Mister Green: Saint Vincent professors working on book about Fred Rogers, the environmentalist
Even when it was a beautiful day in the neighborhood, Fred Rogers knew that wasn’t always the case in the world outside.
In April 1990, on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, he devoted a week of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” episodes to environmental themes and ways that his viewers — children and adults alike — could make the world a better place.
Two professors at Saint Vincent College are collaborating on a book that will look not at Rogers the children’s television host but at Rogers the environmentalist, the theologian, the teacher.
At a time when Rogers has become a darling of popular culture, professors Jason King and Sara Lindey hope to get below the surface and explore the sources of his environmental vision.
“I believe his focus is on love and concern for all living things — a perspective that is rooted in his faith,” said King, a professor of theology. “I think I would go so far as to say that, for Rogers, love of others and creation go together.”
King and Lindey, associate professor of English, are writing a book tentatively titled “Mister Rogers’ Green Neighborhood: Environmental Wisdom for Children.” They are in negotiations with an academic publisher and expect the book to be out by the end of 2020.
“We’re hoping to speak to people who are interested in Mr. Rogers, both inside and outside the academy,” Lindey said. “That’s what he did – he was able to speak to everyone.”
Their collaboration grew out of their academic interests and their own study of Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister who pioneered children’s TV programming in the 1960s and ’70s. King teaches a course in the “Theology of Children,” and Lindey teaches a course on “Children’s Literature: Fables to 1900.”
Their book will use as its launching point five episodes of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” that aired April 16-20, 1990. The 20 th anniversary of Earth Day fell on April 22.
The half-hour episodes were devoted to environmental topics such as recycling, waste disposal, waste reduction, the ocean, care for one’s neighborhood and care for the earth. Rogers examined those topics in the show’s opening and closing, and during the Neighborhood of Make-Believe segment, which featured both puppets and human characters.
Rogers opened the week with a simple lesson on recycling and reuse, in which he showed viewers a greeting card he had received from a friend. He removes the front of the card, which is blank on one side, and shows how it can be reused as a postcard.
Mr. McFeely then drops by and talks about how he reuses scrap paper for taking notes and for making story books for his grandchildren, according to NeighborhoodArchive.com .
In the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, it’s garbage collection day, and Handyman Negri hears a rumor that the dump is full. The dump is located in Someplace Else, the location of Harriet Cow’s school and Donkey Hodie’s farm. Harriet Cow informs Handyman Negri that the dump is so full that they are going to have to build a fence to keep the garbage from overflowing onto the farm and the school, according to a paper presented by King at the American Academy of Religion.
The rest of the episodes tell the story of how the Neighborhood of Make-Believe solves its waste disposal problem, with Rogers providing further insights into recycling and reuse.
King said the show “critiques the social order” from the standpoint of Rogers’ own experience as a native of Western Pennsylvania and northern Appalachia.
“Someplace Else is portrayed as an area of the United States known as Appalachia … an area of historic environmental exploitation and often forgotten about,” King said in a blog post based on the paper. “In his show, Rogers critiques how society dumps its problems, including environmental ones, on areas where the poor and vulnerable live.”
Rogers also explored environmental problems through the interpretive lens of the Bible’s apocalyptic literature, but he did so in a way that was appropriate for children, according to King and Lindey.
“The popular understanding (of ‘apocalyptic’) just focuses on doom and destruction,” King explained.
“Rogers’ apocalypticism, drawn from the Christian tradition, entails the critique of something wrong, hope that it will get better and actions to bring the change about,” King said. “The fantastical creatures — i.e., the puppets in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe — are there to help children see the problem and have hope that it will get solved. Instead of fear, then, Rogers instills confidence in children to face difficult tasks.”
Environmentalism was one of a host of controversial social issues — divorce, adoption, war, race relations, gender roles — that Rogers treated with care on his show, according to King and Lindey.
“Fred was devoted to doing the best for the environment,” said Bill Isler, former president of Family Communications Inc. “He believed you should be a good steward and leave the environment better than you found it.”
Rogers was a big believer in recycling at a time when recycling programs were not as common as they are today, Isler said.
Longtime Rogers collaborator Hedda Sharapan, now a child development consultant with Fred Rogers Productions, witnessed Rogers’ concern for the environment from the beginning. Sharapan recalled that the environmental episodes showed Rogers going snorkeling in the Florida Keys with marine biologist Sylvia Earle and visiting a neighborhood recycling center, among other things.
“His point was to show children the beauty of the ocean” in the same episode that Lady Elaine Fairchilde suggests dumping the Neighborhood’s garbage in the ocean, she said.
“He was able to take complex ideas and communicate them in such a way that they can be understood by people of all ages,” Sharapan said.
Although Rogers recognized the limitations of TV as a medium, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” stressed collaboration and cooperation in the solving of problems, she said.
In the end, Old Goat and New Goat suggest separating the trash into piles so that it can be recycled, and Hilda Dingleboarder invents a machine that turns trash into something useful, King said.
“Catastrophe is averted and the evil of dumping trash is overcome. Good triumphs,” he said.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, email@example.com or via Twitter @shuba_trib.