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Why is Mister Rogers making adults cry decades later?

David Newell, as Mr. McFeely, left, and Fred Rogers on the set of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," from the film, "Won't You Be My Neighbor." (Lynn Johnson/Focus Features via AP)
Published Jun. 12, 2018

If people are crying this much watching fewer than three minutes of Won't You Be My Neighbor?, watch out for the waterworks when the full documentary opens Thursday with a block party at Tampa Theatre and in limited release around the United States.

Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville's film about Fred Rogers, beloved host of PBS kids show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood from 1968 to 2001, has picked up good reviews at festival screenings, but from the moment the first trailer went online in March, many who watched it did so through teary eyes.

The film covers Rogers' decades-long mission to make television a tool for helping children, stressing love, community and acceptance. He refused to talk down to kids when making episodes on divorce, death and even assassination in the wake of Robert Kennedy's death.

But why all the crying? It's not like we haven't had time to mourn the loss of the sweatered one, who died in 2003 at 74. Adults did take it hard at the time, though. Bonnie Smalley, 33, of Boulder, Colo., remembers it being her freshman year at West Chester University in Pennsylvania.

"When my dorm got notice that he died, we all gathered in the common area and put on old episodes someone had taped on VHS," she said. It was "definitely a group therapy type deal."

The sight of something from your childhood can make you emotional, but Rogers seems to cut deeper, and across a wide range of people. His show, produced in Pittsburgh, was viewed by a whopping 8 percent of U.S. households at its peak in 1985, according to Pittsburgh Magazine.

We tracked down people from around the country, including those
who commented on YouTube, Twitter or Reddit that the trailer made them cry. Fifteen years after Rogers' death, we asked what he meant
to them.

Dunn was in Army Ranger school, away from any phones or TVs, but the instructor came into the barracks and announced "Mister Rogers died today." Someone in the corner laughed, and started retelling the untrue urban legend that Rogers was a Marine sniper who'd had 50 kills. The rest of the barracks immediately shut the man down and fell completely silent in respect. He remembers a couple of guys going into the latrine and coming back with bloodshot eyes.

Fifteen years later, "I cried when I watched the trailer," Dunn said. "More people should." For him, Rogers "was a father figure in a home without one, a peaceful man in times that weren't so peaceful and someone who treated kids with respect, which sometimes was in short supply."

Witecki is marketing and communications director for Tampa Theatre, one of a handful of theaters premiering the film this week.

"I've watched the trailer several times now, and get emotional every time. I've been trying to pinpoint why. Had you asked before I knew we were getting the movie, what I remembered about Mister Rogers, I would have mentioned the Land of Make Believe, the trolley, him putting on his sneakers. Watching it now I realize the lasting impact has nothing to do with those little details, and everything to do with growing up learning from that show to love yourself, love your neighbor, and learning that it's okay to be sad or angry and feel those emotions.

"I think maybe it just really hits me that, in today's climate of divisiveness, and now that I have a 2?½-year-old daughter, I wonder who is that Mister Rogers now. Who's the person today filling that role for children?"

The online community the Church of Rogers jokingly describes itself as "followers of Rogerism who believe that Mister Rogers is a holy figure." In reality, it's just a tongue-in-cheek name, but Poag said there's a grain of truth in it.

"I don't think there's a word in the English language for that feeling," he said, when asked why Rogers makes people cry. He theorized it has something to do with realizing you're an adult, but have failed to live the Neighborhood ideals. That you've somehow "let your neighborhood down." "In Mister Rogers, we can see virtue, we can even feel it ... but we just can't seem to get there ourselves."

THE STATE YOU'RE IN: Mister Rogers found his calling in Florida

Williams said her parents were mostly absent and abusive, and that Mister Rogers was a "surrogate parent" for her, "as I'm sure he was with many others." Her world was filled with chaos, but the world where Rogers came in every day and changed from his suit to a cardigan and sneakers provided a little stability.

"I promised myself if I ever had children of my own, I would parent them in a way where they would feel the same way Mister Rogers made me feel, safe and worthy and joyful. I did that. I have two beautiful children who are funny and awesome. I broke the cycle of generational abuse in no small part due to Mister Rogers. I genuinely feel if he were alive today he would be really proud of me for that."

The high school English teacher who "straight up sobbed" during the trailer said she grew up in Louisiana exposed to bigotry, hatred and racism. Mister Rogers was "revolutionary" for her with his sensitivity, acceptance and songs like It's You I Like.

"I remember one thing that always blew my mind was that he never yelled. Men in my life were always yelling and so ... to me, Mister Rogers seemed like magic."

Now in the classroom she chooses texts that will inspire empathy and guides her students to reflect on their feelings. "Trying to teach kindness to kids is so radical and scary and infuriating and difficult, but Mister Rogers showed that it's possible ... and I think he would be proud of me."

Long, author of 2015's Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers, calls Rogers a "radical" for teaching pacifism while the United States was at war, using the show to break down gender norms and racial barriers, and for Rogers' vegetarianism on moral grounds.

Maybe the emotional reaction has something to with living in a time when things feel so chaotic, and technology spreads our attention thin. He said that watching Mister Rogers' Neighborhood while researching the book made him totally present in the moment.

"Rogers had a gift for slowing the clock, demanding us to be here and now, for quieting the noise of our everyday lives." Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, "but in some ways, it seems as if Rogers sought to transform us into Zen Buddhist monks, present, quiet and peaceful."

Contact Christopher Spata at cspata@tampabay.com. Follow @SpataTimes on Twitter.

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