Gen X’s secular saint

Though he seemed the humorless Presbyterian minister that he in fact was, Fred Rogers (1928-2003) had surprisingly broad interests.

He majored in music and his wife remembered he had the extraordinary ability to sit down and play whatever pop music he had just heard. He composed most of the music for the Neighborhood, including the theme. He also was able to improvize. He must have valued that ability, because the Neighborhood’s musical director, arranger and pianist was Johnny Costa, once a nationally known pianist whose harmonic inventiveness caused Art Tatum to call him “the white Art Tatum.” If you listen to Costa’s solo album “Classic Costa,” you will hear that this was no meaningless flattery. In some ways it is more like the later Earl Hines than Tatum, but you can hear the rich harmonic improvisation of the kind that Tatum invented. The fact that the musical director for a children’s program can be compared to a legend of American imporvisational music shows just how important Fred Rogers was. And although Rogers never made great music, his expressed love of it explains why someone like Itzhak Perlman came to Pittsburgh to perform Bach at his funeral.

HIs approach to children was not just inspired by his theology, although the reference in his official eulogy that he believed intensely in the observation “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine …” (Matt. xxv:40) was undoubtredly true. He actively studied the new indeas in child psychology, at a time when Pittsburgh was the place to be in that field. Rogers had regular exposure to the ideas of Erik Erikson and Benjamin Spock who taught there. Some who have re-watched large numbers of the Neighborhood concluded that he brought a consistent and unique approach to children:

Much of what we found reinforced what we already knew, that Fred Rogers was genuine and thoughtful and incredibly, subtly a visionary. Retracing his path through television is a reminder of the power of one person to bring great change. He has become such a part of the twentieth-century landscape that we forget the scale of his contribution. … Rogers’ focus and insight, even his testimony before Congress and the Supreme Court, forever changed our attitude toward children’s television programming.

Boomers, of course, mostly are too old to have experience Rogers at an impressionable age. And we tend to be somewhat embarrassed at his forceful seriousness at childhood issues. But on re-watching him, we find that it is this seriousness that is the point. Childhood, as those pioneers in Pittsburgh knew, is a serious drama. Whether he had any effect on Generation X as a whole is probably doubtful. We are still, for a nation who grew up during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movements, surprisingly intollerant, selfish, easily manipulated by slogans and willing to bring desstruction to helpless innocents as long as it doesn’t disrupt our narrow world. Maybe he affected for the good many individuals. But whether he did or not has nothing to do with his saintliness. After all, how many saints in fact changed the world? Probably none.

But all saints generate hostility and hate. And that even Mr. Rogers did even if only the ridiculous and professional sort. At his funeral Fred Phelps and his sad and hateful Westboro Baptist Church entourage arrived to remind people that spite and hatefulness, often in the guise of Christianity, cannot abide anyone who devoted himself to a good cause. And perhaps that phenomenon is spreading.

In any event, I bring all this up, long after anyone is celebrating the life of Fred Rogers, solely to introduce a new video montage tribute to Rogers by PBS Digital Studios with the somewhat cloying synthesizer-voice remix by John D. Boswell (of Symphony of Science fame). But Boswell is not enough to ruin the pleasure of seeing three minutes of a good man whose departure perhaps not coincidentally corresponds with our lurch towards the compassionless, selfish, spite-fill world we seem to find ourselves in:

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