To know where something is, you often have to find out where it ain’t. This contrast jumped out at me recently while viewing two docudramas. One was The Lost Pirate Kingdom, about the “Golden Age of Piracy” in the early 1700s, and the other was A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister who created and hosted the preschool TV series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood from 1968 to 2001.
First, let’s talk about buccaneers. People can’t seem to get enough of pirate stories. Their vicious cruelty and hard life are often overlooked, and these adventurers are romanticized as being Robin Hood figures who rob the rich to share with the poor. And it does seem that many pirates justified their violence by painting themselves as avengers of injustices: “They [the rich] rob the poor under the cover of law, and we plunder the rich under the protection of our own courage.”1 Despite these altruistic justifications, they were on the whole cutthroats, murderers, and pillagers.2
One of the most successful pirates was Sam Bellamy (1689–1717), who was rated by Forbes magazine as the top-earning pirate, with a net worth of 142.5 million dollars. At the age of 28, just one year into his career as a pirate, he had plundered 53 ships, and he had just captured the Whydah, a top-of-the-line English slave ship that had unloaded 312 slaves and was weighted down with a fortune in gold, indigo, ivory, and other precious trade goods. His vessel and another two that he had taken were sailing low in the water along the Eastern coast as he made his way to see his love, Mary Hallett, who lived in Eastham, Massachusetts.
At this point, the weather turned, and soon the sky split with bolts of lightning. Rain and fog made visibility impossible, and worst of all, the squall winds shifted, pushing the vessels toward the treacherous shore and high cliffs of Cape Cod. Thirty-foot waves flooded the decks and washed away anything that wasn’t secured.
After several desperate hours of the crew trying everything they could to save themselves, the Whydah lifted high up on the waves and then slipped backward, stern first, and was smashed to smithereens at the foot of the cliffs. Then the undertow sucked it all back to sea. Samuel Bellamy and some 160 other men had perished.
So where are these vast riches now? In 1984, after sleeping in the deep for 267 years, the wreck was discovered. Today some 100,000 artifacts from the wreck can be seen at the Expedition Whydah Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Recovery and conservation of the treasure is still ongoing.
A stark contrast to Samuel Bellamy’s existence can be seen in the life and work of Fred Rogers, who came from my home town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On an Easter visit home, Fred saw a children’s entertainment TV program where people were throwing pies in each other’s faces. Being the eternal optimist, he was sure TV could be so much more than that! It was a moment of revelation that steered his life in a new direction.
Rogers considered that he had a mandate to help children develop empathy, understanding, and kindness. His programs dealt with difficult subjects that children face, such as bullying, recomposed families, and anger management through controlling negative emotions and nurturing positive ones.
He was a Christian minister but didn’t preach on his show, preferring to share God’s love through his example—a sample rather than a sermon. Dwight L. Moody called it “the gospel bound in shoe leather”—and in Fred’s case, it was “the gospel in a red sweater.”
Throughout the years, he remained deeply committed to the values he read in the New Testament. He emulated Jesus’ example of welcoming children as they are and encouraging them to love self and neighbor in every way they could. As he said, “There are many ways to say I love you.”
Fred’s personality off screen was no different than the character and puppets that he portrayed on his program. For many years, he personally answered each of the 50–100 letters he received every day from his young viewers. He worked with prisons to create child-friendly spaces for family visitation, sat on hospital boards to minimize trauma in children’s care, visited people who were sick or dying, and wrote countless letters to the lonely.
In times of tragedy, people often looked to Rogers’ advice for comfort. “He took American childhood—and I think Americans in general—through some very turbulent and trying times: from the Vietnam War and the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968 to the 9/11 attacks in 2001.”3
One of his key concepts was that it’s okay to have all kinds of emotions, but that negative feelings are never an excuse for bad behavior. If we get angry, we can learn to face it and share our feelings with our loved ones so that we don’t hurt ourselves or others. Rogers called it “growing on the inside.”
Fred Rogers passed away in 2003 at the age of 74, but his legacy still lives on in many ways today: “Rogers became a source for parenting advice. He was a timeless oracle against a backdrop of ever-shifting parenting philosophies and cultural trends.”4
Two lives, years apart and poles apart in their impact. They give us pause to ask ourselves what will be our legacy. I wonder what Rogers would have to say to us today. No doubt what he already said:
“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 bedrock of our very being is good stuff. As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has or ever will have, something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression. We all have different gifts, so we all have different ways of saying to the world who we are.”
- Samuel Bellamy speaking to Captain Beer, who was the commander of a ship that he had just captured.
- Editor’s note: “Jolly Roger” is the traditional English name for the flags flown to identify a pirate ship about to attack, during the early 18th century. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
- Robert Thompson of Syracuse University
- Caitlin Gibson, The Washington Post