Won’t You Be My Foolish Neighbor?

Fred Rogers taught millions about love, kindness, and self-acceptance on his long-running show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He also had a brief brush with the Fool!

In this bonus episode of Rule Breaker Investing, we play back a 2002 interview between Fred Rogers and the brothers Gardner on The Motley Fool Radio Show. Mister Rogers shares how the Neighborhood got its start, his opinion on kids these days, advice for teaching your children about money, how growing up during the Depression shaped his attitude toward thrift, his best and worst investments over the years, what manages to stoke his ire, and so much more. And, if you have the time and access, be sure to catch Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the Fred Rogers biopic that just dropped this weekend.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on June 9, 2018.

David Gardner: Welcome back to Rule Breaker Investing! Thanks for joining me for this weekend extra. It’s a really special extra. It lives on in my mind. As I talked about this with my producer, Rick Engdahl, and my longtime compatriot, Mac Greer, we thought, we should definitely air our interview with Fred Rogers from many years ago because of this weekend — Fred Rogers’ documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, is now out in theater. So, yeah, we’re going to promote it a little bit and get you out there. In fact, by the time this airs, I’ve already seen it, because I went to it Friday night. I bet I loved it. So, I definitely wanted to have my friend Mac Greer in. Mac, first of all, hey!

Mac Greer: David, good to see you!

Gardner: Happy weekend!

Greer: Happy weekend! Happy weekend for me, too! I think we’re probably going on Saturday to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor.

Gardner: OK. We’re going to the AMC Shirlington, which is not the biggest theater here in Washington. I don’t think it’s in a huge release, maybe not making all of the IMAX screens out there. But, I hope it’ll do good sales.

Greer: I think it will. The preview looks awesome. Fast-paced, not anything like the actual Mister Rogers’ real show. But that’s OK.

Gardner: Mac, thinking back in the day, you had many roles at The Motley Fool. One of them was helping us book guests like Fred Rogers. Do you remember dialing him up and trying to get him on The Motley Fool Radio Show?

Greer: I do. This may have been my high-water mark. This is back in 2002. If you’re of a certain age, then you look at Mister Rogers, he’s iconic. I think he was a saint in every way. I watched his show as a young lad in the late 60s, I started watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street, that was my one-two punch.

Gardner: So did I.

Greer: Pretty strong.

Gardner: Did you ever watch The Electric Company coming on a little later?

Greer: I did. I did like The Electric Company. That was almost a little too edgy for me. I liked the slower pace of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I don’t know what that says about me.

Gardner: While you don’t have a Mister Rogers’ sweater on right now, Mac —

Greer: I don’t.

Gardner: — it’s almost like you could have. You’re accoutered often in a way that, you would not look out of place in a Mister Rogers’ sweater here in this office.

Greer: I think that’s a compliment? I’m not quite sure. I’m not quite sure how to receive that. But, yeah, he was a hero of mine. And we had a colleague at the time, Carol Feld, who had a connection to Mister Rogers. He was based in Pittsburgh. So, she said, “Call this guy, David Newell, see if you can get Fred Rogers on the show.”

Over the course of months, we tried to get Mister Rogers to come on the show. Finally, he did come on our show. This is back in November of 2002. And I’m talking to David Newell on the phone, and we’re finalizing the deal. He finally says, at the end of this conversation, “And maybe sometime, you’ll want to have me on the show.” And I’m like, “Because we’re going to do a special on David Newell? That makes no sense to me.” And then he says, “I’m Mr. McFeely.”

Gardner: Oh my! Wow! Jaw-dropper.

Greer: Jaw-dropper! If you watch Mr. Rogers, Mr. McFeely, he was the mailman! And I’m like, “I am so sorry, Mr. McFeely, for not paying you the proper respect.” I don’t think we ever actually had him on the show.

Gardner: I was going to say, I think history will show that we never did have Mr. David Newell on — who I believe is still living. Unfortunately, Fred Rogers is no longer with us. But, I think maybe there’s a little bit of an IOU that you want to close the loop on at some point, before the summer’s out.

Greer: I think so. There you go.

Gardner: Well, without further ado, Mac, I think we should probably roll it. This is about a 15-minute interview or so. It includes my brother Tom and me interviewing Fred Rogers. He was a delight. I hope, if you were a Mister Rogers fan, as Mac Greer and D. Gardner were back in the day, I hope this will give you the warm fuzzies as you hear Fred’s brush with The Motley Fool.

D. Gardner: Two words sum up our next guest: Mister Rogers. For 33 years, Fred Rogers entertained and educated millions of us as host of the television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He’s the recipient of numerous honors and awards and is the author of numerous books, including his most recent, the Mister Rogers’ Parenting Book. We’re truly honored to have him join us, from NPR member station WQED in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Tom Gardner: Mister Rogers, welcome to The Motley Fool Radio Show!

Fred Rogers: Thank you, brothers Gardner!

T. Gardner: We have to ask: kids these days, what do you think?

Rogers: I think that the outsides have changed a lot, particularly louder and faster, but the insides of us don’t change. Human beings, no matter what our age, want to know that we are lovable and capable of loving.

D. Gardner: So, really, when you step away from it, do you think of kids today as more similar or more different than, let’s say, the 1950s and 60s?

Rogers: More similar.

D. Gardner: For the very reason you —

Rogers: Well, I look on the insides of people, and always have. I think that it’s far more important to think about what’s not so visible in life. This is a money program, you said, so these views may not be what you’re looking for, but they’re my views.

D. Gardner: Well, let me say that money, we view as just a medium. It is synonymous with opportunity for us. In the end, it’s the decisions that you make.

Let me ask, Fred Rogers, when did you first come up with the idea for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood?

Rogers: Well, it wasn’t my idea. As a matter of fact, I went to Toronto to do a program, thinking that I was going to go and do puppets and music, as I had always done here. And Dr. Frederick Rainsbury said to me, “You know, I’ve seen you talk with children. I’d like to translate that to the screen, so, let’s just do that and call it Mister Rogers.” Well … [laughs] that was quite a switch for me. I had never been on the screen before. But, you know, I love children, and I trust that that comes through.

T. Gardner: When did the first program air, and when did you first realize that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was going to be a national success?

Rogers: Oh, it aired in the early 60s. And I think that, the time that I heard a little girl in a store saying to her dad, “Meow meow have meow please,” [laughs] I think that’s when I knew that some people were watching. Do you know Henrietta Pussycat? She’d be glad to talk with you. “Meow meow, money talk, meow.” No, no, Henrietta.

“It’s a great pleasure to be with you, brothers Gardner, Tom and David. Incidentally, that thing that Mister Rogers said earlier on, foolery does walk the orb like the sun, you know that one?”

D. Gardner: Yes, we do well.

Rogers: “Well, now, is it tomfoolery or davidfoolery?”

T. Gardner: It’s a little bit of both, although, tomfoolishness being a word in Webster’s, I’ll take credit for it.

Did you ever think of your work as a business? Was this a career for you, something that you loved to do that you didn’t think of as a career, or both?

Rogers: Oh, I think it’s always been a ministry for me. I felt that what people really want is to be in touch with somebody who cares about them and wants to appreciate them. Through the neighborhood, we’ve been able to do that a lot. We have wonderful guests. Those people who come to offer their own talents, it seems to me to be a great thing to do.

T. Gardner: Let’s talk about your new book, The Mister Rogers’ Parenting Book. What one or two tips can you give to my brother, who I think, overall, is doing a very good job with his three kids, but self-improvement is an ongoing process.

Rogers: I think one of the best things that we can do as parents is to remember what it was like to be a child. Get to know who the children are. I saw a wonderful list today about adults in relationship with kids. There were 150 things, things like “be yourself,” “listen to their stories,” “feed them when they’re hungry,” “call them to say hello,” “hold hands during a walk,” things like that, you know? Just, show them that you are invested in them, and boy, they will bloom. Build something together. Ask them to help you. Introduce them to people of excellence. Tell them what you expect of them, and expect their best, but not perfection. Things like that.

D. Gardner: What about the 21st century parent, who might be saying, “Hold hands, spend time with my child, play a video game with my son after dinner?”

Rogers: Why not? Let the child teach you how. My grandchildren teach me. People love to know that they have something within them that is of value.

D. Gardner: Fred Rogers, you mentioned earlier, you’ve picked up on this, you’ve caught on to The Motley Fool Radio Show’s shtick, and that is that we are a money show, as you mentioned. So, let me ask, what do you think parents should be teaching their kids about money?

Rogers: I feel that, feelings about money, saving and spending, holding back and letting go, start very early in our lives. Stingy people have often been forced to give when they were very young, when they weren’t ready. And generous people have often been really appreciated when they were very young. Do you talk about that much?

T. Gardner: We certainly do. One of the themes on The Motley Fool website each year, particularly come these times, is Foolanthropy, charitable giving by our community, bringing people together, helping them pick the charities that they want to be involved in and setting up a system for them to give through our site. You’ve talked a lot about charitable giving with your idea of the Giving Box. Explain what the Giving Box is, and how parents can use it.

Rogers: Well, it’s just a little box with a hole in the top of it, you could make it yourself. Make a family tradition, you know, of talking about the needs of others as well as your own needs. You know, I think it’s so important to remember that everyone has something to give. Everyone has something to give. And everyone needs something to receive. There isn’t anybody in the world who is completely self-sufficient, and there isn’t anyone who doesn’t have at least something to give.

D. Gardner: Mister Rogers, looking back over your career, over your life, what have been your smartest and your dumbest investments? And that can be an investment of money or an investment of time. Your smartest and your dumbest.

Rogers: Well, I think the smartest was probably investing in other people. And the dumbest was putting money in a slot machine.

D. Gardner: [laughs] Very well put. We agree in. I’d love to hear a little bit more about, when you talk about investing in other people, are you thinking of anyone in particular, or a particular investment that you made that really paid off, in whatever way we mean by pay off?

Rogers: Yes. I was asked by somebody who had a small magazine if I would help him to further that along. And I did. And a few years later, it was about 50X back what I had given to him, and he gave it to me.

T. Gardner: You were born in the Western Pennsylvania town of Latrobe in 1928 — that, of course, a year before the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. There are a lot of people today who are looking at their financial situation, after what’s happened with the market, and reevaluating their priorities. What was your experience with money growing up during and just after the Great Depression?

Rogers: I think most of us who grew up in the Depression are quite conscious of being careful with money and other things. I mean, probably, the roots of my recycling start in the Depression. I recycle everything I possibly can find. You know, I’ll stop my car and pick up a plastic bottle on the street and take it home to recycle.

But, when the tenor of the whole country is such that everything is limited, that sticks with you. I was only two, three, four years old at that time. And yet, you get those attitudes from the people that you live with, those who are closest to you. I’ll always have that sort of substratum of, it’s best to save. I mean, I could no more throw away a paper clip and not reuse it than fly. Of course, I can fly. [laughs] I learned to fly when I was a senior in high school from a perfectly wonderful man, an African American man who later went to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and taught the flyers there for the Second World War, all the pilots there.

T. Gardner: And do you still fly today?

Rogers: I don’t fly myself. There are a lot of very fine pilots in the air now, so I just sit behind them.

D. Gardner: Mister Rogers, since both Tom and I grew up watching your show, we’re well aware of you as a persona. That’s why I have to ask, is Fred Rogers Fred Rogers?

Rogers: I think that my wife says it best. People say to her, “Is he really like that?” And she said, “What you see is what you get.” And I don’t know whether you sense that from our visit here today, but, I think the greatest gift that anybody can give anybody else — as a matter of fact, the only unique gift that anybody can give — is his or her honest self. Nobody could give you, Dave, to anybody else. Nobody could give you, Tom, to anybody else. You’re the only one who can give yourself to somebody else.

D. Gardner: It makes complete sense. And, obviously, you have lived what you’ve just described. When I think about watching your show and as I hear you speak now, you project such a sense of calmness, you create a tremendous sense of calm in the people who listen to you. Do you ever go a little bit crazy? Do you ever get angry?

Rogers: Oh, sure. In fact, I wrote a song. “What do you do, with the mad that you feel, when you feel so mad you could bite?” Well, a little child said that once.

I get angry when I think that justice isn’t being served. To me, justice is taking care of those who aren’t able to take care of themselves. I received a postcard this morning, just came in this morning’s mail, from someone who has worked in Eritrea for a long time. And he has helped set up orphanages there and places to take care of children. He’s a doctor. They came to visit us last summer, and he said it was “like an anchor point in this increasingly ugly world of brutal self-interest, corruption, and disregard for the lives of others. We keep at it here with the orphans, even though the politicians bring down one government after another.” So, that’s the kind of thing that can get up my ire. Well, you asked! [laughs]

T. Gardner: Right. Let’s talk a little bit more about justice briefly. Some of our listeners may not know that you’re also an ordained Presbyterian minister. As someone who’s spent your life talking about values, living those values, what’s your take on some of the scandals that have played out in corporate America over the last few years, speaking about not taking care of the people that we work with, in many cases?

Rogers: Exactly. Well, what do you think it is that drives people to want far more than they could ever use or need? I, frankly, think it’s insecurity. Often, the show-off is insecure. I’ve seen kids walk into a nursery school class with their mitts up. Now, those kids are scared. They’re going to act brave and scare everybody else before they scare them.

D. Gardner: They’re worried about not being accepted.

Rogers: Exactly. So, how do we let the world know that the trappings of this life are not the things that are ultimately important for being accepted? That’s what I’ve tried to do all through the years with the Neighborhood. “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 fancy toys. They’re just beside you. But 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. It’s you I like.”

T. Gardner: Wonderfully said.

Rogers: Thank you, Tom!

D. Gardner: You know, I’m thinking, Thomas, as I hear Mister Rogers obviously recite from memory some of his own poetry, I have to ask my brother here, just for a second, have you ever written a poem? Could you share a little bit with us?

T. Gardner: I have written some poems. I’d also like to share one of my favorite poems. It’s written by Emily Dickinson and I think it’s appropriate to our conversation. And then, we can close up with our game.

It’s a poem, one of her more than a thousand poems that she wrote, none of which were published in her lifetime. She was living more than a hundred years ago. And she wrote a poem, a very short poem. “If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain. If I can ease one soul the aching or cool one pain or help one fainting robin unto his nest again, I shall not live in vain.” That’s my poem.

D. Gardner: Thank you for that spontaneous show, and a lovely one. Let’s close with our game, Mister Rogers. It’s buy, sell or hold. We’re going to ask you your opinion about a few things happening in our society, ask you, if these things were stocks — since we do talk about stocks from time to time on the show — would you be buying, selling or holding? An example might be, let’s say, buy, sell or hold broccoli? But we’re not going to ask you that one. I want to know, to start off with, buy, sell or hold — since mores have changed over the decades — buy, sell or hold spanking?

Rogers: Spanking? I’d like to give you a quote from a very wise person. “When we don’t understand, we spank.”

T. Gardner: Enough said.

D. Gardner: Sounds like a strong sell. Tom, you and I were spanked growing up, but I have never laid a hand on my kids, and I’m not sure that I will. I think things have kind of changed.

T. Gardner: They have changed. OK, if it were a stock, Mister Rogers, would you be buying, selling or holding the television show The Simpsons?

Rogers: I’m sorry, I don’t know that program. I know about it, but I have not seen it. So, I guess I’d be holding.

D. Gardner: It was one of Saturday Night Live’s more popular segments in the 1980s, maybe you didn’t see this one, either, but I’m sure you’re aware of it. Buy, sell or hold Eddie Murphy’s Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood?

Rogers: Buy!

D. Gardner: And why?

Rogers: [laughs] Well, I met him one time out in the hall at NBC, and he said to me, “The real Mister Rogers!” and he threw his arms around me. I think that Eddie Murphy did that take-off with real affection. He obviously wanted people to know that this was a Neighborhood that included all of us. And, in fact, it has been. Our mail is from every imaginable person in this country and beyond. In fact, one of the things that the Neighborhood has done, which surprised me at first, was that it was a vehicle for teaching English to people who had just come to this country from many different countries. Somebody in the basement of the White House came up to me one time and said, “You don’t know, but you teach us English.” And he had come from Israel.

T. Gardner: What a wonderful result from work that you’ve done that you probably hadn’t anticipated when you created Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in the first place.

Rogers: That’s true. And then, another time, I was in a restaurant in Texas, and somebody came up to me and said, “You speak very good Chinese.” And I said, “Really? Sorry, I wish I did.” He said, “Well, Chinese comes out of your mouth in Hong Kong very good.” So, we found out that the program was being pirated, taken from a satellite or something. And I said, “That’s fine, just so long as they put the exact words that I’m saying.”

T. Gardner: [laughs] Have you ever had an opportunity to see yourself dubbed in Chinese?

Rogers: No, I haven’t. [laughs]

T. Gardner: We will close with: buy, sell or hold mean people?

Rogers: Now, if I say sell, does that mean, get rid of them?

T. Gardner: It is ambiguous.

Rogers: I see. Well, please sell all those mean people. [laughs] I’d like to close with another Shakespeare quote. You know, we started with one?

D. Gardner: Yes, perfect. Please do!

Rogers: There’s one that I really like. It’s from the last part of King Lear. “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” And it sounds to me as if that’s what you all do.

T. Gardner: We aspire to it each week, and we do so because we were raised enjoying programs like yours. Mister Rogers joins us from member station WQED in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Mister Rogers, thanks for joining us on The Motley Fool Radio Show!

Rogers: Thank you, Dave and Tom!

Gardner: Alright, back to the present day. Mac, I want to thank you again for that booking. You and I both Mister Rogers’ fans. You, bigger fan than I.

Greer: Huge fan!

Gardner: My wife, possibly, bigger fan than you. But, both of us even more a fan, having just heard what we heard.

Greer: David, when I think of Mister Rogers, this is a very strange word, but, when I think of that interview — I mean, first of all, when we got to talk to him and we heard from him, he was exactly who I wanted him to be in all the best ways. Generous and gracious and kind.

But the word I think of, and it’s a strange word, is subversive. I think, because he was just so radically, incredibly kind, so incredibly inclusive, he didn’t speak down to kids, I think there was something beautifully subversive about Mister Rogers, and I mean that in all of the best ways. He was the ultimate rule breaker.

Gardner: Nice!

Greer: And no one thinks of Mister Rogers as a rule breaker. I have this friend who’s like, “Oh, I was never a Mister Rogers’ fan.” He kind of dismisses him out of hand. And I know where he’s going with that. Like, “The guy, this show was kind of slow.” You’re missing it.

Gardner: He didn’t pause and take the time to really listen, this friend of yours.

Greer: He didn’t. Mister Rogers was transcendent. He existed outside of place in time. He was the ultimate rule breaker, and he did it all with a sweater and a change of shoes.

Gardner: Well, let’s just leave it right there. Enjoy the rest of your weekend, my dear listeners! Coming up next week, as I hope you heard from this week’s show, you’ll know that it’s the Market Cap Game Show. That’s right, our latest episode, playing the game show with you in your home, of course joined by my special guest, as has been the case every time, Matthew Argersinger. We’ll all try to figure out the market caps of companies together and get smarter about the world. In the meantime, have a great rest of your weekend. Thanks, Mac!

Greer: Thanks, David!

Gardner: Fool on!

As always, people on this program may have interests in the stocks they talk about, and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against, so don’t buy or sell stocks based solely on what you hear. Learn more about Rule Breaker Investing at rbi.fool.com.

“Follow meow, meow walk the orb meow the sun, meow shines everywhere, meow meow meow a beautiful meow.”

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