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June 1999


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Fred Rogers Addresses Graduates

Fred Rogers
Fred Rogers
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 Broadway showgoers.

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 such gratitude.

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

Last Updated
2 May 2001