Fred Rogers took the stage in 1997 to accept a lifetime achievement award for his work in television.
And here, in a nutshell, was the crux of his speech, which he bracketed with a brief introduction and a humble thank you to his supporters.
" All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you
just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have
helped you become who you are, those who have cared about you and wanted
what was best for you in life. 10 seconds of silence. I’ll watch the
Imagine, for a moment, how much time he was allotted to do the speech. By an analysis of the text, this - both the intro to the silence and the thanks aferwards - was the bulk of the words he spoke. And that moment of silence, ten seconds, took up just over one tenth out of the minute and a half that he spoke. Ten seconds that could have been devoted to transmitting a message, plugging a project, thanking someone personally. But Fred used that time to get everyone in the audience, both in the auditorium in which it was shot and the wider audience at home - to reflect and give thanks.
The first second or two had a small reaction, which died immediately. Fred had asked, not commanded. And yet - awed by the sheer force of his presence and what he was doing, the crowd instantly fell silent. The entire space shared ten seconds together.
If nothing else, think of the cost of that ten seconds. The lights, the cameramen, the director, the support staff, the rent, the bandwidth. And this was what he chose to devote a tithe of his time on stage to make happen.
This is how he broke that silence.
"Whomever you’ve been thinking about, how pleased they must be to know
the difference you feel they’ve made. You know they’re kind of people
television does well to offer our world."
Fred Rogers has been parodied. He's the kind of children's entertainer that people discard and leave behind when adolescence beckons and you notice a little less his calm, serene demeanor and his acceptance, unconditionally - of who you were. You notice the sweaters his mom made, his slightly "dorky" habit of having inside and outside shoes, ones which were extraordinarily unfashionable to boot. It's not the kind of television show that an adult can get stoned to and watch while eating a bowl of cereal on a lazy Saturday morning. No hyperkinetic host, no hyperactive smash cuts, no bright colors or emotive muppets. The puppets in the Make Believe sections of his show - ones which took place in a comfortingly familiar land - had faces which didn't move, and were extremely old school.
But apart from some accusations that him teaching acceptance of everyone has led to a noncompetitive, apathetic and narcissistic new generation, or a very quickly disproved rumor that he was an ex-sniper with armfuls of tattoos - few people could ever find anything bad to say about the man.
And you couldn't. His demeanor and what he chose to show and not show with the public broadcasting airtime he was given wasn't an act. xkcd provided a transcript here of a fight he had with his wife on set, which was just about the model of how you'd ever choose to disagree with anyone. You can't even remotely call it a fight in any sense of the word. He truly lived and truly believed every aspect of what he brought to the airwaves. When he had a disabled child on the show, it wasn't to score points or get funding from the ADA or check off something in a list of required political correctness - in fact, when he saw that child again as an adult, his joy was so overwhelming (and contagious) that he eschewed the stairs to the stage and literally climbed on to it to hug him.
If there's a Heaven, there's no doubt that Fred Rogers is there. When cancer struck him, he never made an obvious fuss and wound down his life with a grace and quiet dignity that very, very few people could ever demonstrate. Normally we would say courage in terms of these sorts of actions, but in Fred Rogers' case, it's more like wisdom.
He tried throughout his life, and by God, he succeeded - in making children primarily but everyone in general feel wanted, feel special. There was no way in which he couldn't help a child that he didn't follow, from narrating the actions of feeding his fish every day after - upon hearing that a little blind girl was in tears because she worried about whether the fish were being fed (he did it as a matter of course without always narrating it) to presenting specials during times of war or hitting on other issues of concern that would come up in the lives of his very extended family. I say "by God" because though he never mentioned religion or God on his show, he drew not only on his secular knowledge of child psychology and television, but on his life as an ordained Presbyterian minister to make a difference on this planet.
We see so many negative examples of Christianity, and the positive ones are so few and far between. But seeing him, on a night which was to celebrate him and his achievements, using it in a truly Christian gesture of humility and grace and thanksgiving to give back, even then - is heartwarming. If you watch the speech here, you'll see there's not a single dry eye in the house.
Thank you, Fred McFeely Rogers, not only for being a fantastic human being and a wonderful example to emulate, but for the very resonant and far-reaching power behind everything you've done in your celebrated career and even more celebrated life. Thank you for being the best visible example of someone you can point to and say "as a person of faith, this is what I want to emulate." I can't always picture Jesus, but I can certainly picture you.
Rest in peace. I loved you then, I love you even more, now.