Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Rogers, and now Steve, Meryl, and Emmett Hartman

Contrary to popular belief, when I was a kid, dinosaurs did not roam the earth, we had indoor plumbing and electricity, and I even had a TV set. Albeit black and white, but a functioning television nonetheless. There weren’t a gajillion channels, and shows were not on 24/7; cartoons were violent, and cowboys and Indians were politically incorrect, but we didn’t know any better – nor did we care.

The Mickey Mouse Club was “made for you and me,” a Greek kid from Washington Heights. Each afternoon, we were transported to Frontierland, Adventureland, Tomorrowland, and everywhere in between. I wanted to be Annette or Darlene, but I settled for the ears.

Everyone’s best friend – even parents’ – was Captain Kangaroo. His Treasure House of surprises did just that – surprised and entertained. Bob Keeshan was kind, soft-spoken, and soothing, treating the children in his audience like a grandparent. He was patient and understanding but sufficiently silly to be entertaining. His friends – our friends – included Mr. Green Jeans, Uncle Backwards, Mr. Bunny Rabbit, Mr. Moose, and Grandfather Clock. The Magic Drawing Board was just that – Captain Kangaroo would tell a story and the Drawing Board would magically illustrate it as he spoke. What a beautiful way to introduce children to their imaginations. That was it for special effects – unless you count his gentle demeanor.

Of course, my children had PBS heaven – Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Reading Rainbow, but especially Mr. Rogers. He didn’t look like Captain Kangaroo, but he was certainly channeling him. Serene, gentle, and reassuring, he welcomed his audience to “be my neighbor” as he changed into that unmistakable cardigan, knitted by his mother, and sneakers.

Perhaps because he had been bullied as a kid, perhaps because he was a Presbyterian minister, Mr. Rogers taught children about civility, tolerance, sharing, and self-worth even as he tackled difficult topics such as the death of a family pet, sibling rivalry, a new baby, moving and enrolling in a new school – even divorce. Equally comfortable with puppets and people, Mr. Rogers was the perfect guide through the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers died almost 20 years ago.

I think their heir apparent is Steve Hartman. In case you’ve missed him, Hartman hosts the ‘On the Road’ segment of the CBS Evening News, which appears on Friday evenings and again on Sunday mornings. A perfect way to end the week and begin a new one.  These are stories about regular people who do good or who just are good. Like the little boy who idolizes umpires and now officiates at Little League games. Or the man who was reunited with his birth mother and honored her by giving his son the name she had chosen for him. Or the woman who loves the language so much that she travels the country, setting up her table and answering grammar questions for anyone who asks, even drivers who are stopped at an intersection. A woman after my own heart.

Now Hartman has brought his children into the family business. Twelve-year old Emmett and 8-year old Meryl co-host Kindness 101 with their dad every Monday on CBS Mornings. The premise is simple. The program explores themes of kindness and character and highlights individuals who exemplify these qualities. Emmett sits at the dictionary table and provides the definition of the word of the day, a particular behavior or attribute that is illustrated by the person they interview. The traits and qualities they have examined include courage, respect, purpose, service, justice, compassion, honesty, and gratitude. Both kids discuss what they think the quality means, and then they visit the Library of Living Examples, profiles of individuals who exemplify it through their words and actions. Like the girl who worked to name a Learning Center in her town after a civil rights leader who had been assassinated and whom no one remembered except for a non-descript plaque along a road (Justice). Or the kindergartners who learned how to sign for the classmate who was hearing-impaired just because (Compassion). Finally, they actually meet the people and continue to learn.

The sensitivity, curiosity, and intuitiveness that Meryl and Emmett demonstrate are admirable. They are clearly deep thinkers, as Hartman describes them, and they have learned the lessons they seek to imbue in others. In fact, they observed that the entire family has been transformed by the conversations they have each week.

Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Rogers, and now Steve, Meryl, and Emmett Hartman have taught us how to be better people. We need to go back to the Treasure House or the Neighborhood to remember what that means. Each episode of Compassion 101 ends with Meryl reminding viewers to “Stay Kind,” a challenge we should all take to heart.




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