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We Need the Spirit of Mister Rogers as Much as Ever

by on July 25, 2019 5:00 AM


On Tuesday morning I saw the trailer for the upcoming movie about Fred Rogers, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Having grown up watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and knowing he worked every day to teach, unify and heal people, I’m excited to see this movie.

So I retweeted the trailer with a comment to compliment the memory of Fred Rogers: “If ever there was a time when we needed Mister Rogers in our nation…..”

Yet in the hair-trigger social media world we occupy, some people took offense to that comment.

One person posted videos of Democrats saying things or acting in ways that were beyond decorum, but did not post any videos of the president’s incivility. Another comment was dismissive of the need for someone like Mr. Rogers saying: “Why now? Lowest unemployment in history. Is the health of our nation measured solely on the level of power Democrats possess in your mind?”

These people made my point for me.

Why now? Because no one side has a monopoly on fools and jerks, but social media gives them all the voice and unprecedented visibility to divide us against each other.

Because if the only way we measure the health of this nation is by economic indicators then we truly need a man like Mr. Rogers. Are we a nation willing to only value the pursuit of riches even if it means selling our souls? One only need to look at the prescription drug abuse and overdose crisis to see where those values of money over all else got us as a society.

Throughout our history America has endured divisive times because someone has come to the fore to calm the waters. Lincoln used conciliatory language to project openness to reconciliation that would have to occur when the war ended. In the midst of the darkest days of the struggle for civil rights wars in the 1960s, Dr. King preached love and non-violence. The night Dr. King was killed, Robert Kennedy’s speech in Indianapolis calmed the citizens of that city while other cities burned. 

In the United States, the presidency carries with it uncommon visibility that comes with a massive responsibility. Past presidents have used the pulpit to speak to our common humanity to bind us to one another: President George W. Bush standing amid the rubble of the World Trade Center, President Reagan’s speech after the Challenger space shuttle exploded, President Johnson speaking to Congress after Kennedy’s assassination, President Obama after the massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook. 

Today “leaders” seize every moment to earn the currency of self-aggrandizement in a constant stream of us versus them pronouncements. 

As we look at America now, we could use a leader from somewhere who will ask us to respect one another, to judge one another based on our actions and not based on what we look like, how we pray or who we love. We need a leader who comes to the front to put fires out and not to set fires to our highest aspirational values.

From generations before us and to generations to come, we are charged to further the journey toward a more perfect union. No matter how much we wish it, we have never been perfect and it does not make us “un-American” to say it.

Our founders did set our eyes on humanity’s loftiest summit where “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder, wrote those words. But he knew his own failing and our nation’s great flaw would haunt us for centuries:

“Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”

In serious times, leaders of great intellect understand the paths of their own life and the paths of others. Serious leaders understand the challenges they face and the challenges that others face and they work to lift one another up.

In his way, Fred Rogers was just such a man — a man of conviction, a healing voice calling to build others’ lives. Success was service. Success was teaching us all to reach higher than we ever believed we could.

Mr. Rogers reminded us of the dignity that comes when every person is seen as unique and deserving of respect. We learned to search for the innate goodness of all humanity.

Just try and tell me that his spirit isn’t exactly what this nation needs right now.

America is a nation where people want to silence and intimidate differing opinions. America is a nation where the president says like it or leave it as though no good ever came from civil and informed dialogue with voices of dissent.

Fred Rogers asked us over and over again, “Please won’t you be my neighbor?” He didn’t put any stipulations on anyone requiring them to look or pray or act a certain way before becoming his neighbor. He didn’t demand blind loyalty for you to be his neighbor. Being neighbors was a way to build community between all people as the way to a better world— inclusion, not exclusion; welcoming, not distancing; and learning from one another. 

If Mr. Rogers’ approach bothers you then maybe you need to sit down, put on your comfortable shoes and watch a rerun. I promise you will feel so much better listening to a man of peace seeking unity and understanding.


State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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