Fred Rogers offered unconditional acceptance. That was the door prize for kids who watched Mister Rogers Neighborhood and for the adults who operated in his orbit. And the sense the Fred Rogers really and truly did love people just the way they were substantively changed lives. For François Clemmons it altered a world view reverse-engineered from disappointment.
But Clemmons, who played a police officer on Mister Rogers Neighborhood, was a proud gay man and Fred Rogers asked him not to come out for fear that his doing so would endanger the show and the broader mission. For Clemmons, this forced him to reckon with the idea that his friend and mentor offered conditional support. Though he did not question Fred Rogers’ support of himself personally, he had to engage with the idea that the sort of radical love supposedly on offer in the neighborhood might not be feasible — that a beautiful idea might crumble in the face of reality.
How did Fred Rogers make his friend believe again? The answer has less to do with identity politics than it does with the unique power of setting an example — also, kiddie pools. Listen to the second episode of Fatherly’s Finding Fred to understand how Fred Rogers was able to provide his friend with the support he needed while also keeping his show.