Fred Rogers’ Unfinished Work

In an archival folder dated late 2002, I found this little note.

greatest gift watermark

Fred was preparing his commencement address to Dartmouth College (where he had attended as an undergraduate). He jotted down the main idea of his talk on a small piece of stationary from Rollins College (to which he transferred from Dartmouth).

This Dartmouth address became one of Fred’s last public speeches. In the final draft, Fred used the words on this little note to explain what he meant by the often-sang neighborhood song “It’s You I Like” (second only to “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”),

“When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about … that deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.”

Today is the 88th anniversary of Fred Rogers’ birth (March 20, 1928). It falls in the midst of an important U.S. election season in which people from all walks of life strive to distinguish love from hate, choose peace over war, and lift justice above greed. Even as we commemorate Fred’s legacy, I couldn’t help but wonder, what if Fred had lived? How might our world be different now?

In a somber and beautiful video by the Anti-Defamation League, titled “Imagine a World Without Hate,” viewers are led to imagine what newspaper headlines would be now if Dr. Martin Luther King, or Anne Frank, or Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and many others, had lived. Here are just a few examples:

  • “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 84, champions immigration reform”
  • “Anne Frank wins Nobel Prize for her 12th novel”
  • “Yitzhak Rabin, 90, honored for nearly two decades of Israeli-Palestinian Peace”

While it has been 15 years since Fred completed the last episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, I wonder what newspaper stories would have been if Fred had the opportunity to continue his advocacy on behalf of children and families?

Here is my personal wish list would include:

  • National Governors Association & Council of Chief State School Officers Propose Renewed Focus on Children’s Social and Emotional Well-Being
    Goal is to reduce over-reliance on standardized cognitive tests
  • Entertainment Media Consumption Declines for First Time in Decades
    Increased use of community parks and participation in neighborhood events
  • Presidential Candidates Host Televised “Listening” Sessions with Voters of Opposing Party
    National polls show emerging common ground and purpose in electorate
  • Fred Rogers and Pope Francis Lead International Youth Conference
    Leaders encourage children worldwide to care for our common environment

Fred’s work is unfinished. Each of us who appreciates Fred’s legacy could dream up our own lists. There will be items that are not newspaper headlines at all, but simple and kind acts that happen in everyday lives, in our homes, classrooms, and neighborhoods. But, like Fred often said to children, wishing does not make something come true, so “you’ve got to do it.” Whatever our wish lists may be, whether grand or ordinary, they are now our work to do.

“It’s not easy to keep trying,” Fred reminded us, “but it’s one good way to grow.” Whatever we do, it will be for love, for peace, and for justice. We hear you, Fred.


Junlei Li, Ph.D., is the Co-Director of Fred Rogers Center and Associate Professor for Early Learning and Children’s Media. He directs the Center’s research and development lab, “Incubator 143,” where students engage with the Fred Rogers Archive, collaborate with community partners, and serve children, family, and professionals at home and abroad.

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  • Kim Nussbaum / 20 March 2016 5:36

    Thank you for sharing this treasure. David Newell spoke very highly of you Junlei. I look forward to meeting you one day. -Kim Nussbaum, ASL Friends, Inc.

  • David Mauldin / 20 March 2016 8:27

    Mister Rogers my hero! The world was not worthy of him. He was a true Christian.

  • Barbara / 20 March 2016 11:06

    Thank you for these inspiring words.

  • Kathy / 10 February 2019 3:31

    Fred Rogers had a profound impact on children & their families through his show on PBS. He didn’t want kids to be exploited or commercialized and he wanted to show kids they are special just the way they are. He spoke the bible without preaching but with love, kindness & and through music, play and calm actions! He lived in the image of Christ and he is missed, but his message lives on!