Fred Rogers: 143 Pounds of Wisdom

I’ve spent the past few weeks living with the words of wisdom from David and Solomon. Maybe that is why I wanted to write about the new Fred Rogers documentary. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? takes a fresh look at Fred Rogers and the impact his television show has made on millions of children and their parents. According to a recent CNN article, the movie is just in time because “the new documentary also contemplates the beloved TV host’s battle on behalf of kindness and civility, one whose outcome appears very much in doubt.”

I think it is encouraging that the world is recognizing what Fred Rogers always knew was important. Rogers once said, “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” One of the points the documentary makes is that love was the common thread woven into almost everything that Mr. Rogers said and did, on and off the screen.

Love is the basis for the 143 Club, a tribute to Mr. Rogers’s legacy. The number 143 was very important to Fred Rogers. He was faithful to swim every day, except Sundays. For the last thirty years of his life, he was careful to maintain his weight at 143 pounds. But the number had another meaning to him. Rogers said, “It takes one letter to say ‘I’ and four letters to says ‘love’ and three letters to say ‘you.’” One hundred and forty-three.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is meant to be a trip down memory lane for people, but the director, Morgan Neville, hopes it will also serve as a reminder to people of a more civil time in our nation’s history. There is no doubt that social media has created a level of communication that sends anger, malice, and hatred to people’s devices and their minds at an alarming rate. Mr. Rogers believed in the importance of choosing words carefully, especially with children, because words formed pictures with meaning in a person’s mind.

Those who helped produce the television show, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, said that no one could imagine how much thought went into every program and every word that was uttered on the show. Fred Rogers had a nine-step process for every statement made on his show. His producers called that process “speaking Freddish.” One example mentioned by Arthur Greenwald, a producer, was a scene in a hospital in which a nurse was inflating a blood-pressure cuff. Originally, the script had her telling the child, “I am going to blow this up.” Greenwald said, “Fred made us redub the line, saying, ‘I’m going to puff this up with some air.’” Rogers didn’t want the words to sound like an explosion.

Fred Rogers had a degree in music, another degree in theology, and was an ordained minister in the United Presbyterian church. He was happily married to his college sweetheart, Sara Byrd. He never smoked and didn’t drink. His true passion was for the minds and hearts of children.

Rogers said, “When I was very young, most of my childhood heroes wore capes, flew through the air, or picked up buildings with one arm. They were spectacular and got a lot of attention. But as I grew, my heroes changed, so that now I can honestly say that anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me.” Selfishly, I wish I could share our site with Mr. Rogers. I think he would have liked it.

My favorite quote from Fred Rogers is a thought that connected with the past few weeks of my life. I’ve been writing a Bible study about the lives of David and Solomon, the two greatest kings of Israel’s history. Interestingly, several times I thought about the lesser-known names in their stories. For example, it is impossible to know what would have happened in David’s life if Nathan had not confronted his king with his great sin. Nathan’s words held David accountable and led him to repent before God. Would Solomon have been born if he hadn’t?

Fred Rogers received a lot of letters and was faithful to respond to all of them. One day, a high school student wrote Rogers and asked him what he believed was the greatest event in American history. Fred Rogers’s response to the boy’s question was, “I can’t say.” Then Rogers said, “I suspect that like so many great events, it was something very simple and very quiet with little or no fanfare (such as someone forgiving someone else for a deep hurt that eventually changed the course of history.) The really important ‘great things’ are never center stage of life’s dramas; they’re always in the wings. That’s why it’s so essential for us to be mindful of the humble and the deep rather than the flashy and superficial.”

After spending the past three weeks with Solomon’s proverbs and David’s psalms, I think I am safe in saying that Fred Rogers’s thoughts would get an “amen” from two very powerful and wise kings. But how should those words impact us today? I think Solomon has the best answer to that question. He wrote, “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life” (Proverbs 22:4).

Fred Rogers wouldn’t be classified as a “big star” by today’s standards. In fact, would his television show be picked up by PBS today? But his wisdom shouldn’t be considered “old-fashioned.” His thoughts and opinions are actually ancient, dating all the way back to King Solomon.

Have you been feeling like your way of thinking is no longer relevant in our changing culture? Mr. Rogers and King Solomon would tell you otherwise. God’s priorities and God’s truth are unchanging. Love, humility, and kindness may have lost some of the world’s esteem, but they will never lose God’s. The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16).

We don’t need to be worried about feeling old-fashioned. Rest on the thought that God’s goal is we would be downright “ancient.” Fred Rogers would tell us to humbly take our truth and our talents to a world that needs to know God’s love.