I'll admit it. Sitting in the back of Knowles Memorial Chapel March 28, listening to the choir do an angelic rendition of "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" I felt a tear welling up. It would be a cold SOB who didn't.
This, after all, was Rollins College's official adieu to its most famous alum, Fred Rogers. On a sunny Friday afternoon, the church was jammed. And there was a palpable aura of peace and goodwill in the air, as if Mr. Rogers himself were in the house, already changed into his sweater and sneakers and ready to talk.
Somewhere between the reading of the 23rd Psalm and Rollins College president Rita Bornstein's remarks about Rogers' soothing presence in troubled times, it hit me: What kind of place would the world be if Fred Rogers were president? Kind, gentle, peaceful, erudite Fred Rogers. A man who explained to three generations of kids that it's not possible to get sucked down the drain, how astronauts pee, and why mommy and daddy sometimes don't live together; a man who said, "What really matters is whether the alphabet is used for declaration of war or the description of a sunrise."
Truly a great man. And one who would never get elected to office. Why not? The question won't leave me alone, which is probably indicative of a Fox TV overdose. So let's play it out:
Rogers earned a bachelor's degree in music composition from Rollins College and a bachelor's of divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. During his lifetime, he collected 40 honorary degrees from colleges and universities. As president of the campus French club, chairman of the campus race-relations committee and a member of the international relations club, he demonstrated an interest in the goings-on in the world at large.
George W. Bush received a bachelor's degree in history from Yale. His grades weren't good enough to get him into Yale, but his dad was an alum and a U.S. representative from Texas at the time. After Yale, Bush applied to law school at the University of Texas, but they turned him down. He joined the Texas Air National Guard, just 12 days before his student deferment would have expired, in order to avoid service in Vietnam. He took two years of flight training and served as a part-time fighter pilot until 1973. Outside his National Guard commitment, he was frequently unemployed. He has refused to explain a six-month gap in his service record, during which he was often absent.
Rogers began his career immediately after graduating from Rollins in 1951. He worked for NBC as an assistant producer and a floor director until WQED (the nation's first public television station) offered him a job in 1953. He created his first children's television program in 1954. When he wasn't working, Rogers attended graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, taking classes in child development. He became an ordained minister in 1963. In 1968, he created "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," the longest-running show on public television.
Bush was arrested for drunk driving in 1976. He ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1978 and lost. The same year, he started his own oil and gas company, Arbusto, with $17,000 from his education trust fund. Arbusto lost money when oil prices fell. It was rescued from bankruptcy when another energy company, Spectrum 7, bought it out. Bush was named CEO, given Spectrum 7 stock and a $75,000 annual salary. Spectrum 7 lost $400,000 in two years and was later bought out by Harken Oil. Bush was named to that company's board of directors and paid $80,000 a year as a consultant. In 1989, he bought a 2-percent stake in the Texas Rangers baseball team with a $500,000 loan from a Midland, Texas bank where he once served on the board of directors. In 1990, he sold his Harken stock for a 200 percent profit one week before the company announced a $23 million loss.
Rogers formed Family Communications, a nonprofit company, to distribute "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" in 1971. The company later branched out to include audio-visual materials, records and books.
Bush worked on his father's presidential campaign in 1987 and his re-election campaign in 1991. In 1994, he was elected governor of Texas. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court declared him the president of the United States, though he lost the popular election to Al Gore.
Rogers was named chairman of the White House Forum on Mass Media and Child Development in 1968. He won dozens of awards from groups specializing in television, education and early-childhood development. In 1999 he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. He published more than 200 songs and wrote seven books. Research on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" shows the program helps children reduce aggression, cope with fear, verbalize their feelings, accept rules and increase tolerance.
Bush's budget cuts taxes for the wealthy and shifts the burden of social services to states, putting children's programs like Head Start, Medicaid, foster care and housing assistance for families in jeopardy. He presented Rogers with The Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, the nation's highest civilian honor.
I'm sold. Rogers for president in 2004. Yes, he's dead, but let's not forget that John Ashcroft lost his Missouri Senate race to a corpse in 2000.
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