Most of the time when we think of creative visionaries, the image of a rebel genius a la Albert Einstein or Leonardo da Vinci pops into our minds, but it's helpful to remember that there are some special visionaries who actually managed to walk the cutting edge by giving the world a huge bear hug, rather than the finger.
Mister Rogers was definitely one of these gentle, creative souls.
He is one of my favorite creative visionaries because his dream was powered by an endless supply of hope and an unshakable belief in the goodness of human beings.
Consequently, some might say miraculously, the world seemed to morph itself to manifest his vision.
No depressed, struggling artist here--Mister Rogers just seemed to be so in tune with humanity that even when things did not go his way, his attitude and his acceptance of life turned people and circumstances around.
There is much we creative souls can learn from Mister Rogers--in particular how to use love, understanding and hope to mold the world into our vision.
Mangesh has a wonderful post about his favorite Mister Rogers facts, and I've chosen a few items on his list to illustrate the most wonderful things about the gentle, forward thinking being that was Mister Rogers:
1. He got into TV because he hated TV. The first time he turned one on, he saw people angrily throwing pies in each other’s faces. He immediately vowed to use the medium for better than that. Over the years he covered topics as varied as why kids shouldn’t be scared of a haircut, or the bathroom drain (because you won’t fit!), to divorce and war.
2. He Made Thieves Think Twice
According to a TV Guide piece on him, Fred Rogers drove a plain old Impala for years. One day, however, the car was stolen from the street near the TV station. When Rogers filed a police report, the story was picked up by every newspaper, radio and media outlet around town. Amazingly, within 48 hours the car was left in the exact spot where it was taken from, with an apology on the dashboard. It read, “If we’d known it was yours, we never would have taken it.”
3. He Saved Both Public Television and the VCR
Strange but true. When the government wanted to cut Public Television funds in 1969, the relatively unknown Mister Rogers went to Washington. Almost straight out of a Capra film, his 5-6 minute testimony on how TV had the potential to give kids hope and create more productive citizens was so simple but passionate that even the most gruff politicians were charmed. While the budget should have been cut, the funding instead jumped from $9 to $22 million. Rogers also spoke to Congress, and swayed senators into voting to allow VCR’s to record television shows from the home. It was a cantankerous debate at the time, but his argument was that recording a program like his allowed working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows as a family.
4. He Might Have Been the Most Tolerant American Ever
Mister Rogers seems to have been almost exactly the same off-screen as he was onscreen. Despite being an ordained Presbyterian minister, and a man of tremendous faith, Mister Rogers preached tolerance first. Whenever he was asked to castigate non-Christians or gays for their differing beliefs, he would instead face them and say, with sincerity, “God loves you just the way you are.” Often this provoked ire from fundamentalists.
5. He Was Genuinely Curious about Others
Mister Rogers was known as one of the toughest interviews because he’d often befriend reporters, asking them tons of questions, taking pictures of them, compiling an album for them at the end of their time together, and calling them after to check in on them and hear about their families. He wasn’t concerned with himself, and genuinely loved hearing the life stories of others. Amazingly, it wasn’t just with reporters. Once, on a fancy trip up to a PBS exec’s house, he heard the limo driver was going to wait outside for 2 hours, so he insisted the driver come in and join them (which flustered the host). On the way back, Rogers sat up front, and when he learned that they were passing the driver’s home on the way, he asked if they could stop in to meet his family. According to the driver, it was one of the best nights of his life—the house supposedly lit up when Rogers arrived, and he played jazz piano and bantered with them late into the night. Further, like with the reporters, Rogers sent him notes and kept in touch with the driver for the rest of his life.
6. He Could Make a Subway Car full of Strangers Sing
Once while rushing to a New York meeting, there were no cabs available, so Rogers and one of his colleagues hopped on the subway. Esquire reported that the car was filled with people, and they assumed they wouldn’t be noticed. But when the crowd spotted Rogers, they all simultaneously burst into song, chanting “It’s a wonderful day in the neighborhood.” The result made Rogers smile wide.
7. Even Koko the Gorilla loved him
Most people have heard of Koko, the Stanford-educated gorilla who could speak about 1000 words in American Sign Language, and understand about 2000 in English. What most people don’t know, however, is that Koko was an avid Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood fan. As Esquire reported, when Fred Rogers took a trip out to meet Koko for his show, not only did she immediately wrap her arms around him and embrace him, she did what she’d always seen him do onscreen: she proceeded to take his shoes off!
Reading over these items from Mangesh's list fills my heart with warmth and makes me smile. Mister Rogers was always loving and taking care of his "neighborhood", but the impact he made reached across the world and beyond his lifetime.
I wonder what the world would be like if we modeled his behavior, started taking pride and joy in our own neighborhoods (our families, or clients, our countries, the planet earth). What if instead of fighting against things we started giving bear hugs to the people and situations in life that perplex us?
This idea of embracing our neighbors and working to bring about solutions (rather than complaining about problems) is the most important lesson that Mister Rogers has taught me.
I know that many of us even in adulthood still have special memories of the visionary teacher that was Mister Rogers, so I wanted to ask:
What is the greatest thing that Mister Rogers taught you?