The city of Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania, USA) recently unveiled a 10-foot, $3 million bronze statue of its hometown hero, everybody’s friendly neighbor, Fred “Mister” Rogers. From 1968 to 2001, Fred Rogers was the host of the PBS program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which was filmed in Pittsburgh. It has been seven years since he passed, and almost two years since PBS stopped airing episodes, but Pittsburghers have not forgotten the mild mannered man who, while changing from sport coat and loafers to a zippered sweater and sneakers at the beginning of every episode, sang to their children, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…won’t you be my neighbor?” His “Neighborhood”–on the opening credits it is entirely made of toys and cardboard–was a place where all viewers, even beyond his regular 2 1/2 to 5 1/2 year old fans, were taught life’s most valuable lessons: self-esteem, self-control, imagination, creativity, curiosity, appreciation of diversity, cooperation, tolerance for waiting, and persistence. Mister Rogers was a brilliant story teller and a beautiful source of comfort for children, and his ability to engage and interact with even the most passionately imaginative young minds should be seen as a public service of the highest order.
To make his legacy ever lasting, Pittsburgh commissioned a giant statue of Mister Rogers in his signature pose of tying up his sneakers. Officially named “Tribute to Children,” the statue will encourage generations of children to climb upon his lap. Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato proudly stated, “I can’t think of a better symbol to promote Pittsburgh to the world than Fred Rogers.”
This story of Fred Rogers’ statue is a compelling example of a community appropriating its identity through the nativity of one of its important group members. As an innovator in children’s educational entertainment, Mister Rogers is a widely recognized and important cultural symbol in America. Pittsburgh does have a number of famous natives, however not all of them are memorialized with a larger-than-life statue displayed on a prominent boardwalk in the city. To create a monument as such is to successfully honor Mister Rogers’ legacy as a key part of Pittsburgh’s heritage. Moreover, the statue formally acknowledges his contributions to children’s developmental media. Just as the bronze statues of the Peanuts characters found throughout St. Paul, Minnesota, are a tribute to Charles Schulz’s cartoons, the Fred Rogers statue is a tribute to the man who taught children not only how to set the table and to not to be afraid of being sucked down the bathtub drain, but also that there is much to learn in life so long as we all are responsible and open-minded individuals. This statue is a way of saying, without words, that the simplest lessons of our childhood can have the most formative impact on our future identities as global citizens, that sometimes the most authentic experience of being human is, to paraphrase his words at the end of every episode, to be special.
The statue is not intended to be a pilgrimage destination or a place likened to a grave site (although it may very well to become one after this week’s “Fred Forward” conference at the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media); rather, as Mrs. Rogers envisions it, it will serve as a place of remembrance, “a place for families in the best sort of way.”
Or, as Mister Rogers himself would say, “It’s a neighborly day in this beauty wood.”