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Goodbye, Mister Rogers

We spend a lot of time being cynical these days, and that cynicism stretches even into some of the most innocent of subjects. Take TV shows targeted at kids -- so many of them are nothing more than lengthy advertisements for toys. Or they're pure entertainment with no redeeming value. Or they're hideously awful -- yes, we mean you, Barney.

The image of a TV kids-show host has also been portrayed in a cynical bent, and with good reason. Wouldn't you think that talking to kids every day, as a career, could wear on a person? The Simpsons' Krusty the Clown is an archetype, so much so that when the long-running host of Blue's Clues quit, he said he didn't want to end up burned out and bitter like good old Krusty.

It's all funny and has the ring of truth to it. If you put yourself in those shoes, wouldn't it drive you crazy after a while?

But none of that was true of Fred Rogers, who died today at the age of 74. He saw children's programming as a calling. He was sincere. He loved talking to children, communicating with them, soothing their pain and helping them understand something about the wonders of the world around them.

I admit to being a cynical person at times. I have used Mister Rogers for comedy fodder -- most recently when I used him as the subject of a TeeVee April Fool's piece. When I was in college, people would occasionally ask me in one of those long, philosophical dorm room discussions, what philosopher or figure had the biggest impact on my life. And when I answered "Mister Rogers," it always got a laugh, which was the response I was trying for.

The thing is, I wasn't kidding. As ludicrous as it might have sounded, the reality is that Mister Rogers represented something special to me. I didn't really have much influence from my grandparents, who either died when I was fairly young or lived far away so I rarely got to see them. Mister Rogers was a sort of grandparent.

Yes, Mister Rogers had a silly show with puppets and a fish tank and a wacky mail delivery man (Mr. McFeely, named after Rogers' middle name). But his show's slow pace was comforting. From his sweater to his sneakers, Mister Rogers was a comfortable presence.

The most important thing was Fred Rogers' message, the one that rose up above any others on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: I like you the way you are. There's no other person in the world like you. You are unique, and valuable. Mister Rogers was a believer in his viewers. He told us all about the importance of liking yourself, of accepting yourself for who you were.

Now, I'm not saying that millions of teenagers, caught in the depths of self-doubt and surrounded by horrendous peer pressure, managed to stay true to themselves because they heard Fred Rogers' voice in their heads and followed his teachings. What I am saying is that I believe Mister Rogers planted the important seed of self-confidence and the importance of liking yourself for who you are in generations of young kids.

I know he did it in me, and that I'm a dramatically better person for it.

Is there any better legacy for any person, let alone a television personality, than to have that kind of effect on people?

I don't think so.

Goodbye, Mister Rogers. And thank you, from the bottom of my heart.


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