Mister Rogers and Me

Mister Rogers' gentle lessons are a good reason to put a little love in your heart and maybe a sweater on a needy child.

In the beginning, he didn't seem my type. For a time, I regarded Mister Rogers as really uncool, not hip like Sesame Street. I actually watched both of those shows for a while around 1970 even though I was in my mid-teens... some misguided notion about expanding my mind and not using LSD.

Just a couple years after I started watching Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, I took a babysitting job, caring for the child of a university professor. The non-sociological observation I made was very simple: If we watched The Flintstones or Yogi Bear or Gunsmoke, she was hyper afterward, ran around and got worked up, and things often got broken. If we watched Mister Rogers, I was guaranteed a peaceful afternoon. Naturally, Mister Rogers was the babysitter's choice. I grew to love the guy in the sweater. He wasn't like my grandfathers or anyone I knew, but he was so nice. Gentle and considerate. And patient, gawd, was he patient! I began to think that if he had liked rock & roll, he might have made good husband material. (Don't laugh — when I was really young, I dreamed of marrying Captain Kangaroo or Dr. Kildare.)

It was a little disconcerting to realize Fred Rogers turns 70 this year while Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (9:30am M-F; 9am Sundays, KLRU) turns 30, having debuted on PBS February 10, 1968. I hadn't thought about Mister Rogers or his Neighborhood in a long while until a publicist from KLRU called to let me know about the Sweater Drive on Valentine's Day. Using Mister Rogers' signature sweater as a symbol of his gentle philosophy, KLRU is (and I am fleecing the press info here) encouraging the community to donate new or "gently-worn" sweaters or sweatshirt for babies and kids ages 1-16, 10am-5pm at Highland Mall on Saturday (2/14); the sweaters and sweatshirts will be donated to children's foster care resource the Rainbow Room. This struck me as a particularly kind and thoughtful effort, and its presence on Valentine's is very much in the spirit of sharing warmth and giving as well as receiving that Mister Rogers espouses.

(A longtime friend brought his daughter to visit me at the office not long ago. Bundled in her little sweater and coat, her elfin features were luminously animated and her innocent delight at the most mundane objects on my desk were utterly infectious. I looked at my friend as he picked her up when they left and thought, "Lucky you. She'll always be your little Valentine.")

A sweater keeps you warm. It's an object of comfort and sometimes security. When it's hand-knitted, as so many of Mister Rogers' were by his mother, it's also an object to cherish. I have been fortunate to live with sweaters I loved to death but won't give up. What a lovely thing to give on Valentine's Day — the gift of love. It even feels warm. Just like a sweater.

I have been spending a lot of time with KLRU of late. My TV-watching mode seems to go in phases; most recently I was watching a lot of A&E, getting hooked on Law & Order and loving their Biography series but being really annoyed at the glossing over they often do. I am particularly thinking of the Mick JaggerBiography, in which Ian Stewart was neatly excised — as in real life — from the Stones' evolution. VH1 is another violator of this, when a Fleetwood Mac band profile completely wrote Bob Welch out of the FM picture.

One of the good things of profiles on PBS is that they don't usually sacrifice the history for the sake of the story. A recent showing of God'sGonna Trouble the Water (repeats 2/14, 1am, KLRU) was a moving, thoughtful look at the Gullah people of the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, its images and faces as memorable as its history.

More along the line of traditional profiles is The American Experience series. American Experience is one of my favorite PBS programs — I'll bet I've watched the segment on "The Donner Party" 18 times and 18 times have sobbed at the end when the little girl with the doll in her pocket chooses to stay with her little brother. No surprise that three presidents are featured this week on American Experience; President's Day is the 16th. American Experience begins its Oval Office salute with John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a two-part, four-hour episode (2/16, 9pm; 2/17, 9pm). The road to the White House for JFK was paved by bootlegging, extramarital affairs, dirty Wall Street dealing, Hollywood finagling... and that was just patriarch Joseph Kennedy. Next is another four-hour two parter on Lyndon Johnson (2/18, 9/pm; 2/19, 9pm), whose own political empire is traced from early scandals in South Texas through his agonizing experience of being in office during Vietnam. Richard Nixon (2/20, 9pm) finishes the week in a two-hour segment that examines his enigmatic career. Ronald Reagan will be featured next week (2/23, 9pm; 2/24, 9pm). (Is that why the doddering, wattle-necked ex-Prez is on the cover of the KLRU Program Guide this month? What about Mister Rogers?!?)

Finally, KLRU has its own Valentine's presents over the weekend. Great Performances (2/13, 9pm) features Wynton Marsalis, Savion Glover, Chita Rivera, and my favorite diva Kathleen Battle as they highlight the gala opening ceremonies of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Saturday, a new Austin City Limits segment with Marcia Ball, Tracy Nelson, and Irma Thomas. The three just released a girl-group album, Sing It!, and their exuberant voices raised together are indeed joyous. And on Sunday, Diana: A Tribute to a Model Princess (2/15, 10pm) is a refreshing look at the late Princess of Wales, refreshing because it makes no pretense of trying to equate her immense charm with humanitarian causes but simply focuses on her inimitable sense of style and fashion.

I wonder if Mister Rogers has a date for Valentine's....

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