My husband and I had the opportunity to attend the premiere of the Mister Rogers documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” at the Sundance Film Festival last week, and it changed my life.
If you’ve read any of my columns lately you’ll know that parenting has been particularly challenging for me. When I heard about this film, something told me that I would deeply regret it if I didn’t attend. I just knew I would receive some wisdom from Fred Rogers on how to better love my children “just the way they are” — and I was right.
We sat down in the theater and were welcomed by the film crew, producers, director Morgan Neville, and my father-in-law Gov. Gary Herbert, along with Zions Bank CEO and sponsor Scott Anderson.
Anderson began by telling a touching story about how Mister Rogers helped his mother in her old age. Anderson would frequently visit his mother and ask how she was doing and if there was more he could do to help (anyone that knows Anderson knows he has a heart as big as the state of Utah, and his generosity and concern for those he cares about is practically unmatched). One day his mother said, “Oh I’m just fine. There’s a man that comes to visit me every day at 2 p.m. to talk with me.” She spoke about how this man always brightened her day.
Well, Anderson said he thought he’d better meet this man who was paying such frequent visits to his mother, so one day he arranged to be there just before 2 p.m. so he could introduce himself and see what was going on.
The hour came and the doorbell never rang. However, she turned the TV on, and the familiar tune of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” softly played as Mister Rogers —the regular visitor — came on screen to be with his mother.
“In her mind, he was really there,” he said. He was really her friend. Mister Rogers brought just as much happiness and comfort to an elderly woman as he did to preschool and elementary-aged kids.
My own childhood is full of memories of watching that incredible man in the cardigan help me sort through all kinds of big emotions and scary subjects with fuzzy tiger, mighty king and big, blue owl puppets singing simple, yet impactful songs. I believed he was my friend, too.
This film portrayed Rogers in a very realistic, yet endearing light that highlighted his unmatched ability to communicate with children through the “modulations” of their life, as he put it.
“He somehow remembers what it was like to be a child,” said a woman interviewed on the film. “He knows they have emotions and feelings just as strong and big as ours.”
He truly had a gift. Watching him speak and listening to him teach touched me deeply. My husband and I both became emotional at several times during the film. His example made us both want to become better parents and better people.
After the film, there was a brief Q&A, and someone raised their hand, asking the question to director Neville, “Who is the next Mr. Rogers?”
“We are,” he said, gesturing toward the audience. “All of us.” He explained that he believed we all have the ability to do good, to spread light, and to genuinely love our neighbor.
“I was told by close friends and family not to make Fred Rogers out to be a saint,” Neville said. “Because then it lets all of us off the hook. If he is in a different league, we don’t have to try as hard. But we should.”
He might not have officially had the title “saint” but if ever there was a man who could have become one, it was Fred Rogers.
I cannot recommend this film highly enough. If anything, go and watch how one person has the ability to change the whole world for good.