He Was Not Afraid of the Dark

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If you remember Mister Rogers as being as warm, fuzzy and innocuous as a cardigan sweater, then you did not really know Mister Rogers. It is true that Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, which lives on in reruns, was an island of tranquillity in a children's mediasphere of robots and antic sponges. And in real life, Fred Rogers, who died last week of stomach cancer at age 74, was evidently as sweet and mild mannered as the kindly neighbor he played on TV. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he didn't smoke, drink or eat meat, prayed every day and went to bed by 9:30 each night. To cynics and parodists, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was a namby-pamby zone of pint-size feel-goodism, and Mister Rogers himself a wimpy Stuart Smalley for tots.

But part of what made Mister Rogers' Neighborhood great and unique is that, for all its beautiful days in the neighborhood, it was also the darkest work of popular culture made for preschoolers since perhaps the Brothers Grimm. Mister Rogers was softer than anyone else in children's TV because so many of the messages he had to impart were harder. That your parents might someday decide not to live together anymore. That dogs and guppies and people all someday will die. That sometimes you will feel ashamed and other times you will be so mad you will want to bite someone. He even calmed fears that may seem silly but to a child are real and consuming — like being afraid to take a bath because you might be sucked down the pipes. Mister Rogers gently sang, "You can never go down/Can never go down/Can never go down the drain."

In other words, Fred Rogers knew that childhood, which we misremember as carefree and innocent, is a time of roiling passions, anguish and terror. His show, the first version of which debuted in 1963, was his professional way of doing what he had done as a boy in Latrobe, Pa., when he played with puppets to calm himself after hearing scary news reports. And perhaps one reason his death touched adults so deeply is the feeling that Mister Rogers left us when we could especially use someone to teach us to manage our children's fears, and our own.

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The last original episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood aired on Aug. 31, 2001 — a scant 11 days before we needed him to explain the biggest Big Inexplicable yet. He returned to tape public-service announcements on how to talk to kids about the Sept. 11 anniversary, but the anxiety has only built since then. War jitters, orange alerts and duct-tape mania have rendered literal our most childlike, monsters-under-the-bed fears: that a tall building can collapse like a house of cards, that something bad can seep in ghostlike through your window and hurt you.

To get us through it, we instead have Mr. Ridge. The Homeland Security Secretary, Tom Ridge, likewise is a soft-spoken Pennsylvanian trying to be reassuring yet realistic. He has not had an easy time of it. During last month's orange alert, the fatalistic talk about contingency plans and three days' supplies of water hinted at a message no one would tell Americans plainly: we believe a terrible thing is coming, and we will not be able to stop it. Ridge had a basically Rogersian task — getting Americans to accept a terrible eventuality that they could not prevent. So Homeland Security offered a slogan — Don't Be Afraid ... Be Ready — which seemed immediately preposterous to citizens who (having grown up on Mister Rogers) knew that being afraid is normal, reasonable and O.K.

It is not an entirely fair comparison. We relied on Mister Rogers to explain death and hurt and sadness, not to eradicate them. But if Ridge faces something of an inspiration gap, he might take a few lessons from Mister Rogers. For instance, that an explanation of a bad thing is only reassuring if it is straightforward and direct. Mister Rogers spoke softly, but he never soft-pedaled. And he knew how to be both compassionate and authoritative. He was "Mister" Rogers, after all, never "Fred." He wore a tie even when he dressed down. He also respected children's intelligence, and while he used the Land of Make-Believe to teach lessons, he never puffed up kids with false promises and fantasy. There is no more un-Disneyfied sentiment in children's pop culture than the title of his song Wishes Don't Make Things Come True.

PBS' website offered tips last week for helping children cope with Fred Rogers' death. "You may be surprised," it said, "to find that you're more upset than your child." But that should surprise no one. Kids, after all, will have hundreds of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood reruns to help them through their spooky moments. But who is out there today, in any neighborhood, to reassure grownups that we can never go down the drain?