Maxwell King in conversation with Saleem Ghubril
St. Andrew Presbyterian Church — Saturday, April 27 at 6:30 p.m.
We still sometimes use the term “virtue” in ways that echo its traditional form, saying that a thing happens “by virtue of” something else. Virtue, from the Latin vir- (man), was initially a set of qualities possessed by an emperor (strength, valor, courage, worth) before becoming neutered into a term that connoted solely chastity before broadening, at least in an antiquated sense, to refer to moral character in general. Maxwell King’s The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers provides an excellent depiction of the power of true virtue.
King will be hosted in conversation with Saleem Ghubril at 6:30 p.m. on April 27 at the new St. Andrew Presbyterian Church building (140 Gathering Place Lane). The event is the culmination of a weekend-long series by St. Andrew, “A Neighbor Just Like You”: The Music and Message of Fred Rogers. It kicks off on Thursday, April 25 with a 6:30 p.m. screening of the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, followed by a performance on Friday, April 26 at 6:30 p.m. by University of Iowa alum Keri Johnsrud, with the Kevin Bales Quartet, as they perform the Iowa City debut of their jazz album Beyond the Neighborhood: The Music of Fred Rogers. The musicians will also host a jazz master class the following morning.
The weekend looks at the power of Mr. Rogers, less as a beloved television icon than as a potent example of the human capacity for greatness. It is hard to picture a better tribute to Rogers than using a combination of film, music and literature to promote the value of the arts in presenting the power of peaceful kindness. As those who watched the 2018 documentary will likely remember, Rogers was a rare specimen of a man who was simply and fully himself, without excuse and without remainder, and who used his personal presence as a foundation for communicating a sense of worth and warmth to each individual with whom he interacted.
Although I do not favor biographies as a form (I’ve read only a handful in my life), I found myself absolutely riveted by King’s portrayal of Rogers, devouring it over the course of a 24-hour period. The book moves chronologically through Rogers’ life, relying on retellings of stories and King’s capable depiction of what it took for Rogers to attain the status of a beloved icon.
I found that reading the book reduced me to tears multiple times. At times this was because even a printed version of Rogers’ message, anchored in the authenticity of a life lived well, resonated deep within me. At times it was because Rogers’ embodiment of compassion shows that goodness remains possible — even in the 21st century. Overall, the biography provided a model for the kind of life that I want to lead: one devoted to consistency, authenticity, idiosyncrasy and kindness. Seeing the biopic last year was an inspiration for me to transform my life; reading the book provides an outline on what it takes to do so. By condensing and contextualizing Rogers’ wisdom and work, King provides a gift to any human being who thirsts for a real life of honesty.
I was able to speak with King by telephone the week before his Iowa City visit.
You spent almost seven years researching and writing The Good Neighbor: How did the research change you? In what ways did this work compel you to live differently?
When I started the book I had an appreciation for Fred Rogers in terms of his impact on early childhood education and television programming, but I didn’t have an impression of him as an extraordinary person. During the research — the 65 books I read, the archives at St. Vincent College, the dozens of interviews — I got an impression of him as an exemplary person, a person who was focused every day of his life on being a good person and for whom the job of being a good person was just as important as his job on television. He lived an exceptionally intentional life. He would get up each morning at 5 a.m. and … pray. He didn’t pray for success or for better educational results, but that he’d be a good person.
What did he mean by “good”?
[Largely his] interpersonal relations with other people. His thinking about life and about goodness derived initially from his Christian upbringing in the church but early on broadened quite a bit. He read about [most major religious traditions, and] he discovered a set of strong human values that run under all religions and philosophies. He attached himself to those. His view of being a good person was to live out those values in his relations with other people.
One of the facets was his belief that to do that successfully, you had to slow yourself down. Fred was an extraordinarily busy person. The range of his work is incredible — he was a writer, composer, producer, puppeteer; he wrote books, he wrote speeches. He was a really busy guy. But he was very, very thoughtful and intentional about slowing his life down when talking to other people. Just about everyone reported the sense of time slowing way down when they talked to him. His focus was on the authenticity of personal relationships and the need to slow down and be present in the moment when talking to them.
How did the research change you?
He had an interesting effect on me. I’ve run a couple of foundations. I spent 30 years as a journalist, including eight years as an editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. It’s a profession that rewards you less for patience than action. My life tended to be rather fast paced. The benefit I got from a deep engagement with Fred’s work and life is that it helped me slow down: to be more patient, to be in the moment. It has been beneficial in my personal and professional life.
How has that altered your productivity?
I’m just as productive in a different way, in a deeper way. The benefits seem very real for me, in terms of taking things at a more deliberate pace. I get more of a reward out of the work that I do by having it be slower, more contemplative, more grounded in the moment. It’s just as effective as rushing and rushing and rushing. This is a problem that young people face today — the world is so intense and fast paced. Young people feel that the primary burden they have to meet is to keep pace with the world.
Throughout the book, you describe the consistency with which Rogers lived — the fact that he simply was, no matter his context. What quality, or qualities, would you assign as the core of his strength as a human being?
I mentioned how intentional he was and how he lived … He gave a lot of intention to what he wanted to express. He worked hard at being that sort of a person — that person was “Mr. Rogers,” the whole holistic person that emerged from that process. When people encountered him in his work, in his office, in person, they discovered he was just the same. It wasn’t accidental — it was intentional. That’s the principle quality. That, plus his understanding of and for the humanistic values that lay at the heart of his work.
Is it these qualities, or his ability to integrate them within a sense of deep self-awareness?
… One of the things that happened for Fred that I really love, and I cherish this: He became completely comfortable with his own idiosyncrasies and oddness. It didn’t bother him. When he was a little boy, it bothered him. When he fashioned an idea of who he wanted to be — he became completely comfortable with his own oddness. You see it on television; everyone who met him in person saw it. But it made it easy for people to accept Fred as the person he was due to his own acceptance of himself. It didn’t make Fred just comfortable but also powerful to deal with.
Was this sense of himself something that was more prescriptive, creating the ideal that he wanted to be, or more descriptive in accepting what was there?
Descriptive. One of the other interesting things about Fred — he had ideas about what he wanted to focus on and accomplish. He was interested in language, in children, in music. He didn’t approach these in a prescriptive way, as though he had to make decisions … It was more iterative and descriptive as he built in interests. He was wonderfully flexible about how he met his experiences and the challenges of his life. He went with the flow — it was a descriptive process.
You were able to meet Rogers twice before his death: Was there much difference between sitting across the room from him and seeing him through a television screen? If so, how would you define that difference?
The experience of meeting him was different than seeing him on television. When he was on television, he was in a professional setting, doing his job. It was encountering someone who was performing the tasks that they’re performing. I only had one good, long extended conversation with him. When I met him, it was very personal — he asked me a lot of questions about myself, talking about life. Although his manner was the same, the experience was very different. It was much more personal and relational than professional.
How did it differ from other personal engagements that you have had in your personal life, with people you’ve known better or for longer?
For me, when I meet people and talk to them, there’s a fairly long period of time that it takes to have a forward, candid conversation. With Fred, it was different — there was a feeling of comfort and ease right away. It was a very different sort of experience — and very pleasant.
I do not know another figure or context that has so consistently moved me to weep as the life and work of Fred Rogers. If you had this problem, do the tears ever translate into something else? In your research, is this a common theme? To what quality of Rogers’ character would you ascribe this seemingly singular propensity?
I would say that the quality that affects people emotionally is his authenticity, how very genuine and comfortable he is in talking to people and sharing his own thoughts and experiences. It’s what comes through, and what comes through in the … documentary film. It’s a genuine quality for Fred that engages people, takes them out of themselves and gets them into a different realm, the realm of a relationship with another person. For people who knew Fred well, that was true. And for people who saw the film, that was true. It was much more true for people who saw the show a lot than people who encountered him the first time.
My appreciation for Fred is less on an emotional level and more on an intellectual level. I appreciate what he stands for and the qualities of caring, sharing and kindness that he represents.
You portray Rogers as someone who is beset with private uncertainties but who nonetheless created an idiosyncratic universe of kindness and wholeness through a courageous conviction in his vision for what he seemed to feel was both urgent and necessary. What do you think allowed the scales to tip toward action and accomplishment, in his case, when so many others are annihilated by anxiety?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t know if I have an answer for that. It is interesting that for such a thoughtful and contemplative person, he was so action oriented, so hardworking, so effective. I guess I would go back to the word I’d used earlier — intentional. Deliberate. He was an extremely focused person, and he would deconstruct his days intellectually and be very, very focused on the tasks at hand. Because of his deliberate approach to life, in terms of the people he was dealing with and the work that he had to accomplish, he could be focused without being detached or removed from the immediate circumstance.
In what way was he attached to outcomes in his approach to living?
He was focused on outcomes — he had a definite vision for what he wanted to accomplish through the program, and in each program that he developed, wrote a script for, produced, he had educational outcomes that he was focused on. He was able to blend a flexibility of approach with an intense focus on outcomes.
You do an excellent job of not only capturing Rogers’ speech in a variety of contexts but also describe the philosophy behind “Freddish,” the painstaking way that Rogers edited his scripts. It seems as though the habit of thinking through to how to anticipate confusion became wholly ingrained within him to the extent that he lost the ability to communicate otherwise. As someone familiar with prose voices, and with that of Rogers in particular, what other communicators do you think have so thoroughly mastered that kind of ability?
I think it’s an ability that a lot of writers master, because they’re focused on the precision of language. Writers tend to focus on the exact meaning of words in ways that Fred did also. Fred was a writer … and so he had a writer’s appreciation for language and its specificity, and he married that to his values as an educator. He wanted to be very, very precise about what he wanted to say to children. He knew how literal they could be, how affected they could be by language. Others that I’ve encountered share, maybe not his precise view of language and its use, but that writers’ instinct.