Remembering the Day Mr. Rogers Visited the Marist Neighborhood
One of this summer’s most unlikely cinematic hits has been Morgan Neville’s documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Focusing on the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, creator of the beloved children’s TV show "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood," the film has been wildly successful and has had a strong impact on audiences of all ages. Whether it’s because of nostalgia for childhood or because it harkens back to a less polarized time, the documentary has struck a nerve, and reports of theaters filled with emotional and even crying moviegoers have been common.
For longtime Marist employees, the strong positive reaction to the documentary comes as no surprise. Back in 1999, Marist invited Rogers to serve as Commencement speaker, and almost 20 years later, people on campus still talk about what an extraordinary occasion it was. That year, the College honored Rogers (who passed away in 2003) with a Doctor of Humane Letters degree for his achievements as creator and star of PBS’ Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The invitation to speak was facilitated by Rob Dyson, who at the time was Chair of the Marist Board of Trustees, and his sister, the late Dr. Anne Dyson, both of whom were friends with Rogers.
Recalling the event, President Emeritus Dennis Murray noted, “When I spoke with Mr. Rogers about his presentation, I asked him if he would be willing to sing his signature song, “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” He said he wasn’t sure, but that he would think about it. Just in case, I asked our Music Department and the maintenance team to set up an electric piano on the stage. After stepping up to the podium, Mr. Rogers delighted everyone by moving over to the piano and singing the song we all love. There was hardly a dry eye among the 10,000 people in the audience.”
Rogers’ speech was characterized by the kindness, empathy, and human decency for which he and his TV show were known. Emphasizing the importance of gratitude, he presided over an extraordinary moment of silence in which he asked Marist graduates to reflect on those special people in their lives who had loved and supported them. Noting that mistakes are an inevitable part of life, he counseled the graduates, “It’s the willingness to keep trying that matters most.” Addressing the rapt members of the Class of 1999, most of whom had watched his show as young children, Rogers reminded them of their innate value by reciting the lyrics to his song “It’s You I Like”:
It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair
But it’s you I like
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you
Not the things that hide you,
Not your diplomas
They’re just beside you.
It’s you I like
Every part of you.
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you're feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself
It’s you I like.
Rogers reminded the graduating students to never stop “wondering, dreaming, saying thank you, and caring for others,” advice that is just as relevant in today’s world, if not more so. Said President Emeritus Murray, “Fred Rogers’ Commencement speech was one of the most memorable in the history of the College. We often refer to the Marist community as a family, and Mr. Rogers brought us together as a family that day, reminding us of the values we share. It was truly a beautiful day in the Marist neighborhood.”