Not many people are as purely and kindly honest as Fred Rogers, who was better known as Mister Rogers. When he said, “I like you just the way you are,” he was at once emphasizing the need for authenticity long before the word became trendy. He was telling his young viewers that they didn’t need to be anyone else, they just needed to be themselves and they could feel good about it.
To be sure, Fred Rogers was raised in Western Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh, and he made his life-affirming mark on the world from studios in the shadows of the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. I think in the context of this discussion about authenticity, location matters.
I would argue that you can’t completely separate the values of the truly good and decent man that Fred Rogers was from the common values that have pervaded the region from which he hailed. Western Pennsylvania, and Pittsburgh in particular, tend to value genuineness above most else.
The ‘Brutally Honest’ Take
Another Pittsburgh native, Dennis Miller, has made a name for himself through a different sort of genuineness. Let’s call it brutal honesty. He has had his own take on Pittsburghers’ affinity for keeping it real.
“The good thing about Pittsburgh,” he said, “it’s a good place to be raised … it doesn’t tolerate assholes … You’re either a good guy or you’re a bad guy … When I’m in Los Angeles having these incredibly surreal moments where nobody’s saying anything and everybody’s talking incessantly, I always have that Pittsburgh voice in my head – shut up, smile, get the job, move on.”
I think it’s a safe bet that Mister Rogers wouldn’t have said it that way, and he may have cringed if he heard Dennis Miller’s way of saying it, but on this they both would seem to agree. Being true to yourself and putting it out there is a good thing, but not just a good thing, it’s a Pittsburgh thing.
Having been raised in Pittsburgh, I can’t remember a time when this wasn’t the case. Pittsburghers have a highly developed radar for people who are faking it. They don’t like it, and they’ll let you know pretty quickly.
The alternative is to be yourself and take ownership of it. And that’s where other qualities the region embraces come to play. That strong work ethic that the region is known for sits on a foundation that is based on carrying your load and being accountable for it. For being the best you can be, and being proud of it.
How to Connect with Pittsburghers
If you want to connect with Pittsburghers, these are the values you need to fully understand and embrace before they’ll let you into their hearts. But once they do, you’re a friend for life.
Ironically, Hollywood – a place best known for pretending to be someone you’re not – has discovered the heart of Pittsburgh in the form of a biopic on Fred Rogers.
The latest Tom Hanks motion picture where he plays Fred Rogers is set to launch for the Holiday Season and early reviews are that “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” will capture the imagination of millions who grew up with Fred Rogers on TV, and it just may kindle the imaginations of a new generation who may not know him all that well.
You may go to see the film, and if you do, I’d recommend you look for our regionally rooted values to emerge, not only through the star character, but also in the supporting cast and in the story lines.
In my first episode of the Shaping Opinion podcast, I decided to make that episode the only one with a monologue, and in that brief session, I recounted a time I had a one-on-one business meeting about a public relations issue with Fred Rogers. That meeting reinforced everything I had hoped about him. I found that the man we saw on television was exactly who he was. He was the real thing.
And if you ever make it to Pittsburgh, you may come away with liking the region but not quite being able to put a finger on just why. If that’s the case, I’ll give you a little help. It’s because the people you meet will be as real as it gets because that’s what’s important to them. And they’ll accept you for who you are so long as you are true to yourself.