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Paul Kengor / Jan. 7, 2014

Mister Rogers vs. the Unity Tree

I was walking by Stanwix Street and Penn Avenue last week when struck by our city’s “Unity Tree.” It’s a curious thing about the Unity Tree: it only comes out at Christmas time – yes, Christmas. This self-proclaimed source of “unity,” like much of modern liberalism, preaches inclusion while it excludes. It boldly expunges “Christmas” from what everyone knows is a Christmas tree. Remarkably, even the banner adorning the tree takes care to exclude Christmas. “Season’s Greetings,” it tells us.

Well, what season? We know but can’t say.

As I continued down Stanwix, I was struck by a legitimate source of unity, one that didn’t divide us, and who didn’t refrain from the Christmas message. There he was, captured in a big poster in a window: Fred Rogers. Mister Rogers.

Some readers might remember that Mister Rogers recorded an hour-long primetime Christmas special in 1977. His first primetime show, it was titled “Christmas Time with "Mr. Rogers,” not “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” with Mr. Rogers.

At the same time, it featured real unity. Fred Rogers discussed Hanukkah as well as Christmas. The trolley clicked through the Neighborhood of Make-Believe with a banner wishing “Happy Chanukah” on one side and “Merry Christmas” on the other. “Silent Night” was sung. It wasn’t like today’s phony “unity” where the apostles of “diversity” banish references to Christmas.

When I saw that poster in the window on Stanwix, it occurred to me that it has been 10 years since Fred Rogers left this world. Can you believe it? What is it about the man that still makes us smile? That still touches a soft spot? That still genuinely unites us?

For me, it’s partly my age. I was born in 1966, when there were a handful of TV channels. “Kids programming” consisted of a few PBS mornings shows, with Pittsburgh’s own Fred Rogers the feature attraction. His comforting, patient demeanor drew you in. He was more than a friendly face in the neighborhood. He was a teacher.

One of my favorite Mister Rogers stories was told by my pastor at Bethany Presbyterian Church in Bridgeville in the 1990s.

The pastor had a friend, a pious businessman who lived in Connecticut. Though very successful, he was being tugged to make a change. That wasn’t what his wife wanted to hear, especially when a Pittsburgh company showed interest. Her image of Pittsburgh was smoky, rusty, and smelly. She and her husband prayed for guidance. It would be in God’s hands.

The husband liked what he saw, and the company liked him. Mom and the kids would be a tough sell. The company flew them in, as mom prayed for a sign.

When they landed at Pittsburgh International, she was sure the sign had come: a giant “no way.” Their youngest child had vanished. They frantically searched the airport, shouting his name. Just then, mom spotted her son wide-eyed speaking to a gaunt man in an overcoat. She assumed the worst and readied to scold the stranger … until she saw his face. It was Mister Rogers.

In that trademark voice, he tenderly explained to the mom that her little boy, who he identified by name, had told him his concerns about moving. Mister Rogers explained that although moving can be difficult, it’s often for the better, for dad, for mom, for the children. The boy would adjust, make new friends, and so on.

Mom got her sign. It was not only a man of the cloth (Rogers was an ordained minister) but … well, Mister Rogers. Could there be a better ambassador? The family moved, and grew to like Pittsburgh – that is, Mister Rogers’ neighborhood.

You want unity, Pittsburgh? Fred Rogers represented it.

Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College, executive director of The Center for Vision & Values, and New York Times best-selling author of the book, “The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor.” His other books include “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism” and “Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.”

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