The film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which premieres this November, is based on the true story of the friendship between Fred Rogers L.H.D. ’85 and journalist Tom Junod that began when Junod was assigned to profile the legendary host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. When Rogers died in 2003, Junod wrote in his eulogy that “once you entered into Fred’s life, well, there was no doubt that he would enter into yours.”
While many in the HWS community grew up with Mr. Rogers, he officially entered the Colleges’ community in 1985, when he delivered the Commencement address and was awarded an honorary degree.
The graduating classes cheered as Rogers was introduced, as Assistant Director of First-Year Seminars Susan Hess ’85 recalls. “A piano had been wheeled onto the steps of Coxe Hall,” she says so that Rogers could sing the songs woven into his speech, “accompanying himself as he did so.”
Rogers told the Classes of 1985: “I don’t know your wishes or your hopes. Nobody but you and the people you care to share them with should know them. Wishes are sometime as grand and far beyond the reality of the present, but other wishers are intimate. They’re about simple things of daily life expressed again and again in contacts with other persons around us. I trust that you’ll feel good enough about yourself to do all you can to help the best of your wishes come true.”
“When you wish upon a star . . . Why, there are whole galaxies that we haven’t even discovered yet, stars way out in space within ourselves that are patiently waiting to brighten up our world,” Rogers said.
When he finished his address, Hess says, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
Read the full transcript below.
Fred Rogers — HWS Commencement Address
May 26, 1985
Geneva, New York
One evening last week, as I sat at the piano, I began to play a song – almost without thinking. Little by little, the words came to me, and I realized I had known that song for many years. It was called “When You Wish Upon a Star,” and it begins by saying:
“When you wish upon a star,
Makes no difference who you are,
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you.
If your heart is in your dream,
No request is too extreme.
When you wish upon a star,
Your dreams come true.”
I remember when I first heard that song (quoted from Walt Disney’s Pinocchio). I had such a warm, wonderful feeling. To think that wishing on anything would make things come true was such a splendid idea to me. I had lots of wishes! And lots of Dreams!
As I sat there the other night, playing that song and thinking those words, it dawned on me how important it was that all my wishes and all my dreams had not come true, but it was equally important that some of them actually had. And I wondered about the difference. Why didn’t I become a concert pianist? Or a vegetarian? Why didn’t I learn shorthand or the Japanese language – or get to be a commercial pilot? Those were all things I had wished for, years ago. In fact, I probably wished on more stars for those things than I ever wished to be in television.
What does make the difference between wishing and realizing our wishes? Lots of things, of course, but the main one, I think, is whether we link our wishes to our hopes and our hopes to our active striving. It might take months or years for a wish to come true, but it’s far more likely to happen when you care so much about it that you’ll do all you can to make it happen.
At some point in your life some of you must have wished to be college graduates. Well, by now you know what it took to make that wish come true and so do your parents and your teachers and your friends!
When I was a freshman in college, I met someone who knew a very famous songwriter. That songwriter was a person, I had always wanted to meet – ever since I was a little boy. I was convinced that if I could just play my songs (I think I had five) that songwriter would introduce me to Tin Pan Alley and I would be an instant, successful composer of show tunes.
I was able to get an interview with that man, and I remember so well going to New York City and, all the way, thinking: This is it. I’d probably have to give up college and get an apartment in the city, and my parents would be so proud of me, and before long my five songs would be sung by millions of Broadway show-goers.
That’s not what happened. The composer was very welcoming to me. He asked me to play a couple of those original songs for him, and he listened intently while I played them and sang the words as well as I could. 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 very important to me and to my whole life. He said, “I’d like you to come back after you’ve written a barrelful and we’ll talk again.”
Well, you can imagine how I felt. A barrelful would be hundreds of songs – and I only had five. But his counsel was exceedingly important. He knew that if I really wanted to be a songwriter, I’d have to write songs, not just think about the five I had written. Even though I never got to see that man again, I have, through the years, written a barrelful of songs.
In fact, the barrel’s overflowing now. One of them speaks to just what we’ve been talking about, since our superb musical director and pianist, John Costa, is with us today, I’d like to give you that sing right now. You know it was written for little children, but there are things about it, I think, that can apply to us all. It’s called “You’ve Got to Do It.”
You can make – believe it happens,
Or pretend that something’s true.
You can wish or hope or contemplate
A thing you’d like to do.
But until you start to do it,
You will never see it through,
‘Cause the make-believe
Pretending just won’t do it for you.
You’ve got to do it.
Every little bit,
You’ve got to do it,
Do it, do it, do it.
And when you’re through,
You can know you did it,
For you did it, you did it,
You did it.
If you want to ride a bicycle
And ride it straight and tall,
You can’t simply sit and look at it
‘Cause it won’t move at all.
But it’s you who have to try it
And it’s you who have to fall (sometimes).
If you want to ride a bicycle
And ride it straight and tall.
If you want to wear a cap and gown
And get your B.A. too,
You can’t simply sleep the whole long day
And party all night through.
‘Cause it’s you who have to study.
Yes, it’s you no one else but you,
If you want to wear a cap and gown
And get your B.S. too.
It’s not easy to keep trying
But it’s one good way to grow.
It’s not easy to keep learning,
But I know that this is so.
When you’ve tried and learned
You’re bigger then you were a day ago.
It’s not easy to keep trying,
But it’s one way to grow.
Johnny Costa’s music has been an inspiration to me for years, and I just wonder: Johnny, would you play something that might be a variation on that tune? I’d just like to hear you play.
(John Costa plays variations on “You’ve Got to Do It.”)
Now, John Costa could have wished for years to be able to play like that. But if he hadn’t actually put his fingers on the keys of his first piano and started to play, he would have never been able to bring us what he does today.
Of course, there’s more to it than putting two fingers on the keys. The real learning takes real teaching. In fact, when we’re working toward the realization of our wishes, some of our greatest strengths come from our alliance with people who care about us and about whom we care.
Johnny didn’t learn to play the piano by himself. I didn’t produce 30 years of television programs alone. People don’t graduate from college without the collaboration and support of other [people who are close to them.
But what about the wishes that don’t come true?
I remember a woman who – all of a sudden one day – said, “I’m never going to be a circus clown.” It just dawned on her that, because she hadn’t gone to clown school and made some other choices and hadn’t really tried, her girlhood wish for becoming a clown wasn’t going to come resignation: “I’m never going to be a circus clown.”
I know another woman who remembers the time when she knew that her wish to be married and have children would not be realized. She remembers the struggle of the final resignation and then she remembers the outcome of that resignation. Enormous energies were available to her, which she used in developing uniquely creative work with young parents.
All through our lives there are resignations of wishes. As children, once we learn to walk, we must resign ourselves to not being a baby anymore. If we just want to be taken care of and not make any effort to grow and do more and more for ourselves, then we can avoid that resignation and just stay a baby. You may know some adults who are still babies. They want to be served all the time. How sad for them, not to have been able to experience the excitement of growing from one part of life to another!
In fact, you can see the excitement in children. As a child grows from creeping to standing up and walking, that child usually has very little speech development or other aspects of the toddler’s development. It’s as though all of that child’s energies are bound into that huge task of getting up and walking. Once that task is accomplished, once they’re on their own two feet, they get this exciting surge of development in other areas. It’s as if they are obsessed with that one task and, until it’s accomplished, they can’t concentrate on anything else. That’s an enormous human task: standing upright and walking on our own two feet!
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some resting places along the way of our becoming. There is permissible rest and regression in everyone’s lives. Some people call it “R and R.” I think of it as an important moment when we reflect and receive. In our competitive world, some might call such times a waste. I’ve learned that they can be the preamble to periods of enormous growth. I sometimes sing about that to children—but, as you know, I believe that there’s a child somewhere in each of us. I’d like to sing “Please Don’t Think It’s Funny.”
Sometimes you feel like holding your pillow all night long;
Sometimes you hug your teddy bear tightly,
He’s old but he’s still strong.
And sometimes you want to snuggle up closely
With your own mom and dad.
At night, you even need the light sometimes,
But that’s not bad.
Please don’t think it’s funny,
When you want an extra kiss.
There are lots and lots of people
Who sometimes feel like this.
Please don’t think it’s funny,
When you want the ones you miss.
Where are lots and lots of people
Who sometimes feel like this.
It’s great to know you’re growing bigger every day.
But somehow things you like to remember
Are often put away.
And sometimes you wonder over and over
If you should stay inside,
When you enjoy a younger toy . . .
You never need to hide.
In the long, long trip of growing
There are stops along the way,
For thoughts of all the soft things
And a look at yesterday.
For a chance to fill our feelings,
With comfort and with ease,
And then tell the new tomorrow,
“You can come now when you please.”
So please don’t think it’s funny . . . .
I know of a young man who is just about to graduate from high school. His name is Keith. When he was ten years old, his beloved grandfather became ill. This grandfather had always helped Keith to feel special: They had fished together and camped together and talked about all sorts of things together, and when his grandfather became sick, Keith wanted him to get better. He watched the doctor and helped his grandfather take his pills. His grandfather told him he was good at that – in fact, his grandfather thought he was good at a lot of things.
That’s why, when his grandfather died two years later, Keith was sad and angry all at once. But his grandfather had loved him enough and was comfortable enough with him that he could talk to Keith about death and how that happens to all living creatures and that the important thing is how we care for people while they’re alive.
From that time Keith was 12 years old, he was sure he wanted to become a doctor. He has been first in all of his science courses in high school, and has been accepted at a college that has a fine pre-med course. To the loss of his grandfather, but also to the love which helps immobilize all of his feelings toward constructive resolutions.
In eight or ten more years, Keith will probably become a doctor. He says he wants to be a “family doctor.” My hunch is that he will be. His wish has become a purpose which is grounded in hope.
How very important our wishes can be – our wishes which become our purposes. Your colleges are known for your purposeful wishing. Administrators and Boards of trustees respect your student longings for a better world. They know that sometimes you have to stand firm in pursuit of your wishes, even though other people may disagree. Standing firm for what you are convinced to be healthy and good is one of the hardest things in life, especially when you want so much not to hurt anybody. Martin Luther King had a dream and so did Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and those dreams were based on a wish and a hope for a new and better world. They stood firm, and they made a great difference – and so have many others.
Teilhard de Chardin writes that someone scrawled the following words on the bulletin board of that great Notre Dame Cathedral: Le monde demain appartiendra a ceux qui lui ont apporte la plus grande Esperance (The world tomorrow will belong to those who brought it the greatest hope).”
I don’t know your wishes or your hopes. Nobody but you and the people you care to share then with should know them. Wishes are sometime as grand and far beyond the reality of the present, but other wishers are intimate. They’re about simple tings of daily life expressed again and again in contacts with other persons around us. I trust that you’ll feel good enough about yourself to do all you can to help the best of your wishes come true.
When you wish upon a star . . . Why, there are whole galaxies that we haven’t even discovered yet, stars way out in space within ourselves that are patiently waiting to brighten up our world.
I wanted to be with you today because I know that many of you grew up with the “Neighborhood,” and I’m so proud of the way you’ve grown. I’d like to give you one last song for a Commencement present – you and Marvin Bram and everyone else who wanted to share this special day with us. That 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,
They 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,
Ev’ry 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!