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Mr. Rogers' lives on

Last Tuesday would have been Fred Rogers’ 90th birthday.  For those who think the name sounds familiar, look back to your childhood and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  For those who don’t have a clue to whom I’m referring, I am sincerely sorry for your loss.

Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister but many didn’t know it.  After seminary, he was given the go-ahead by the Church to become an evangelist to children.  But instead of a pulpit, he chose to speak through television which he felt, until then, was wasting its influence with silly and demeaning game shows.

He created his Neighborhood not to convert anyone, but to teach kids the basics … love your neighbour.  And your neighbour is anyone around you no matter who they are or what they look like.

Every episode had a moral.  And Fred taught it with his friends, his stories, and his songs.  (I was always amazed how he got his sweater on and changed his shoes in one short tune.)

He purposefully included actors of colour and didn’t shy away from difficult current topics.  But Mr. Rogers was never preachy or heavy-handed.  He was gentle and soft-spoken.

He didn’t do flash and special effects.  It was PBS, after all, and public television didn’t have much money.

And despite this, his little public broadcasting show grew in popularity against bigger-budget children’s programming, becoming one of the longest running TV series in history.  His focused discussions with his viewers connected with them – instead of just entertaining them.  That’s what made him so popular.

So it’s no surprise that an upcoming documentary titled Won’t You Be My Neighbor is coming soon.  Directed by an Oscar-winning filmmaker, it follows the PBS show from its black and white start in 1968 to the final episode in 2001.  It also includes interviews with Rogers and the numerous actors and producers who worked with him.

Previews are available online but the film is to be released on June 8.  If it doesn’t make the big screens of SilverCity, hopefully our Thunder Bay Public Library will a copy for public screening.

But that’s just the beginning.  Tom Hanks has signed to play Rogers in a big screen film You Are My Friend which begins production this fall.  Instead of a simple biopic, the film will follow the friendship between Rogers and Tom Junod, a journalist who was forced to write a story about the TV host.  He considered it a puff piece.  Instead, it changed his life.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a man who taught children would be equally impactful to an adult.  We all have a lot to learn, at any age.  And with these two films, Fred Rogers may still have something to teach us years after his death.

It’s not always wonderful here in the real world.  But it was always “a beautiful day in [Mr. Rogers’] neighbourhood.”  And he made my neighbourhood, and that of millions of other children, beautiful too.