Compassion cloaked in cardigans


“The world is not always a kind place. 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.”

While such pessimistic pronouncements don’t necessarily sound like the man we came to know and love, Fred Rogers (aka Mr. Rogers) took that sentiment as his charge for comforting and empowering generations of children. Were he still with us today, Rogers would have turned 84.

Most of us remember the celebrated PBS television host for his quiet modest manner, his curiosity and his soothing direct address to the camera. For those of us born in a certain era, it was as if Mr. Rogers were speaking directly to us. On a more fundamental level, he was. He spoke to common condition of childhood. He assuaged fears, explained away uncertainty and gave context to life’s riddles.

To this point he once remarked, “Those of us in broadcasting have a special calling to give whatever we feel is the most nourishing that we can for our audience. We are servants of those who watch and listen.”

What many of us don’t know about Mr. Rogers is that he was an ordained minister and held a degree in music composition. His deep devotion to our nation’s children went well beyond the cozy confines of his immediate “neighborhood.” In 1968, he served as chairman of a White House forum on child development and the mass media, and was regularly consulted as an expert or witness on related issues.

Although his demeanor suggested he would shrink from too much praise, Mr. Rogers was repeatedly acknowledged by his peers and a grateful audience. His show won four daytime Emmys. He was presented with a 1997 Lifetime Achievement award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and, in 2002, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1999, he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.

One of the more endearing bits of Mr. Rogers trivia concerns an individual who was perhaps his “biggest” fan: Koko, the gorilla. According to Esquire Magazine, Koko was a Stanford University-educated gorilla who could speak about 1,000 words in American Sign Language, and understand about 2,000 in English.

She was also a die-hard Mr. Rogers fan. When Fred Rogers took a trip 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.

Koko seemed to know what the rest of us often forget — we need to take care of one another. We need to do what is necessary to form our own strong neighborhoods.

When we look around at the issues facing Pine Bluff one of the most intractable problems is neighborhood decay. With a population habituated to constant movement from one place to another, few neighborly bonds can form. As a consequence, we don’t have the time necessary to know one another, build friendships or develop concern. We are largely a community of ships passing in the night.

Some of this is economic. We have a large percentage of local residents who live in poverty. Facts being what they are, poor people tend to move more often than those who are more affluent. This undermines neighborhoods, families, education and futures.

Some of this is a matter of poor public policy. For most of the city’s history we have elected leaders who lacked the wherewithal to address the policy flaws that perpetuate this constant churning of neighborhoods.

To paraphrase Mr. Rogers, we’d like to be your neighbor. We’d like to have more real neighbors. Nobody benefits when we’re always on the trolley to somewhere else.