Slow down. Be kind.
Jordan Raynor sits down with Maxwell King, Author of The Good Neighbor (the first full-length biography of Fred Rogers) to talk about how Fred “rehearsed” each day through prayer, which books Fred was reading on his deathbed, and the transformative moment in which Fred realized his work was ministry.
[0:00:05.3] JR: Hey everyone, welcome to The Call to Mastery. I’m Jordan Raynor. This is a podcast for Christians who want to do their most exceptional work for the glory of God and the good of others. Each week, I’m hosting a conversation with a Christian who is pursuing world-class mastery of their craft. We’re talking about their path to mastery, we’re talking about their daily habits and how their faith influences their work.
Guys. Guys, guys, guys, guys, guys, I cannot be more excited about sharing this particular episode with you. Today, I’m talking with Maxwell King, the author of the first full-length biography on Fred Rogers, better known of course as Mr. Rogers, who over the last two years thanks to Max’s book has become one of the greatest heroes of my life. You’re going to learn why in this book.
Listen, Max King is wildly impressive in his own right. He is the President and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation, with assets of more than a billion dollars. He is the former director of The Fred Rogers Center. For the first part of his career, he was a journalist, including an eight-year stint as the editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
I asked Max to come and basically sit in as Fred Rogers. This is as if we are interviewing Fred on the Call to Mastery, which we obviously cannot do. By way of his biographer, Max and I talk about how Fred rehearsed each day through prayer, thinking about who he was going to encounter and praying over those people before he even left his house in the mornings. We talked about which books Fred was reading on his deathbed and we talked about the transformative moment in which Fred realized and was able to articulate that his work as a telecommunicator, as the host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, how that work was ministry.
This is unquestionably one of my favorite episodes of The Call to Mastery thus far. Please enjoy this conversation with Max King.
[0:02:12.3] JR: Max, thank you so much for joining me. We were talking before we started recording about the fact that I didn't grow up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which feels odd. I was born in 1986. I feel everyone my age grew with Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. It wasn't until the summer of 2018 that I started to really appreciate the story. I of course saw, Won't You Be My Neighbor? A documentary which you were part of.
Then I picked a great film and then I saw you being interviewed and it said, “Fred Rogers’ biographer.” I was like, “Oh, my gosh. I missed a biography on Fred Rogers,” but I didn’t. Your book had not come out yet. Your book came out a few months later. The biography called The Good Neighbor. I devoured it.
I remember I was in New York City on a business trip and I couldn't stop reading it on Kindle in the back of cabs, which made me very, very nauseous. It was a great experience. The combination of the film and the book just quickly made Rogers one of my all-time heroes, right? There was C.S. Lewis. Let's start here. Why did you decide to write this biography? I mean, your career is incredibly impressive and storied. Why take the time to write this book?
[0:03:18.2] MK: Well, I had been – for about nine years I was the president of the Heinz Endowments. When I retired, the Chancellor of St. Vincent College, which is where the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media is located, asked me if I would help them get the Rogers Center going. They had built a beautiful building, but they didn't have a lot of funding coming in, they didn't have a lot of programs. I worked for a couple years at that and I said to the Chancellor and to Joanne Rogers, Fred's widow, “Why isn't there a biography of Fred? He's this iconic American figure. I would think there'd be six biographies of him.”
They explained that Fred had not wanted a biography to be done when he was alive and the family had kept that same position. We talked it over and finally, I convinced them that would really make a lot of sense, not just in terms of supporting the work of the center, but also advancing Fred's legacy for there to be a biography. Finally, Joanne his widow said, “Okay, why don't you write it?” I had a previous career as a journalist. I terribly underestimated how much work it would take.
[0:04:35.8] JR: You didn't know what you were getting into.
[0:04:37.0] MK: Yeah, because really at the beginning, I don't think I appreciated what a complex, serious, deep character Fred Rogers was. I agreed to do it and started doing the research and then came to appreciate what a marvelous person this was.
[0:04:55.7] JR: The timing of all of this mania around Fred Rogers is so interesting to me. Fred died 17 years ago, right? You mentioned the family's resistance to a biography as one contributing factor here. I'm curious the broader question, what is it – is there anything special about this moment in history 17 years after his death that has led to the documentary and the book and this film that's nominated for an Oscar with Tom Hanks? Why now?
[0:05:21.9] MK: Well, I think the obvious thing is that 2018 was the 50-year anniversary of The Neighborhood being on national television. That’s an obvious hook, although, I wasn't pointed at that. I started the book seven years earlier and I had meant to get it done in three or four years. I didn't, which turned out to be fortuitous, because it came out at just the right time.
[0:05:43.5] JR: Exactly. Yeah.
[0:05:44.8] MK: I think the other reason is that we live in a time in which we feel very fearful about our values and our value systems. We worry that the very traditional human values, which are also the Christian values; fairness, integrity, respect, compassion, kindness, these very strong human values, Christian values – I think we live in a time when we're afraid that we're losing those values, that they're less and less obviously prevalent in society, in politics, in the media and business. I think people are turning to Fred, because they're turning in a direction in which they see a powerful exemplar of those very important deep values.
[0:06:41.8] JR: Those values are so countercultural today, much more so than they were 20 years ago when Fred went off the air. I was wondering aloud to my wife, if Fred Rogers, if the show was on the air today, could Fred have pulled it off? Or would it have just been too weird? I mean, these values are so countercultural. Fred found a way to make them winsome in his period of time, but would they be so far out of the realm of our cultural consciousness today to where it would just be just weird and it wouldn't work? What's your take on that?
[0:07:14.5] MK: Well, I don't think so. I think it would resonate today. When I've done, I don't know how many, 70, 80 book appearances, and there's always a good crowd that shows up and they're people who are passionate about Fred Rogers, because they're passionate about the values that he exemplified. I also think, Jordan, that everything in life and culture and politics is cyclical. I think we're at a bad time cyclically in terms of – and the values that we care about, but I don't think it's going to last. I think there's going to be a reversion and there's going to be a strengthening of the general cultural commitment to strong human values.
[0:08:02.0] JR: Yeah. I couldn't agree more. There's something biblical about – you see that in scripture, right? With the nation of Israel, right? This cycle of sin and forgiveness and repentance. I wrote about Fred in my book Master of One, which was just released a few weeks ago, and specifically about how Fred thought about this topic of calling and vocation, something I know a lot of people listening to this show wrestle with today. Can you talk a little bit about Fred's career path that eventually led him to discover his calling in this show? I don't think a lot of people know and appreciate that story.
[0:08:36.8] MK: Right. Well, it's a very interesting and intricate career path. He drove his parents crazy, because every year he had a different idea about what he was going to do. He was going to be a diplomat, then he was going to be a French teacher, then he was going to run an orphanage, then he was going to be a musician. He came home in the spring of his senior year at Rollins College – his parents had a television, one of the first televisions in the City of Latrobe where they lived. Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where they lived.
Fred looked at it and decided he wanted to go into television. The reason he did was that he immediately saw what very few other people saw, which was the potential of television to be an educational tool. Well, what happened with Fred was he had so many different interests. When he was in high school, he was the editor of the yearbook, he worked on the student newspaper, he was the president of the city council, he was in the theatrical society, he was a National Merit Scholar. He had all these competing interests.
Television brought them together for him, because television for Fred brought together the capability to work for children and with children and parents. He was very focused on parents, as well as children; and music and performing and puppeteering. It all came together. Much, much later in life, he marveled at how lucky he was that all these different interests had come together in a way that supported one enterprise, which was Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
I don't think he was lucky at all. I think he was a remarkably focused guy who was relentless in driving toward goals and objectives. He's the one who kept narrowing the funnel and creating the focus and heading toward Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I think he made it happen through his very determined, intentional way of living.
One of the things I should point out – when he came back, he was at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto for a few years. He left that job and he came back to Pittsburgh, because he thought Pittsburgh was the base from which he could get the support to do Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. He came back with no job. He came back with no funding for his program, but he believed he was going to make it happen. He believed in himself and he just came back and focused and worked. His career came together. It was because of his character, I think, that it came together. Jordan, there’s one other thing I want to say about career, because –
[0:11:29.9] JR: Yeah, please. Yeah.
[0:11:30.9] MK: Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was an important career for Fred, but I'm not sure it was his number one career. I think, for Fred, the number one job in life, all his life, was to be a good person. That's what he really, really cared about. He would rehearse the day early in the morning, thinking about everybody was going to see and how he can be thoughtful and kind. He's famously – anybody who came up to him, whether they were the president of the local university, or a street person asking for money, Fred would stop and talk to them about life.
[0:12:13.0] JR: He had this great appreciation for the dignity of every human being. He had this term that he used a lot that you talk about in the biography, ‘guided drift,’ to describe this process of discerning one's vocation. Can you talk about what Fred meant by that phrasing? What was his drift guided by, I guess is the better question?
[0:12:32.1] MK: Well, that's a phrase that he got from one of his mentors, a teacher at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, who he admired greatly. Fred loved that phrase and he adopted it himself. What I think he meant – the drift was allowing oneself the creative freedom to follow – not just follow your interests, but to follow where life would lead you. The drift was not being hidebound in your approach to life, but allowing the opportunities that come along to spark your creativity and allowing yourself the freedom to go after them.
The guided part is the values. What he meant by the guided part is everything's based on the strong, for him, very strong Christian values, but he also recognized that these are universal humanistic values. I think that's what he meant by guided drift. He really lived that life that way. He was extremely creative and the program changed a lot over the years, because he went with it. Yet, everything was – everything was based on his strong values and his strong commitment to excellence.
[0:13:51.5] JR: I want to talk about that in a second. One quick note on guided drift. In reading your biography on Fred, it appeared that he was guided by this deep sense of service.
[0:14:02.0] MK: Oh, absolutely, absolutely.
[0:14:04.2] JR: There's a quote in the biography, you say he was quote, “It was this relentless sense of service to God that drove every moment of his life.” I love how Fred said, “You don't set out to be rich and famous. You set out to be helpful,” right? That is the essence of the Christian life and that led him to have, as you pointed out, these really high standards for excellence. Can you talk about some of the things that stuck out to you about how those standards of excellence manifested themselves in the production of Neighborhood?
[0:14:37.4] MK: Well first of all, on the subject of service, that originated with his mother, I think. His mother who was wonderful to him and really listened to him and treated him as a serious person, even from the youngest age. She had a great sense of service and she was a volunteer in many, many activities in Latrobe. It was a wealthy family. Fred's parents were wealthy. She was always funding one effort or another to help the poor, to help people who needed money for education, who needed money for clothing.
He got a great sense of the importance of service from her and he adored her. He loved her and he emulated her. Now as for these standards of excellence, to some extent I think he got that from his parents and his grandparents who preached that to him. I think the transformative moment for Fred Rogers in terms of his career in television was when one of his professors at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary said to him, “Fred, what ministry do you envision going into when you leave the seminary?” Meaning of course, what church would you go to, because that's all anybody did?
Rogers said, “Well, I'd like to have a ministry to children on television.” The teacher said, “Well, good luck with that. That's not going to happen. If you're interested in children, you should go over to the University of Pittsburgh and see Dr. Margaret McFarland.” As it happened, at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1950s, there was this center on child development under the direction of Dr. Margaret McFarland, which was the leading center in the United States in terms of doing research into early childhood education. McFarland was a great expert. By the way, The New York Times just published a long, long story on her life, of –
[0:16:37.2] JR: Fascinating.
[0:16:38.1] MK: Yeah. It’s really worth reading.
[0:16:41.0] JR: I’ll have to check that out. Yeah. She's one of the most fascinating characters.
[0:16:44.3] MK: Yeah. She had been largely ignored, but The Times recognizing that came back and published a belated obituary on her, accounting the importance of her life just a week or two ago. You can find it easily.
[0:16:56.8] JR: Yeah, I’ll check it out.
[0:16:57.5] MK: Also at that center was Dr. Berry Brazelton, who was famous for books and television programs on children. Dr. Benjamin Spock, the baby –
[0:17:10.0] JR: Yeah. Sure.
[0:17:11.0] MK: - was there at Pitt in the 1950s. Erik Erikson, the great philosopher and writer about human development was there at Pitt. All these great minds were there. Fred went over and met Dr. McFarland and then he studied with all these people. What that did was that gave him the means to take television and really raise it to a level of excellence in terms of education that he never would have been able to do without understanding all of the important principles and research into child development.
Of course, for the rest of Margaret McFarland's life, Fred consulted with her on all of his programming. He had an instinct to push for excellence. He was really a relentlessly ambitious person. Not ambitious for himself, but ambitious for what he could accomplish. That instinct was empowered by what he learned at Pitt. It was really a marvelous thing to see that come together.
By the way, what he did for the researchers at Pitt was he popularized the understanding of the importance of early childhood education for millions and millions of people all across the country.
[0:18:30.0] JR: One of the themes of Rogers’ life, it's just this deep sense of humility. Yes, he has this great ambition, but he also consistently showed his humility that he didn't know everything and needed to submit himself to world-class experts in whatever the field is to really bring that vision to life, right? He did this first with NBC, right? With his internship at NBC. Then he did it in the field of childhood psychology with Dr. Margaret McFarland, Then he did it with seminary, right?
He believed his work was ministry, but he still wanted this theological ground to stand on. I love that. I talk in my book about apprenticeships being one of the three keys to mastery. It's something that he consistently did throughout his career. I'd love for you to talk about one particular story though that I loved that really demonstrates this well. Talk about Fred's process for getting feedback on the scripts for Neighborhood. When he was writing the show, I mean, he would literally shut down production and go across the street. Can you tell a little bit about that?
[0:19:36.4] MK: Well, first of all, he had a very deliberate and complex system for creating a script. He would start out very often, but before he even wrote a word on the script, he'd have conversations with McFarland about the subject and get grounded in the early childhood thinking. Then he would write it out on a legal pad, a big, yellow legal pad. He'd write out the script by hand and his secretary would type it up and she would circulate it to a few of the others that he really trusted like – Elizabeth Siemens was someone that he trusted to write scripts. Barry Head was another person on the staff that he trusted to write scripts.
They would come in and work with him on the script and make some changes. It would then invariably go back to McFarland when it was close to its finalized form, for her to flag something that might be wrong, or might be not just right. Then they'd start taping. There were times when Fred would stop the taping with a union crew on the clock. Sometimes, he would just stop the taping and make a correction to the script, or start over again.
Several times, he stopped the taping, left the crew on the set and went over to Pitt to see McFarland to make sure, because he didn't want a phrase, or a word to somehow be inappropriate for children. I'll give you an example of one change that he made himself. He didn't have to go see McFarland on this one. There was a nurse on his show and I think he was interviewing the nurse and she was taking his blood pressure to show kids about what you do taking blood pressure. She put the cuff around his arm and she said, “We'll just blow this up.”
Fred stopped everything and said, “No, no, no. You don't want to say to little children we're going to blow it up. They’re going to think you're going to blow me up.” Well, they settled on, “Puff it up.” In always – he understood. McFarland said one of Fred's great strengths was in a lot of ways, he was still a child and he understood how children would perceive things. One time when he had – he was being examined by an eye doctor, because he wanted to show children what it's like to go to the eye doctor that it's okay and all that. The eye doctor had the opthalmoscope, or whatever it's called, pointed – was looking into his eyes and Fred asked the eye doctor, “Can you see what I'm thinking?”
[0:22:17.7] JR: I love it.
[0:22:18.3] MK: None of us would ever think of that, but that's what a child would think. Fred would think what a child would think and then he would take care to be very clear with the children.
[0:22:31.1] JR: He just had these remarkably high standards. I just can't envision other television hosts during this period of time being this obsessed with every word of a children's television program.
[0:22:45.4] MK: I mean, Sesame Street certainly strove very hard for excellence and worked very hard to create good educational programming, but they didn't parse the details the way Fred Rogers did.
[0:22:57.2] JR: I love and I think that stems from that deep sense of service that he had. He believed – it goes back to that seminary conversation.What’s your ministry? “This is my ministry. This is it. Because of that, I'm going to love children and their parents exceptionally well.” I love it. You've touched on a couple of Fred's habits. I'm really curious if you could take us through a typical day in the life of Fred Rogers, from the moment he rose out of bed to the moment he laid his head back down on the pillow at nighttime, what did it day look like for Fred?
[0:23:28.9] MK: He would wake up around 5:00 a.m. First thing he would do is read the Bible. He always wanted to ground his day in some passage, or passages from the Bible. Then he prayed. What he prayed for is very interesting, because what he prayed for was that everybody he encountered that day and he would – in his mind, he would review who he was going to see, who he was going to talk to, who he was going to meet, who he was going to work with. He reviewed how could he be really accessible and present and caring for each one of these people.
He started his day on mission number one for Fred, which is to be a good person. Then he would go maybe about 7:00 over to the Pittsburgh Athletic Association in Oakland, the university section, which is also where WQED where Family Communications was based, his production company. He would go over to the Pittsburgh Athletic Association and go swimming. That was his exercise every day and had a wonderful interview with the locker room attendant there, and Fred and remembering, because Fred of course –
[0:24:47.5] JR: Sure. He knew the locker room attendant, right? Of course.
[0:24:49.6] MK: Fred didn't make friends with the important bankers who were there at the club getting a workout. He made friends with the locker room attendant. When he was done with that workout, he would go to WQED and he'd probably be in his office. He had a small office there with a desk, which he almost never sat behind, and a big sofa along the wall where he did sit, and a chair across from the sofa where his guests would sit. On the wall above the sofa, above Fred's head was a needlepoint nap of Nantucket Island, it was made by his mother, because his parents had bought Fred and Joanne a little cottage on Nantucket and they went there every summer.
He would work in his office for a while. He often went to a nearby restaurant for lunch. Sometimes he'd bring lunch in, but often he would go to a nearby restaurant. He was a vegetarian, so he would –
[0:25:45.4] JR: I don't think I knew that. Interesting. Okay.
[0:25:47.1] MK: Yeah. He was a vegetarian. He once said, “I don't want to eat anything that has a mother.”
[0:25:54.8] JR: I have heard this. Yeah. I love that line. It’s great. He’d go to lunch at a restaurant and he –
[0:26:00.8] MK: He loved prune whipped desserts and jello. They both sound just awful, but that's what Fred loved. Prune whipped desserts and jello. Then he’d go back in the afternoon and very often, they – not every day, but very often they'd start taping some segments of some of the programs. It depended on how things went. There were times when they'd get it done in the afternoon and there were times when it had to go into the evening. If it had to go into the evening, he would break to go home for dinner so that he could be with his two little boys for dinner, because he never wanted to miss some time with them every single day.
I think it was his younger son, Jim, who told me – or no, it’s John the older one who told me that Fred would sometimes come home with the makeup still on his face and have dinner with them and then go back in the evening and do some more taping.
That's a pretty typical day. At home, if he was at home in the evening, often there'd be phone calls, and as often as not, they weren't work-related phone calls, they were phone calls from people who had contacted him because they needed help. They needed to talk to him and he didn't want to ignore them.
[0:27:13.9] JR: He was so intentional about everything he did. I loved the little detail of his life that I've thought about so much since reading the book, that every morning at the gym after he got done swimming, he would get up on the scale and weigh exactly a 143 pounds. Is this true?
[0:27:29.5] MK: Oh, yeah.
[0:27:30.6] JR: This is the most mind-boggling thing I've ever heard. For how long did he weigh in at 143 pounds?
[0:27:36.4] MK: Well, all his adult life. He was very careful. Fred, as you just mentioned, was very intentional and deliberate about everything. He was very careful about maintaining his weight where he wanted it, getting exercise, about his diet, just I think not so much because he was focused on living a long time, just because he wanted to feel as healthy and as strong as he could to do the things he wanted to do.
[0:28:07.0] JR: You mentioned his well-trained ability to focus. You mentioned that a couple times in this conversation. You mentioned it in the book. What was it that drove him to be so focused and how practically did he do that? What did that look like? How did that manifest itself in his life?
[0:28:22.5] MK: Well, I think he had a transition from being a little boy to being a teenager that was critically important in his development as a person. He had a pretty unhappy childhood. He was lonely. He didn't have any friends. He was introverted. He was shy. He was bullied at school. He was bullied by other students. He was bullied by kids on the street. He was chubby. When you see pictures of him from that time, he looks like a deer in the headlights. He looks afraid, he looks unsure of himself. He got to being age 11, 12, 13 and I think that he – he was such a thoughtful person and he thought about everything so much and so deeply. I think probably some people felt he was obsessively thoughtful.
I think he thought about his life and where he was and what he cared about and he began to shape himself, to shape a persona in the direction that he wanted to go. In order to do that, he had to be extraordinarily focused as a very young man. He went from this shy, introverted kid who couldn't even speak up at school to being a superstar in high school, a National Merit Scholar, president of the student council, all these other positions that he held. Academically, he was a superstar.
It's because Fred at I don't know exactly what age, but it was before he became – just as he became a teenager, he began to achieve this focus and he began to get the success that he wanted, which is he began to become the person that he really wanted to be.
[0:30:16.0] JR: Yeah, but it took catching a vision for what he wanted his life to look like, right? I think there's a lot of wiz in there. Once God has given us a clear vision for what he's called us to be and do in the world, it requires that we get intensely focused and deliberate about all those things. The other thing that’s interesting what you said on this topic of thoughtfulness; one of the things that really strikes me about Fred's life is he lived at a pace in which thoughtfulness was possible in a way that I think is increasingly lost on us. He was wildly productive, but he never seemed like he was in a hurry. He always appeared to live at just a different speed than most of us do today. Can you talk more about that?
[0:30:58.9] MK: Yes. It's remarkable when you think how much he did. He wrote 900 scripts, he wrote 200 songs, he wrote 13 operas, he produced the program, he directed. I mean, he wasn't the director. He had a director, but everybody knew Fred was directing that program. He starred in it. He did the puppets, he did the music, he wrote books, he made speeches, he did all this stuff and yet, everybody who ran into him reported the same thing, which is when they got in Fred's presence, everything slowed down.
At Family Communications, they call it Fred time. Everything decompressed and slowed down. Fred was very deliberate about that, because he believed the most important thing in the world is relationships. Relationships are more important than anything else and he understood that if you're rushing around from one thing to another, you will invest nothing in the relationship. Only if you're really present and not going up moving on mentally to the next thing can you invest in a relationship.
Sometimes when I'm speaking at a book event, someone in the audience will ask me, “Can you sum Fred up in a phrase?” I always say it's a disservice to somebody as deep and complex as Fred to do it, but I can, or I'll try. What I say is Fred's message, at least for me – this is the message I took. Fred's message for me is slow down, be kind, slow down, be kind. To him and to me, they're directly related. Only if you slow down and really are present in the moment can you be, can you live out these human values.
[0:33:00.1] JR: Yeah. I think that's exactly right. A few months ago, I had this pastor on the podcast. His name is John Mark Comer. He wrote a terrific book called The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry. It's basically just diving deep into the gospels and showing how Jesus himself was remarkably unhurried. Now he was fully God and fully man, so he had some control over time, right?
As I looked at Fred's life I'm like, that might be one of the most Christ-like qualities about Fred Rogers. He appeared to move at the pace of Jesus. I'm curious from your perspective as the man who wrote the first full-length biography on Fred, what are some of the other truly Christ-like qualities that shone through in Fred's work? Maybe not necessarily his life, but the actual work of the show. What were those Christ-like qualities that shone through in the show?
[0:33:53.2] MK: Well, certainly the focus on kindness and people, particularly people who are at the bottom rungs of the ladder in terms of privilege, or economics, or whatever else. That focus is very much like Jesus. Well, I think another aspect that's very much like Jesus is Fred did his work through storytelling. Jesus did his work through storytelling. Jesus's parables, the stories that Jesus told were how he taught. He taught sometimes through admonition, or explication, but usually when Jesus was at his most effective, it was through telling stories and that was also Fred Rogers.
His choice of teaching, and he did think of himself as a teacher more than anything else, his choice of teaching was storytelling. I don't think he came to storytelling as a way of emulating Jesus, but he certainly, all through his working life was very aware of Jesus’s power as a storyteller.
[0:35:01.6] JR: Also like Jesus, he didn't hit you over the head with the meaning of the story, right? Jesus’ parables often ended open-ended and you're left sitting there trying to unpack the meaning, trying to extract the meaning. Fred is on public television. He couldn't explicitly talk about how his faith influenced these things that he was teaching, but it was still wildly effective. I'm really curious, Fred constantly – I shouldn’t say constantly. Multiple times in his life, he felt this pull to, we'll call it congregational ministry, pastoring a church, right? He ended up deciding not to do that, not to pastor, but to do the show, but he still finished seminary, which I think is so interesting to me. I guess the question is why finish seminary and what impact did that theological training have on his work?
[0:35:52.8] MK: I think he finished the seminary, because not so much as training for a role that he would play later in life as his deep intellectual interest in theology, in Christianity, in philosophy and spirituality. I think he was just intellectually very, very interested in what he would learn. He was a very good student at the seminary. I don't think he finished it, because he thought he had to in order to go ahead with his work, he just really wanted to do it because of his great interest in theology and philosophy.
[0:36:33.5] JR: The last episode of Neighborhood aired August 31st, 2001. Do I have that correct?
[0:36:38.3] MK: I think so. Yeah.
[0:36:39.6] JR: 10 days later, the nation of course witnessed the tragedies of 9/11 and Fred recorded this PSA for PBS, that included probably my favorite Rogers quote, which is really honestly the heart of this podcast and everything I write. Fred said, “No matter what our particular job, especially in our world today, we are called to be ‘tikkun olam’, repairers of creation.” How did Fred see his show as repairing creation?
[0:37:12.5] MK: Well, in a couple of very important ways. I think he saw his show as supporting children, who as they grew up and had more and more experiences, could be hurt, could be slowed down, could be knocked off track. Helping the children have faith in themselves and get back on track was a primary goal. I also think that he was really talking to parents. He always said that he hoped that the parents would watch The Neighborhood with the children and talk to them about it.
I think he was also – he was very mindful of the fact that every parent loves their child and wants to help their child, but they have different levels of skill, different levels of ability to fulfill that and to help their children. That was another objective I think he had. Then he wrote a lot of books, he made a lot of speeches, he made a lot of those public service announcements at times of crises; when Bobby Kennedy was killed, when the Iraq war started. Because again, he wanted to be one of the helpers who would show up and repair things.
[0:38:28.4] JR: Now I love that. Look for the helpers. Max, three quick questions to wrap up our incredible time together; first, were there particular books that Fred would recommend a lot to others, or maybe give to other people as gifts?
[0:38:43.6] MK: I'm not sure. I didn't encounter – in all my interviews, I didn't encounter people talking about the books that he recommended. I did have an interesting experience and one of the many interviews I had with Joanne Rogers, she asked me if I'd like to go in and see the bedroom where he spent the last few months of his life. He came home to die after the surgery that he had, because they couldn't – the cancer had spread too far. He was in a bedroom in the apartment that he and Joanne shared. Joanne has left it just as it was when he was there.
I went in and on the bedside table, which was a big bedside table, there were all these books and they were the books that Fred was reading at the end of his life. There were books about Catholic mysticism, there were books – certainly, the Presbyterian Bible was one of them. There were books about Laoism, Confucius, the Muslim faith, Judaism, all these different religions and philosophies.
Certainly, the book that Fred read every single day was the Bible, but I think other books that he was interested in tended to be about life, spirituality. As I'm talking now, I'm remembering one author the really loved, whose name is Henri Nouwen. Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest, who wrote a lot of books about life and spirituality and faith. Fred loved Henri Nouwen’s books.
[0:40:22.9] JR: Yeah, interesting. That's not surprising to me. Question for you as a biographer, right? You spent years studying Fred's life, this man who deeply understood what we talked about on this podcast, this intersection of how our faith influences our work. I'm curious what other person from the Christian tradition you would really like to hear talk about these things and how their faith influences their work.
[0:40:49.1] MK: For me, that's only one person, Jesus.
[0:40:52.8] JR: Yeah. That's a good answer.
[0:40:54.7] MK: To me, Jesus is not just the originator, or the author of our Christian faith today, he is the greatest teacher of all time. To had a chance to just listen to him, I think would have been absolutely extraordinary. There's a lot of other philosophers that I think would have been interesting.
[0:41:16.8] JR: Yeah, but that beats them all for sure. Last question for you, Max, if Fred were sitting here right now, what piece of advice do you think – I'm asking you to extrapolate here. What advice would he give somebody who, like our community, are pursuing mastery of their craft, primarily in service of others? Would it be, “Slow down, be kind?” Would it be something else? What would he –
[0:41:39.1] MK: Well, I think it would be, “Slow down, be kind.” It would also include an emphasis on being inclusive. That I think Fred would see that in the world today, the world of work, the world of politics and business and media, we’re fashioning a far more exclusive world in which we're right and everybody else is wrong. It's us and them. That's the opposite of what Fred believed in.
Joanne once said to me, “If there was a first church of inclusivity, that's the church Fred would want to be a part of.” I think he would caution all of us in our work, in the ways in which we focus our lives, really work hard to be inclusive and not exclusive in the sense of thinking we're right and everybody else is wrong.
[0:42:32.0] JR: Max, I just want to commend you for writing such an extraordinary book. Personally, thank you for giving me a hero in Fred Rogers. I did not know this story two years ago and you have given me a tremendous hero. Thank you so much for spending this time with us. Hey, listen. The book is The Good Neighbor by Maxwell King. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Max, thanks again for being with me today.
[0:42:59.2] MK: Great to be with you, Jordan. Thank you.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:43:02.5] JR: I will treasure this episode of The Call to Mastery forever. I think I'm going to come back and re-listen to this one over and over again. I hope you guys enjoyed this as much as I enjoyed talking to Max.
Hey, if you are not already subscribed to The Call to Mastery, make sure you hit the subscribe button wherever you listen to podcasts, so you never miss an episode in the future. If you are already subscribed, do me a huge favor and take a couple of seconds to go write a very quick review of the podcast, so more people can find this content, content like the conversation from today.
Hey, thank you guys so much for the work you're doing out in the world every day to glorify God and to love neighbors as yourself, just like Fred Rogers tried to do his entire career. Thank you for listening to The Call to Mastery. I'll see you guys next week.