Fred Rogers was an overweight, shy, lonely, and often sick child who seemed to attract bullies. At home he felt safe and comfortable, enjoying his puppets and piano, which became a means of expressing feelings of sadness and loneliness, but school was another matter.
Early in her new book Exactly the Way You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers (Eerdmans, 2019), Shea Tuttle makes the point that Fred never forgot those bullies. “ ‘I resented the pain. I resented those kids for not seeing beyond my fatness or my shyness,’ he told audiences sixty years later, marveling at how well he still remembered that day” (11). Her book shows how he transformed experiences such as this into an internationally beloved children’s television program that in multiple ways told millions of children during its 33-year run that they are loved just as they are.
Shea Tuttle was one of those children, and she brings her love of and fascination with Mister Rogers, her role as the mother of two children in grade school, and her theological training (M.Div., Candler School of Theology, Emory University) to her exploration of his life and faith.
Tuttle makes clear that there were many positive formative factors in Rogers’s life, including loving parents, a vibrant church, and a passion for music. His parents were leaders in their town of LaTrobe, Pennsylvania, which gave him a model of what a neighborhood could be. His father was an industrialist who respected and valued his employees. Both parents were people whose faith was expressed in serving their community and helping those in need. The local Presbyterian church was central in their family life, and Tuttle shows how its liturgy formed Rogers’s understanding of a disciplined life and the importance of a stable routine for children’s development. She also emphasizes the importance of music in his formation: “Very early on, music began to carry a meaning in his life that his other important hobbies—his puppet play and photography, hosting friends and helping in the community—couldn’t touch. When he was bullied at age eight, he “explored his grief at the piano” (31) and as a homesick college student he found solace in the “ancient tradition of expressing raw emotion through music” (33). It’s no wonder that music became such an integral part of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
After highlighting aspects of Rogers’s growing-up years that shaped his character and sense of vocation, Tuttle focuses on how he became Mister Rogers and continued to develop Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as long as it was in production. Chief among his mentors were Dr. William Orr, a professor at Western Theological Seminary (now Pittsburgh Theological Seminary), and Margaret McFarland, an acclaimed expert on child development.
Tuttle says the core of Bill Orr’s theology “began with the biblical assertion that God’s creation, including humanity, is good (Gen. 1:31). Upon that foundation Orr laid the belief that we are therefore lovable.” She continues, “Put another way, if we are lovable and acceptable because we are God’s, then our neighbor, who is equally God’s, is also lovable and acceptable. And we are called into the work of that loving and accepting” (59).
Orr’s example spoke as strongly to Rogers as his academic teaching did. Tuttle relates Rogers’ comment that “when you see someone go out to lunch on a winter’s day and come back without his overcoat because he had given it to a person who was cold, you have a growing understanding of ‘living theologically.’ When we asked Dr. Orr about the coat, he said, ‘Oh, I have one other at home,’ and that was all he said about it” (56).
Just as Dr. Orr, through his example and teaching, influenced Rogers’s concept of neighborliness, so Dr. Margaret McFarland helped form his philosophy of child development and children’s programming. “Anything human is mentionable,” she taught, “and anything mentionable is manageable.” Tuttle explains that Rogers, absorbing this lesson, “worked to mention his feelings rather than deny them. He knew that, acknowledged or not, revealed or not, his feelings would find their ways to expression. And he wrote a song [“The Truth Will Make Me Free”] about that belief for the Neighborhood. The song ends with these lines:
I’m happy, learning
Exactly how I feel inside of me.
I’m learning to know the truth,
I’m learning to tell the truth.
Discovering the truth will make me free (149).
It’s safe to say that many viewers weren’t aware of the biblical foundation for Rogers’s love of neighbor and the other the theological principles that informed Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. That was by design. Although he was an ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers was reticent to talk explicitly about his faith. Tuttle relates a conversation between Terry Gross and Fred Rogers when Fresh Air was still a local show. Gross said, “Obviously you’re very religious, but . . . it’s not a denominational program, and I’m sure that’s intentional on your part.”
Fred replied, “It’s far from denominational and far from overtly religious. The last thing in the world that I would want to do would be something that’s exclusive. I would hate to think that a child would feel excluded from the Neighborhood by something that I said or did” (78).
Rogers often quoted this line from his favorite book, Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince: “What is essential is invisible to the eye” (126). That notion permeated the life-lessons Rogers shared daily with children through his television show. This bedrock wisdom was applicable to regard for neighbor—be cautious about assuming what is essential in other people.
Tuttle’s biography reflects that same kind of regard of her subject. While there is no doubt that she did thorough, impeccable research and thought deeply and creatively about Fred’s life and faith, her approach to the material is humble and respectful. In an interview on the podcast Things Not Seen, she said, “I can’t figure him out, even after spending a whole lot of time working on his writings or listening to people talk about him or watching the show. Part of what draws me to him is that he is unusual and complicated. I want to figure him out so I keep looking. I think that was part of his power, and that remains part of his power.” (1)
Part of the power of Exactly as You Are is that it offers deep insight into the life and faith of Fred Rogers while not pretending to know all about him. At a time when politicians and pundits and ordinary people with a social media platform routinely make definitive statements about the motives of others, Tuttle succeeds in honoring both his complexity and his core message that each of us should be loved exactly as we are.
(1) “The Magnetic Strangeness of Fred Rogers: Shea Tuttle, Things Not Seen podcast #1923 (40:30-41:20) https://www.thingsnotseenradio.com/shows/1923-tuttle
This review was originally published in the Advent 2019 issue–the last print edition– of Englewood Review of Books. It is available online at https://englewoodreview.org/shea-tuttle-exactly-as-you-are-feature-review/