who had been killed before they reached their 20th birthday.
We are shocked that the Capital Gazette was targeted — a mass shooting in an American newsroom. But the shock was because of the nature of the workplace that was attacked, not that the attack occurred. We can look back now on decades of gun violence across the land, with the response being thoughts, prayers and pledges by the powerful that do little to nothing to address it.
That’s why we hear pessimism and anger expressed. There’s a general frustration that, in the 21st century, this big and powerful country cannot pull away from its most regressive roots — and its hardest prejudices and its destructive tribalism — to solve our toughest problems.