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Jewish World Review Sept. 6, 2001/ 17 Elul 5761

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Consumer Reports

Won't you be my neighbor? --
IT'S not that I watched "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" anymore. My son turned 17 on Labor Day, so it's been a while since our mornings began with "Hello, neighbor" from that tidy man in the red cardigan sweater and dorky sneakers.

But it always comforted me to know that Mr. Rogers was out there doing his gentle dance with the little ones. I feel like the young woman I once interviewed after the death of famed Alabama Coach Bear Bryant.

A department store clerk, she was sobbing as she stuffed tissue paper into shopping bags for a display. I asked if she was crying about the death of Coach Bryant. "Yes," she said, biting her lip. "All my life, there was always Jesus and the Bear."

A reporter in the throes of the dreaded man-on-the-street interview for the afternoon paper, I wanted to place alms at her feet. Leads like that don't fall into your lap every day. But this many years later, I know just what she meant. All my adult life, there was always Mr. Rogers and the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

We - my generation - scorned him when we were cynical youth, laughed uproariously at "Saturday Night Live's" hilarious parodies, worshiped the ground Mr. Rogers walked on as we became parents and traded sarcasm for the particular humility that can only come from Amazing Body Functions in a Well-Lighted Room Full of People Not Related to You.

He was exactly the kind of man you'd hope to have as a neighbor - that is, if you were the parent of a young child. Parents of young children typically experience unique cellular and hormonal alterations that make slow-talking hicks who divert children's attention divinely attractive. Otherwise, normal adults might look at someone like Mr. Rogers as a serious weirdo with potential pedophiliac tendencies.

"Hey, Mags, dude next door who always wears that same red sweater? Just walked over to the fence smiling, like, I dunno, like that Bates motel dude, and said, 'Won't you be my neighbor?' Should we, like, call the police?"

Yet parents and children know Mr. Rogers as the quintessential, non-threatening, neutered neighbor who wouldn't hurt a flea, hurt anybody's feelings, say a mean word, think a bad thought or ever forget to say "please" and "thank you." He's pre-sin Man as conceived by Walt Disney, brought to you by the makers of Prozac.

Fred Rogers' magic formula wasn't really magic at all. His success as the star of PBS's longest-running series was that he gave children what no one else has time to give. That is, precisely, time.

He had time to explain things in minutiae, to talk slowly so that little children could follow. He had time to put on his sweater, one armhole at a time, not hurriedly like someone late for day care and work. He had time to tie his shoes ever so carefully, so that a child watching might even learn to tie his own, not jerkily as by a harried parent tired of retying these #*&^* shoes. He had time to tell stories and sing songs that parents are always too pooped and bored to manage.

And he always told children they were special. "It's such a good feeling," he'd sing in that slow, dreamy way. "A very good feeling. The feeling you know that we're friends."

My own son, now a cynical youth in his own right, was once an unabashed Mr. Rogers freak. His car stickers may say Bob Marley today, but, in 1986, it was Daniel Striped Tiger, King Friday XIII and Lady Elaine Fairchilde. I suspect, in a variation on the fishing proverb, that G-d does not deduct from a child's allotted time the time spent with Mr. Rogers.

It was a good feeling, Mr. Rogers. Thank you, from the hormonally recovered, but always grateful, mother of John.

JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.

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