He was an ordained Presbyterian Minister, was known as “America’s favorite neighbor,” and was one of our most beloved public figures that spoke to three generations. For 30 years he hosted a television program where he started each show by putting on his sweater and sneakers. His message was simple, sincere, and something we could all understand. His wisdom was one of kindness and he saw the best in each individual. When he spoke you thought he was actually listening to you.
“The real issue in life is not how many blessings we have, but what we do with our blessings. Some people have many lessings and hoard them. Some have few and give everything away.” — Fred Rogers
Growing up Mr. Wisser, his wife, and five children lived across the street from us in Kalamazoo. Our neighborhood would have been described as blue collar and Mr. Wisser managed an auto body repair shop. Long after his boys had grown, Mr. Wisser could still be seen nearly every night in the summer umpiring a little league baseball game, and when fall rolled around he would go to the Hackett Catholic Central football game and he would take my brother Chris and me if we needed a ride. He took my brother and I fishing when he and his youngest son were taking their boat to one of the lakes. In the winter, he made sure the snowmobile was working so his son could taking us and the other neighborhood kids snowmobiling in the field behind our house.
“The connections we make in the course of life – maybe that’s what heaven is.” — Fred Rogers
In college, I lived in a house with three other roommates in one of the nicest housing areas in Kalamazoo. The house was owned by the parents of two of my roommates who I had known in high school. Jim and Marianne lived next door to us. As you can imagine, or can recall, twenty-something age young men might be challenging in a family residential neighborhood. Yes, there were times when we would have shall we say, a “get together” (i.e., party) with many friends. We made it a point to invite some of our neighbors and often times Jim would stop by for a “cold one.” When it got to be late (or early morning), or a little too loud, Jim would simply walk over and mention to us that we might want to think about “wrapping things up.”
Prior to Story City, I was manager in Homer, Michigan. I lived in Pat and Deb Miller’s “pool house” and they had a pool that I could swim in or shoot hoops in the driveway with their son Kyle. Homer can be described as an old-fashioned neighborhood. Regardless of whether you were born there or a newcomer, worked for one of the businesses or owned a company, everyone lived and felt a part of the community. Be it a fun(d) raiser for the school or gathering at Cascarelli’s Pizza, everyone was invited, connected with one another, accepted and looked out for each other.
“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” — Fred Rogers
For 11 years, Paul and Karen Munson were our neighbors here in Story City up on Frette Drive. What wonderful neighbors. In the summer of 1998, when Christopher was about 2½ years old and Elizabeth was pregnant, Paul was shingling the duplex. One day, Paul was done and went into his house to get cleaned up. Elizabeth and Christopher were outside when the telephone rang and Elizabeth had gone in the house momentarily to get it. When she came back out Christopher was gone. As she went around the house she spotted Christopher at the top of the ladder, going on the roof. Oops, Paul left the ladder out. Elizabeth quickly went to get Paul and he rushed up the ladder where Christopher could be seen sitting on the top of the roof with his hammer working away. Although Paul caught quite a bit of hell from Karen; to us he was our hero. For Halloween that year Christopher was a “roofer” with business cards and all.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my Mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” — Fred Rogers
Amber Caudle was a student of mine in a class I taught at Grand View University a number of years ago. Several years before that she received an award when she risked her own life to save that of another individual whose car was on fire. I think of our volunteer fire fighters and first responders who are our neighbors who help those in time of need whether they know them or not. You don’t need to know the person to be a neighbor, but to be a good neighbor means realizing that we live in a global community and that we are all neighbors.
“There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be KIND. The second way is to be KIND. The third way is to be KIND.” — Fred Rogers
Scott lives kiddy-corner from us on Pennsylvania and each fall he helps me install some windows, borrow a mower if needed, and brings back maple syrup from Wisconsin when he is away and we are taking care of his dog Elmer. We have some new neighbors, Mike and Michelle Qualley, who moved in across the street. One day our car wouldn’t start and Mike walked across the street and jumped it for us.
Mister Rogers neighborhood was one of make-believe and in today’s world of reality-shows, I prefer his neighborhood where each person is special, but not in the self-centered, it’s all about me, way that it seems to have become. What makes each of us special in his neighborhood is in helping others. Mister Rogers was proud of us, not by today’s standards of fame and fortune, but in connecting with each other, listening to each other, and giving of ourselves to each other.
Mister Rogers neighborhood was not all sunshine and roses. He listened, understood, and talked about that which plagued us then, plagues us now — dying and death, family struggles, addiction, and how we at times can be cruel to one another. The difference was that he spoke to us in a civil and non-confrontational way with the purpose of looking for ways to help and bring out the best in others.
Mister Rogers message was directed at children, but it seems that today it should be us adults who need to re-watch his program and relearn what we may have forgotten — that everyone has value.
I have often heard of Story City referred to as Mayberry and Bedford Falls, but let’s take a moment and each one of us ask ourselves how Story City can emulate the neighborhood of Mister Rogers?
I have always wanted to have a neighbor
Just like you!
I’ve always wanted to live in a
Neighborhood with you.
So let’s make together we might as well say,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?
Mark A. Jackson