Fred Rogers, Honorary Doctor of Letters

Commencement Address

Middlebury College

May 2001

© 2001,  Fred Rogers

 

For a long time I wondered why I felt like bowing when people showed their  appreciation for the work that I've been privileged to do. What I've come to understand is that we who bow are probably - whether we know it or not - acknowledging the presence of the eternal in our neighbor. You see, I believe that appreciation is a holy thing, that when we look for what's best in the person we happen to be with at the moment, we're doing what God does; so, in appreciating our neighbor, we're participating in something truly sacred.

 

As I look back over these past 40 years of making television programs, I think that one of the important things I've been able to do on the air was to put my feet in some water where Officer Clemmons had already put his feet. It was a hot day and Francois stopped by my place and said his feet were tired from walking, so I got a basin of water. He took off his shoes and socks, put his feet in the water, said it felt good, so I just tried it, too. The picture of those four feet together in that basin of water said as much about neighbors and possible neighborhoods as all the words we could have thought to say.

 

Well, Francois Clemmons lives in this neighborhood now, and he loves Middlebury, and I can see why. Vermont is a small state which makes an enormous difference. Most of you have known that for a long time. Now the whole world is hearing it more and more. (Again) I thank you all for your generous welcome.

 

When I was a freshman in college, I met someone who happened to know a very famous songwriter who lived in New York. Ever since I was a little boy, I had wanted to meet that songwriter. I was convinced that if I could just get him to hear my songs (I had about five 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.

 

I was able to get an interview with that songwriter, and I remember so well being 19 years old, 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 parents will be so proud of me, and before long my five songs will be sung by millions of Broadway show-goers."

 

That's not what happened. The famous composer was very welcoming. He asked me to play a couple of my songs, and he listened intently while I did. When I was finished, he said, "Very nice, Fred. Now, how many songs have you written?" 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 barrel full, and we'll talk again."

 

A barrel full of songs would mean hundreds of songs!! I can still remember the disappointment I felt traveling all the way back to college. Nevertheless, that man's counsel was more inspired than I realized. It took me a long time 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 five I had written. So I got to work; and through the years, one by one, I have written a barrel full.

 

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, and through it all, helped me to do more than I ever dreamed possible.

 

Several months ago I was privileged to tape a part of the "neighborhood" with four live elephants: three adults weighing several thousand pounds each and a baby who weighed 450 pounds. The man who oversees their  care at the pittsburgh zoo is Willie Theison (pronounced Tyson) who loves and respects those creatures so much that all he has to do is say a word and they back up or move forward or get ready for their baths. I learned from one of the other zoo employees that even on his days off Willie comes to the zoo around 10:30 or 11 at night just to say goodnight to the elephants. It was obvious to me that they know that he loves them.

 

I've sensed the same spirit in marine biologist, Sylvia Earle, whenever I've worked with her. Whether we've been scuba diving in very deep water or working with the little fish in our neighborhood aquarium, I've watched Sylvia's exquisite appreciation of those creatures that she spends so much of her life trying to understand.

 

Yes, the thing I remember best about the truly successful people I've met is their obvious delight in what they do. Such honest enthusiastic living of our lives -- no matter what our talents may be - can deeply affect others!

 

I wonder if you've heard what happened at the Seattle Special Olympics a few years ago? For the 100 yard dash, there were nine contestants, all of them so-called physically or mentally disabled. All nine of them assembled at the starting line; and, at the sound of the gun they took off - but one little boy stumbled and fell and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard the boy crying. They slowed down, turned around, saw the boy and ran back to him - every one of them ran back to him. One little girl with Down's syndrome bent down and kissed the boy and said, "This will make it better." The little boy got up, and he and the rest of the runners linked their arms together and joyfully walked to the finish line. They all finished the race at the same time. And when they did, everyone in the stadium stood up and clapped and whistled and cheered for a long, long time. People who were there are still telling the story with obvious delight. And you know why, because deep down we know that what matters in this life is much more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too, even if it means slowing down and changing our course now  and then.

 

Beside my chair in my office is a framed piece of calligraphy with a sentence from Saint Exupery's book, "The  Little Prince" ("Le Petit Prince"). It reads: "L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux." (What is essential is invisible to the eye.) I feel the closer we get to knowing and living the truth of that sentence, the closer we get to wisdom.

 

What is essential about you that is invisible to the eye? And who are those who have helped you become who you are today?

 

Anyone who has ever graduated from a college, anyone who has ever been able to sustain a good work has had at least one person - and often many - who believed in him or her. We just don't get to be competent human beings without many different investments from others.

 

In fact, from the time you were very little, you've had people who have smiled you into smiling, people who have talked you into talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving.

 

So, on this extra special day, let's take some time to think of those extra special people. Some of them may be right here, some may be far away. Some may even be in heaven. No matter where they are, deep down you know they've always wanted what was best for you. They've always cared about you beyond measure and have encouraged you to be true to the best within you. Let's just take a minute of silence to think about those people now.

One minute of silence

Whomever you've been thinking about: just imagine how grateful they must be that you remember them when you think of your own becoming.

We don't always succeed in what we try - certainly not by the world's standards - but 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 we never have to fear the truth, that the bed-rock of our very  being is good stuff.

 

One of the songs in my barrel full of songs is a very short one from one of our neighborhood operas. It's one of my favorites. Officer Clemmons sings it about someone he's missing - someone who's far away.

 

This may be a surprise to Dr. Clemmons. I hope it is!! We made an audio dub from the videotape of his singing that song just for this commencement today. I'd like you all to hear it now. It's called "I Think of You."

Audio: "I Think of You"

Well, when this day turns into night many of you will be gone from Middlebury - many of you will be starting to fill up your barrels with whatever gifts you've been given to use in service for our world. Even though you are not here you'll have a lot of people who are thinking of you - a lot of people who are loving you.

 

And for all the rest of your days and nights I hope you can remember that you never have to do anything sensational for people to love you. The outside things of life are not the really important things. It's our insides that make us who we are, that allow us to dream and wonder and feel for others. That's what's essential. That's what will always make the biggest difference in our world.

 

Now before I say goodbye and bow again to the eternal within you, I'd like to give you the words of one more neighborhood song -- a commencement gift for old time's sake. The song is called "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.

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!

Congratulations to you all!