Fred Rogers Addresses Graduates
Fred Rogers, creator of the long-running children's
TV program "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," began his
Commencement address at Marist May 22 by singing
the signature song from his program. The following
is the rest of his speech.
It's a privilege to be here, to be with all those
who have already spoken to you, many of them
friends. I'm just grateful that you wanted me to
be part of your celebration today. Somewhere along
the way I discovered that songwriting was for me.
My grandfather, Fred McFeely, loved to play the
violin and he'd always encourage my composing.
Anyway, when I was a freshman in college I met
someone who knew a very famous songwriter who
lived in New York, and I was convinced that if
I could just get him to hear my songs -- I had
five well-written songs then -- he would be so
impressed with them that he would introduce me to
Broadway and I would be an instant successful
composer of show tunes.
Well, I was able to get an interview with that man
and I remember so well flying to New York and all
the way thinking, this is it. I'll probably have to
give up college and get an apartment in the city,
and my family will be so proud of me, and before
long my five songs will be sung by millions of
Well, that's not what happened. The famous composer
was very welcoming. He asked me to play a couple
of my songs for him and he listened intently while
I played and sang them as well as I could. And,
when I was finished, he said, "That's very nice,
Fred, now how many songs have you written?" and
I told him five and I had brought them all. Then
he said something that has become very important
to me. He said, "I'd like you to come back after
you've written a barrelful and we'll talk again."
A barrelful of songs, that would mean hundreds of
songs! I can still remember the disappointment I
felt as I traveled all the way back to college.
Nevertheless, that man's counsel was far more
inspired than I realized. It took me many years
to understand that but, of course, what he knew
was that if I really wanted to be a songwriter,
I'd have to write songs, not just think about the
songs, the five that I had written. And so, after
the initial disappointment I got to work, and
through the years, one by one, I have written a
barrelful. In fact, the barrel's overflowing now,
and I can tell you the more I wrote the better the
songs became; the more those songs expressed what
was real within me.
If you saw our neighborhood on television when
you were very young you may have heard me sing, "I'm
proud of you, I'm proud of you." Well, that's one of
the songs from the barrel. And you can be sure that
in my heart I'm singing that again to you today.
I'm proud of what has brought you to this special
moment in your life. I'm proud of the choices you
have made to allow your Commencement to be.
In fact, I'm very much interested in choices, and
what it is and who it is that enables us human
beings to make these choices all through our lives.
What choices lead to ethnic cleansing? What choices
lead to healing? What choices lead to the destruction
of the environment or teenagers shooting other
teenagers and their teachers? What choices allow
heroism in the midst of chaos?
I have a lot of framed things in my office that
people have presented to me through the years. Some
of my favorites are sayings in different languages.
On my walls are Greek and Hebrew and Russian and
Chinese, and beside my chair is one in French. It's
a sentence from Saint-Exupery's Little Prince,
and it reads, L'essentiel est invisible pour les
yeux: What is essential is invisible to the eye.
The closer we get to knowing the truth of that
statement, the closer I feel we get to wisdom.
What is essential about you that's invisible to the
eye? And who are those who have helped you to become
who you are? My hunch is that anyone who has ever
graduated from a college or university, anyone who
has ever been able to sustain a good work, has had
at least one person, and often many, who have
believed in him or her. We just don't get to be
competent adults without the investment of many
along the way.
I'd like to give you all an invisible gift today:
a gift of a silent minute to think about any people
you know who have been an important part of your
life. Some of them may be here right now. Some of
them may be far away. Some of them may even be in
heaven. Wherever they are, if they've loved you
and encouraged you and wanted what was best in
life for you, they're right inside you. And I just
feel that you deserve quiet time on this very
special occasion to devote some thought to them.
So let's just take a minute of silence and think
about the people who have cared about us all along
the way. Just one minute. I'll watch the time.
Whomever you have been thinking about, just imagine
how grateful they must be that at this extra special
moment in your life you're remembering them with
You know, one of the most important things we human
beings can do is to express thanks. The Greek work
for thanks is eucharist. The way we say thank
you to God and to each other can be one of the
greatest gifts we'll ever be able to give. Thank
you as a gift? Yes, it's a great gift, and the
recognition that you've just given to those who
have loved you into being could be one of the most
important parts of our celebration today.
We don't always succeed in what we try, certainly
not by the world's standards. But, I think that
you'll find it's the willingness to keep trying that
matters most. It's not the honors and the prizes and
the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish
our souls. It's the knowing that we can be trusted,
that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff,
that we never have to fear the truth. That's what
makes growing humanity the most potentially glorious
enterprise on earth.
There is another neighborhood song, another one
from the barrel, that I often sing. I wrote it for
the child in each of us. As a Commencement gift
I'd like to give the words of that song to you. "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. 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."
And, of course, what that ultimately means is that
you don't ever have to do anything sensational to be
lovable, nothing sensational for people to love you.
In fact, the outside things of life, the things that
television and newspapers talk about most, are not
the really important things. When I say, it's
you I like, I'm talking about that part of you that
helps you to wonder and dream, to say thank you, and
to feel for others. That's the part of you that will
ultimately make the biggest difference in our world.
May God so bless you and your families and your
teachers and your friends always. It's such a good
feeling to know you're alive. Congratulations.
May 22, 1999