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Mister Rogers is the quiet hero we’ve been looking for in a time of turmoil

Fred Rogers, known to the world as Mr. Rogers, is the star of the documentary, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"
Fred Rogers, known to the world as Mr. Rogers, is the star of the documentary, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" Sundance Film Festival

I’ve never been a fan of the superhero movie. My son still can’t believe we walked out of one of the Batman movies because it was so slow.

No, no skyscraper-climbing, web-throwing protagonist for me. With the exception of Superman, maybe, but he was a journalist first, and I’ve always had a sweet spot for those.

No, my superheroes are more of the quiet, reflective type, the thinkers and the readers and the writers who sometimes change the world with only a turn of the phrase.

And oh, have I been searching for one this summer. Someone to tell me that the world will right itself again and blue skies will prevail. I’ve been reading and studying and talking and seeking, but until a quiet Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, I thought my search was surely futile.

The movie theater for “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” was quiet, except for my husband’s popcorn crunching. It seemed silly, but I felt my heart, pounding and expectant, as if I were waiting for a long-missed friend to arrive at my front door.

Susan Rountree
Susan Rountree. JULI LEONARD jleonard@newsobserver.com

And then, the familiar staccato piano announced his arrival, and there was Mister Rogers, inviting me into his house. In that moment, I wished mightily that I could throw my arms around his neck and say thank you. You’re the real superhero we’ve been needing all along, and you’ve arrived just in time.

I came to know Mister Rogers late as the mother of small children. I was 11 years old when he first shared his Neighborhood nationally on PBS, so though I was aware of him — and found him on some afternoons after school while searching between the four channels on our TV.

But it was years before I understood his powerful message for the under-5 set and for their parents.

I’ve written about his hypnotic way before, not long ago, when I was searching for meaning in a world that seemed to have lost it.

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But this new documentary teaches us so much more about the man and the minister who was Fred Rogers, and how his lyrical lure came at a crucial time in the life of our country.

The program first aired in early 1968. That year will be etched forever in the consciousness of my generation. Though I was not yet a teenager, it was hard not to pay attention to the news. Two assassinations within two months of each other. Vietnam War footage and the protests that followed, marches for civil rights — shouting backdrops to the nightly news. The space program seemed to be the only good news then.

But here was the quietly radical Fred Rogers, cooling his feet in a kiddie pool, inviting his black friend to take off his socks and dip in, too. I don’t know about you, but this would not have been done in my neighborhood in 1968, though no one ever provided a reasonable explanation as to why.

That year, Lady Aberlin in the Land of Make Believe tried her best to soothe Daniel Tiger, Fred’s alter ego, as he wondered what in the world “assassination” even means. This was remarkable television, and it happened over and over through the years, as Fred explored the world through the eyes of the very young, helping them makes sense of what they couldn’t understand.

When I watched Mister Rogers’ quiet radicalism as a parent, it didn’t seem radical at all. But by then it was the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The world had much changed by then, in part, I like to think, because Fred Rogers knew it must.

His return, now, in the documentary of his life — and in a planned movie due out next year — seems prophetic. Our country is roiling, once again, and the truth is, there is no quiet voice out there telling us that all will be well, and soon. No living superhero — quiet or otherwise — has shown up to help us wrestle with the chaos.

And so enters the Great Fred Rogers.

“Love is the root of everything,” he says in the film. “Love or the lack of it.”

The stories that make today’s news seem to be all about the love that’s missing in our American life. Right vs. left. Black vs. white. Suicides. Mass shootings. Children lost in the margins. There seems to be little love for neighbor, love of truth and of honor. Only love of self.

Maybe that’s why the whole world was watching as the Thai soccer team was miraculously pulled from the cave a few weeks ago. Plenty of superheroes there, working together toward a common goal. Imagine that.

Fred Rogers’ message of love was simple enough for a 3-year-old to understand, but crucial for every one of us to inhabit. Tie your shoes. Hug more. Sing a song every day. Thank those who helped you get where you are. Be curious. Speak the truth. Listen. And don’t forget to feed the fish.

It’s never been more powerful — and more necessary — than it is today.

Thank you, Mister Rogers, for being my superhero. He wants to be yours, too.

Susan Byrum Rountree can be reached at susanbrountree@gmail.com.
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