Fred Rogers isn’t your typical pop culture icon.
As the host of the long-running PBS children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, he wasn’t slick or sarcastic, hip or cool. He was sincere to a fault and spoke with a slow determination and a pure warmth uncommon for TV. Had his show still been on the air in the social media age, there’s every reason to believe that Twitter trolls would’ve dunked on him any chance they got.
There’s a whole generation of children who’ve come of age not even knowing who the man was, considering his show went off the air in August 2001 and he died only a year and a half later. And for the whole generations of children who did spend their formative years taking trips with the man into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe one half-hour episode at a time, well, they became adults, as all children hopefully do, and a fast-paced world full of distractions and cynicism pulled focus, forcing Rogers and his innate goodness to become something of a distant memory—twinkling, yet fleeting.
And yet, at a time when civility and kindness seem like four-letter words you can’t say on TV, in a world gone stark raving mad, Rogers has emerged to be one of the unlikeliest pop culture heroes of our time. With a rapturously-received 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? followed by a well-reviewed 2019 biopic starring Tom Hanks as the beloved figure, entitled A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Rogers’ story continues to return exactly when we need it most, bringing with it a beacon of hope amid a sea of indifference and a gentle reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Before Fred Rogers became the hug of a man generations of children knew him to be, he was first, as all adults are at one point in time, a child. And like all those children who Rogers sought to comfort and make feel special as an adult, his childhood was a lonely one. Only, without a Mister Rogers of his own to turn to, the shy, introverted and overweight young Rogers, taunted by his classmates as “Fat Freddy” and often made homebound by childhood asthma, was left to his own devices.
“It was a lonely childhood,” Won’t You Be My Neighbor? director Morgan Neville told Entertainment Weekly. “I think he made friends with himself as much as he could. He had a ventriloquist dummy, he had [stuffed] animals, and he would create his own worlds in his childhood bedroom.”
He also spent time with his maternal grandfather, Fred McFeely, who he was named after and who would go on to inspire the Mr. McFeely character made famous on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—and who was also responsible for patiently imbuing in Rogers a sense of self-esteem. “You know, you’ve made this day a special day just by being yourself,” his grandpa would tell him.
All superheroes have their origin stories, and that potent mix of childhood pain and gentle grandfatherly guidance was the blueprint for all that Rogers would become.
After overcoming his shyness in high school, where he served as Latrobe High School student council president and editor-in-chief of the school yearbook, he studied music composition at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida—where he met his future wife Sara Joanne Byrd, who he married in 1952, a year after graduation, had two sons with, and remained married to until his death in 2003.
With plans to enter seminary school after graduation, a chance encounter with an emerging piece of technology changed the course of his life. After his parents got their first TV set, the legend goes that Rogers did not like what he saw on the newfangled thing. “I was appalled by what were labeled ‘children’s programs’—pies in the face and slapstick!” he wrote in his book You Are Special. “Children deserve better. Children need better.”
So he decided to do something about it.
“I got into television because I hated it so,” he once told CNN. “And I thought … there’s some way of using this fabulous instrument to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen.”
So, he headed to New York City, where he worked at NBC as floor director on a handful of shows before returning to the Pittsburgh area in 1953 to work as a program developer at public television station WQED, where he worked with Josey Carey to develop The Children’s Corner, a show that featured many of the puppet characters who would go on to populate his later work.
“I really believe it was the power of the Holy Spirit,” Rogers told The Washington Post in 1982. “I mean, what did my parents think about all this? Here I was, leaving New York and network television to come back to Pittsburgh to start working with puppets. It was all so vague. Why, in the beginning, we used to go into the studio and just sort of…play.”
While at play, he also followed an earlier dream and attended Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, spending his noon hour for eight years until he graduated and was ordained in by the United Presbyterian Church in 1963. Along the way, he began studying with child psychologist Margaret McFarland, who shaped and informed much of his thinking about and appreciation for children. And rather than put all that studying to work, say, in the church, Rogers curiously kept the medium of television as his ministry, as it were.
In 1963, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation sought Rogers out to develop and host a 15-minute black-and-white children’s program entitled Misterogers. As he explained in his memoir, the offer for the show, itself born out of a segment in another program called Junior Roundup, came from the CBC’s head of the children’s department, Fred Rainsberry, who told Rogers, “Fred, I’ve seen you talk with kids. Let’s put you on the air.”
Misterogers ran until 1966, when Rogers acquired the rights and returned to Pittsburgh, taking the sets he’d developed in Toronto back with him to WQED. Renamed Misterogers’ Neighborhood, the show began airing regionally in the northeastern United States until a lack of funding forced it into cancellation a year later. Immediately, the public outcry prompted a search for new funding and The Sears Roebuck Foundation stepped in. The new source of funding enabled it to be seen nationwide on National Education Television, the precursor to PBS and the slightly re-titled Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood began airing nationally on February 19, 1968.
For the three decades it was on the air—with only a brief gap from 1976 to 1979 due to another funding issue, the show broadcast its last episode in 2001—Rogers never wavered in his sincere and simplistic approach. He eschewed the “bombardment” he saw coming from other children’s programming, with their frenetic pacing and animation, favoring an unhurried pace. He wrote every script, composed every song. And he never dared shy away from complex social issues or real-world tragedies.
In the first year of the show’s national run, he rushed a special to air only two days after the assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. “His funeral was televised nationally on Saturday and [Rogers] said, ‘We have to get something on television before the children of America are sitting at home this weekend watching it and not understanding what happened,'” Neville told a crowd during a January The Envelope Live chat with the L.A. Times. It was that episode that convinced the director to tell Rogers’ story.
“The world is not always a kind place,” Rogers once said. “That’s something all children learn for themselves, whether we want them to or not, but it’s something they really need our help to understand.”
Elaborating to CNN years later, he added, “I believe that those of us who are the producers and purveyors of television—or video games or newspapers or any mass media—I believe that we are the servants of this nation.”
Along the way, Rogers’ unflappable sincerity opened him up to mockery, with Eddie Murphy‘s “ghetto” version on Saturday Night Live perhaps being the most famous example. But it didn’t faze the genial host. At least, not always. “I don’t really mind the parodies of me as long as they’re not hostile,” he told The Washington Post. “I think some comedy can be downright hostile. And some of it can be dangerous. There was this radio disc jockey we heard about who was saying things like ‘Now boys and girls, just go get your mother’s hair spray and your father’s cigarette lighter and I’ll show you how to make a blow torch.'”
And it certainly didn’t discourage him from being anything but his authentic self. “One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self,” he told Newsweek shortly before the show went off the air. “I also believe that kids can spot a phony a mile away.”
Rogers was as fastidious in his personal life as he was with the crafting of his beloved program. Enamored with the number 143, linking it to the phrase “I love you” long before it became pager speak, he had the number stitched into his sweaters and maintained it as his weight for practically his entire adult life.
(Originally published on February 9, 2019 at 3 a.m. PT.)
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