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The holiness of Mr. Rogers

March 15, 2016

Did we appreciate Mr. Rogers when he was on TV? No, we did not. My sister and I didn’t, anyway. We thought he was unbearably gooney (and it didn’t help that I was secretly terrified of Lady Elaine). When his show came on, we would elaborately die of boredom, rolling our eyes so hard, we could see the inside of our snarky little skulls.

Also, I couldn’t deal with his face. I just didn’t want to look at it.

He had that smile of extreme simplicity that you see in people who have gone through tremendous sorrows, or in the mentally impaired at Mass. It’s a radical openness, a lantern that burns too bright.

Mr. Rogers was remembered by François Clemmons on StoryCorps last week. (The very short StoryCorps features on National Public Radio are almost always worth a listen — sort of the audio equivalent of Humans of New York.) In this edition, Clemmons tells how Fred Rogers invited him to come play a policeman on his show.

Clemmons, who is black, says that the idea didn’t appeal to him. 

“I grew up in the ghetto. I did not have a positive opinion of police officers. Policemen were siccing police dogs and water hoses on people,” he says. “And I really had a hard time putting myself in that role. So I was not excited about being Officer Clemmons at all.”

But he agreed; and one show in particular stands out in his mind. It was 1969.

Rogers had been resting his feet in a plastic pool on a hot day.

“He invited me to come over and to rest my feet in the water with him,” Clemmons recalls. “The icon Fred Rogers not only was showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends, but as I was getting out of that tub, he was helping me dry my feet.”

Something to think about as Holy Thursday approaches. Fred Rogers clearly saw his career as an opportunity to invite, to serve, and to model charity. He was goony, yes, but that is who he was. He did what we are all supposed to to, in our own way.

It strikes me, too, that Rogers didn’t hide behind the TV screen and consider that he had discharged his duty by broadcasting his message to the millions of people who watched his show. Bloggers, take heed! Talking to a crowd was not a substitute for talking to the man in front of him. There is no substitute for the personal.

[Clemmons] says he’ll never forget the day Rogers wrapped up the program, as he always did, by hanging up his sweater and saying, “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are.” This time in particular, Rogers had been looking right at Clemmons, and after they wrapped, he walked over.

Clemmons asked him, “Fred, were you talking to me?”

“Yes, I have been talking to you for years,” Rogers said, as Clemmons recalls. “But you heard me today.”

Okay, so, that sounds familiar. Doesn’t it? Who talks that way? You know who. That’s why I find it hard to look Fred Rogers in the face. He was a holy man.

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Photo: By Dr. François S. Clemmons (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons