An Interview with Maxwell King, author of The Good Neighbor, by Holland Saltsman, bookseller and owner of The Novel Neighbor in St. Louis.
In a time when what it means to be a ‘good neighbor’ in our country is being challenged on a daily basis, can you talk about why this book is so important, especially right now?
Fred Rogers is often thought of as an educator or a television figure or even as an accomplished musician. But I also think of him as an exemplary figure who is capable of showing us a better way to deal with all the challenges of life. That, I think, is why people still find themselves turning to his words 15 years after he died. He lived his life according to his very strong values; and they were based on his Christianity, of course. But he was also a great student, all his life, of most of the world’s religions and philosophies, from Lao Tzu to Muhammad. Fred’s spirituality was almost pantheistic, and his teachings were strikingly simple: be caring and thoughtful and giving, and always think first of the children.
Fred Rogers, the man you got to know versus that man on TV…what are a couple of similarities and differences?
Rogers was famously just the same, on television and on the street or in his office. His manner didn’t change a bit. But he was a very complicated and thoughtful person, intensely serious about life, and very intentional in his living of life. And that can seem different to people who are accustomed to thinking of this sweet and simple figure talking to little children. When I met Fred, he was as gentle and quiet and thoughtful as the television figure, but he was also crackerjack smart and insightful and focused on his conversation with me.
What’s the thing that surprised you the most when researching The Good Neighbor?
Fred was a very, very lucky guy. Oh sure, he made his own luck by being hard-working and dedicated. But he also had a lot of plain-old good luck: his parents and grandparents were extraordinary sensitive and supportive, he found the perfect mate in his wonderful wife Joanne, he got world-class training in the 1950s at NBC in New York, and he lucked into a lifetime working relationship with Dr. Margaret McFarland and the University of Pittsburgh when one of his seminary instructors sent him to the child-development program at Pitt.
Do you have a favorite character from the Mister Rogers show?
Lady Elaine. She makes the whole thing work on a dramatic level by stirring the pot and always providing a surprising counter-point to so much of the rest of the program.
Fred / Mister Rogers didn’t want a book done about him while he was alive, but if you had been able to work with him on this, what is a question (or questions) that you wished you could have had him answer?
I would have loved to have talked with him for hours about his own family–his beautiful and wonderful mother Nancy, his very wealthy and extraordinarily supportive maternal grandparents, and his little sister Laney. Fred got so many of his values and so much of his persona from that very interesting family. But he didn’t talk as much publicly about what he learned from them that he applied to his own family when he was an adult.
Any advice from you (or if you were channeling Fred) for my son who is headed off to college this Fall to study Film and Early Childhood Education?
Stick with what you love. Fred had so many expectations urged upon him: his mother wanted him to be a minister, his father wanted him to be a businessman, and many of his friends thought he would be a musician. But Fred Rogers was fearless and dogged about pushing for the opportunities he defined as right for himself. And he finally found the perfect combination of roles with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Are you working on another book / what’s next for you?
I am finally retiring from my day job at the foundation next summer, and I am–as I always have been–terrified of retirement. I am hoping that a combination of work on another book, and occasional speaking engagements about Fred Rogers, will keep me busy. I have a couple of book ideas, but I know it is smart not to talk about them before they have formed a bit. And thanks for asking.
What’s one way we can we keep the spirit of Mister Rogers alive?
Spending so much time studying Fred has changed me. The two things of greatest value to me that I have learned from him are: slow down, slow way down, to the point that you can really experience people and things and get the most out of life; and always keep human kindness foremost in your mind. Not that I am terribly good at either of those, but I am better for knowing Fred. And that, I think, is how Fred would want us to keep his spirit alive: slow down and be kind.