Two pictures, two people. They speak for volumes. They speak for themselves.
Two pictures, two people. They speak for volumes. They speak for themselves.
Upon looking at the humble man changing into an old cardigan and sneakers, singing children’s songs on a decidedly low-budget set, one would never know he came from a well-connected family. And one would never imagine that the modest figure who, as an adult, kept his weight at 143 pounds as almost an act of faith was one the boy so many teased as “Fat Freddy.” Yet, as readers of The Good Neighbor learn, both these aspects of his growing up had the notable influence on his persona of Mister Rogers. On the other hand, Mister Rogers and Fred were exactly one and the same. “What you see is what you get.” Readers of this thoughtful biography learn that, too. Remember, this is the man who told every child, “I like you just they way you are.”
Rogers, with his traditional values, may have seemed old-fashioned. However, as an educator, he was—if anything—ahead of his time. Psychologists and child-development experts were just understanding how critical a child’s early years are for both learning and cultivating emotional maturity and well-being. (One of these, Dr. Margaret McFarland, was remembered recently.)
“Human kindness will always make life better,” Mister Rogers is quoted in the book. Two of his most memorable episode are included:
That last point is worth bearing, as it is reminiscent of the life of Jesus. The Good Neighbor goes into considerable detail, exploring Rogers’s religious life—his upbringing in a traditional Presbyterian family and his college work at the seminary, both of which would infuse Mister Rogers, both the man in the cardigan on TV and the real-life figure.
Another area in which Fred Rogers had a passion and talent is music. The reader of The Good Neighbor will learn about how he created—played and actually composed—music. The admiration Rogers had for musicians—and musicians had for him—was evident on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood; these many memorable moments are revisited.
“Fearless authenticity” describes who Mister Rogers was, both on screen and in real life. “It’s you I like.”
A retrospective in the New York Times chronicled the life of Margaret McFarland, the child-development expert behind much of Fred Rogers’s work. (This was the subject of my previous blog post.) More recently, NPR featured another person associated with Mister Rogers, Lynn Johnson, the photographer behind the lens that captured not just the work, but the very persona of Fred.
A selection of Lynn’s photographs shows Fred Rogers at work—both in and outside the studio—and enjoying life beyond. In the accompanying interview, Lynn says that Fred was exactly like the man Mister Rogers portrayed. What you see is what you get. Most notably, as captured in several photos, Fred would kneel down so as to meet children at their level.
“He helped teach me how to value others, how to work with people so that they don’t feel taken advantage of and how to work in that extremely delicate and fragile space that allows you to tell their story with integrity and causes no harm,” said Lynn. “He’d ask everyone to close their eyes for a minute and think about those who have been helpers in their lives. It is about gratitude and love, and I think that’s the essence of who he was.” These observations recall one of Mister Rogers’s most endearing—and enduring—quotes: “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.”
Lynn said what she remembers most is Fred’s empathy, some of which was born from his own childhood. “He had that deeply private pain that everyone holds. In his case, it was the pain of being bullied as a chubby kid—the kind of poison that can sit in you and has to do with the darker emotions based in fear and anger for being treated a certain way.”
For many, the gentle message of Fred Rogers, his kindness and decency resound in the “darker emotions based in fear and anger” that permeate so much of public discourse and news nowadays. When this question was posed to Lynn, she responded, “I think he would be heartbroken, but he would be working to make it better.”
Who was Margaret McFarland? We certainly know Fred Rogers, but Dr. McFarland? Christina Caron, a writer at the New York Time wrote a beautiful retrospective obituary of McFarland as part of the “Overlooked at the Time” series. And, perhaps, unappreciated.
“Her input in almost all the scripts and songs of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was the defining element in her career in child development.” Fred Rogers studied under Dr. McFarland at the Arsenal Family and Children’s Center during his time at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
“Fred Rogers is a man who has not closed off the channels of communication between his childhood and his manhood,” Caron quotes McFarland saying about Rogers. “All of the subsequent phases of what it means to be loved by a male and loving to a male were lost to me. I wanted a kind of fathering.” In fact, McFarland’s father died when she was five. The New York Times article claims that the event would later ignite her interest in child psychology.
McFarland and Benjamin Spock collaborated with Erik Erikson. As the article points out, McFarland believed that the subject of child development was key to “the solution of many of the problems with which man is grappling.” It was Spock who urged parents to treat young children as people, not of the future, but people now. (Later, Arsenal also attracted T. Berry Brazelton, another highly respected author and pediatrician known for his books and newspaper columns on raising children.)
Storytelling was McFarland’s primary approach to teaching. An interesting anecdote (book 138-9) is that when Rogers wanted to introduce the children at Arsenal to what sculptors do, McFarland said, “I don’t want you to teach sculpting. All I want you to do is to love clay in front of children.” One could readily say that she – and Fred Rogers – also sculpted children’s souls.
Most people who have heard about Janusz Korczak (Henryk Goldszmit) know him from descriptions of him during his years in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II and how he refused offers of shelter in safer areas because he refused to abandon the orphans in his care. His march, leading the orphan children in serene dignity to the cattle trains waiting to take them to the Nazi death camp of Treblinka, certainly makes for an unforgettable and compelling image. Indeed, but what about Korczak’s life? There is so much more to “Mister Doctor,” as his beloved pupils called him, and this book tells the story of his life, philosophy, and dreams.
Betty Jean Lifton has done admirable job of covering Korczak’s entire life, from his family background and sad childhood to his journeys while studying medicine to his establishment of the Orphan’s Home to his religious beliefs, writings, and stint as radio personality (“The Old Doctor”) to his final years in the Warsaw Ghetto, where he continued to manage an orphanage to give the child victims a life of dignity in their terrible last years.
Though there are 33 pages of notes in the end, these in no way detract from the readability of this book. For the most part, they serve as reference points for anyone wishing to research an aspect of Korczak’s life further. They also bear testimony to the tremendous amount of hard work Ms. Lifton put into her book; it is obvious that this work was truly a labor of love.
Translations of works into English by and about the great Polish doctor, educator, and social worker Janusz Korczak are very hard to come by. Educators, social workers, policy makers, and parents—in short, anyone who cares for and about children – owe it to themselves and the children in their care to be familiar with his methods and philosophies of raising and educating children. It is a great pity that most of his original writings have not yet been translated into English; this book goes a long way to that end. Betty Jean Lifton has done the English-speaking world a great service in making the life of this true hero accessible. This is not just a book to be read, but one to be considered, reconsidered, and savored.
For biographies on Janusz Korczak, this volume is the gold standard. Also highly recommended is Janusz Korczak: Sculptor of Children’s Souls, by Marcia Talmage Schneider. This book collects 10 first-hand accounts of Korczak—students, as well as teachers. They offer an unparalleled personal perspective.