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Dennis Myers: How to love our heroes, remember their humanity

Fred Rogers.

That was his name, but to those who did not know him personally, it is difficult to think of him other than as “Mister Rogers.” Indeed, type Mister Rogers into Google and it takes you right to the correct person in Wikipedia.

He even had a middle name – McFeely. Could there have been a more perfect middle name for Mister Rogers? We have endless violent heroes who we admire on the playing field, the battlefield, the movie screen. How many gentle heroes do we have?

He is now on a postage stamp and a documentary about him is in theaters. The filmmaker responsible for the documentary, Morgan Neville, told National Public Radio, “He wasn’t a saint. He was a human who had insecurities and doubts and made mistakes and really, throughout his entire life, from his earliest days to his deathbed, was wondering if he had done enough. … I think it’s important to understand that he was human and not a saint, because if you sanctify somebody like Fred Rogers it means that we don’t have to try and live up to him.”

It’s a good lesson, and not just for Mister Rogers. A national Martin Luther King holiday may have been the worst thing to happen to King’s legacy. We are rapidly converting him into a holy figure who cannot be criticized except in fringe circles, cleansing him into a moderate who threatened no one. Every year on his birthday we see the dream speech bury Martin King a little deeper. Want to hear another part of that speech?

“Those who hoped that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.”

That was the King we knew when he was alive. As he learned more, he became more radical. “This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor,” he said. What would he have thought when the first African American president left office with the gap between rich and poor at an all-time high?

Mister Rogers tried to avoid politics, but his wife recently told Nightline that he might have been forced out of that posture. “We have somebody leading us right now who is not a forgiver,” she said. “His values are very, very different from Fred’s values – almost completely opposite.”

Michael Davis O’Donnell, who died too young in Vietnam, wrote a verse called “Gentle Heroes.”

“If you are able/Save for them a place/inside of you/and save one backward glance/when you are leaving/for the places they can/no longer go./Be not ashamed to say/you loved them,/though you may/or may not have always.”

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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