As a child, the Rev. Bob Wollenberg once got to sit in Mister Rogers’ lap.
He didn’t watch “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on TV much in those days. “In my memory, the show was kind of slow,” he told a classroom full of Mister Rogers fans during a class at Synod of Lakes andPrairiesSynodSchool, held July 21-26 atBuena VistaCollege.
“He is one of those people who has grown in my consciousness, and since his death (in 2003) even more,” Wollenberg said. “I now have great admiration for him, and it seems like he has aged well in our culture, too.”
Wollenberg’s class, “Mister Rogers, Make Believe and Neighborliness,” blended lecture and anecdotes, clips from the show and documentaries about Rogers, a Presbyterian minister ordained to a television ministry during which he constantly reminded his young viewers that he liked them “just the way you are.”
Wollenberg invited class members to share favorite Mister Rogers memories. One woman once got to put on the cardigan. Another received a personal note fromRogers.
Wollenberg said he always refers to his fellow pastor as “Mister.” “I just can’t call him Fred, like he’s my buddy,” he said. “We pastors can get preachy, but he was rarely preachy. He would demonstrate his values, rather than describe them. He didn’t really create his character. He just tried very hard to be himself. He saw real value in make believe and play time, both for kids and adults.”
Wollenberg, himself an accomplished puppeteer, said Rogers’ well-known puppets ― King Friday XIII, Daniel Striped Tiger, Lady Elaine Fairchild and X the Owl among them ― are “some of the simplest you can have. He chose puppets that you have to use your imagination to see them talking.”
The show may seem natural, but Rogers“scripted everything. He worked really hard on scripts, because he believed we should give children the best we have to offer. If the scene wasn’t just right, he’d go back and do it again.”
If Mister Rogers was controversial at all, Wollenberg said, it was for sticking with the message of unconditional love that comes from his mantra, “I like you just the way you are.”
“This grates on us,” he said. “We say, ‘I like you as you are, except’ … Some say Mister Rogers is advocating a lack of ethical standards. Is he condoning things about people? It mystifies me how he can get away with this, in the same way I get mystified with Jesus sometimes.
“We see people looking incredulously at Jesus when he says things like that to, for example, the woman about to be stoned. Mister Rogers isn’t saying, ‘I like everything you do.’ But he is saying, ‘I like you in all your messed-upness.’”
Wollenberg concluded the week-long class focusing on one of Mister Rogers’ enduring gifts ― the way he helped children deal with difficult emotions surrounding divorce, death and disappointment.
In a documentary, journalists Susan Stamberg and Linda Ellerbee both praised Mister Rogers’ honest dealings with children and parents alike.
Stamberg, of National Public Radio, recalled a televised special on divorce she and Rogers once did before a live audience. One by one, she said, members of the audience stood up to talk about their pain.
“It was a community of helpers talking to each other about the toughest experience in their lives, a community right there on live TV,” Stamberg said. “There was something saintly about Fred. His very presence changed the behavior of people around him.”
Said Ellerbee, of Nick News: “The first thing I learned from him is to respect your audience. Assume they are just as bright as you are ― only younger and shorter.”
In a letter to Ellerbee,Rogerstold her he thought her program ought to be required viewing for parents, too. “You do a better job explaining the news than the grownup newscasts,” he wrote to her.
“That’s better than any award I ever won,” Ellerbee said.