TV star, minister, educator and icon, Rollins grad Fred Rogers was a gentle and reassuring presence during turbulent times.
In 1968, a mild-mannered Rollins College graduate began appearing on television sets all across America. A fortyish beanpole with a generous smile and a voice of melted cheese, this neighborly fellow didn’t look or sound much like a TV star. And, unlike many other people on television in those days, he certainly didn’t appear to be angry about anything.
The Vietnam War, racial unrest, student protests and high-profile assassinations combined to make the late ’60s far from tranquil. But Fred Rogers — or, as his fans knew him, Mister Rogers — definitely was.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the long-running PBS series that he created and hosted, was aimed squarely at children — specifically children ages 3 to 6. It was a little like other kids’ shows that followed, most notably Sesame Street and later Barney & Friends, but only a little.
In any case, it was very, very nice.
From its lilting theme song that the host himself sang and wrote (“It’s a beau-ti-ful day in the neighborhood…”) to its simple, nonthreatening characters (speedy Mr. McFeely, lofty King Friday XIII, demure Daniel Tiger, etc.); from the tinkle of its trademark trolley to its wholesome life lessons about friendship and family, the show was by far the most gentle-spirited thing on the tube, if not the planet.
In Mister Rogers’ neighborhood, every day was a beau-ti-ful day.
Fred McFeely Rogers — yes, McFeely really was his middle name, as well as his beloved maternal grandfather’s surname — left us on Feb. 27, 2003, about a month shy of his 75th birthday. He was mourned around the world, but particularly in Winter Park and especially at Rollins College, which claims him as a star alum.
Although Fred was a Winter Parker by choice, he was born and raised in another “neighborhood.” That would be Latrobe, Penn., near Pittsburgh, where, by all accounts, his parents doted on him, their only son. (They adopted a daughter when he was 11, but the doting reportedly continued unabated.)
Young Fred was fascinated by music and puppetry, both of which would famously become mainstays of his career. “Music was my first language,” he once said, adding that if, as a child, he ever felt angry or sad, he was more likely to express those feelings through music than words.
Fred’s son, John, recalls that when he and his older brother, James, were kids, their father would often use puppet voices and music around the house. “I remember a marching song,” says John, who lives in Winter Park with his own son, Ian. “He would have us march through the living room when he would play this tune on the piano.”
When it was time for Fred to head off to college, Rollins was not his first choice. In fact, he spent a year at Dartmouth before transferring to Rollins, which had a more developed music program, graduating in 1951 with a degree in music composition.
“One should not play him as a lightweight musically,” cautions John Sinclair, current chair of Rollins’ music department and a friend in Fred’s later years. “He had a formidable ability to write songs and to play [piano].”
Joanne Rogers (née Byrd), who Fred married soon after graduating, was already a music student at Rollins when he arrived. “One of our buddies had a very old car,” she recalls. “I can’t remember what kind it was, but it was big. We all piled into it and off we went to the airport to pick him up.”
Fred immediately impressed Joanne as “fun and nice and energetic.” It wasn’t long before they were attending dances together.
As a student, Fred received the Canadian French Scholarship Award and participated in numerous organizations and activities, including Alpha Phi Lambda, Chapel Staff, After-Chapel Club, French Club, Student Music Guild, Chapel Choir, Bach Choir, Welcoming Committee, Intramural Swimming and Pi Kappa Lambda.
“He loved Rollins,” offers Thad Seymour, a former Rollins president and now president emeritus. “He was very loyal and grateful to the place.”
But Joanne points out that Fred — like others at that time — didn’t much care for Paul Wagner, the 33-year-old wunderkind who had recently been installed as president and quickly enraged students and faculty with his aggressive cost-cutting and autocratic management style.
“Fred was one of the rabble-rousers,” she adds. Wagner was eventually fired by the board of trustees and had to leave campus under police escort. “I think it was the most activist kind of thing he did in his life, probably.”
That is, unless you count his Senate testimony in 1969, when Congress seemed determined to cut funding for public television in half. Fred’s sincere and compelling testimony saved the day.
Or, as Joanne says, it was “sort of a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington kind of a thing.”
After college, the plan was for Fred to become a minister. All that changed when, on a break from Rollins during his senior year, he visited his parents, who had acquired a newfangled device known as a television set — quite a rarity in those days.
Far from being enchanted, Fred was appalled by what he considered the low quality of the programming. “He saw people throwing pies at each other to be entertaining,” Joanne explains. In Fred’s opinion, that was violence and, therefore, inappropriate for young viewers.
“He [also] wasn’t a great fan of Disney for children,” she adds. “Everything’s violent and scary.”
With the blind confidence of youth, Fred announced he would put divinity school on hold and seek employment in television, where he would set about raising the standards of the medium.
So after graduation he headed to NBC in New York, where he began working first as a gofer and then in better behind-the-scenes jobs on such programs as The Kate Smith Hour, The Lucky Strike Hit Parade, The NBC Opera Theatre and The Gabby Hayes Show.
Fred learned an important lesson from Hayes, a rootin’-tootin’ western star. Hayes told him that when he spoke to the camera, he imagined “just one buckaroo” and spoke directly to that single young viewer.
As anyone who has ever seen an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood well knows, Fred took that advice to heart. “Television is a very, very personal medium,” he said in a 2004 documentary, Fred Rogers: America’s Favorite Neighbor.
With his New York career gaining momentum, Fred then made a puzzling decision to return to Pennsylvania, where WQED-TV, the nation’s first community-sponsored educational television station, was soon to begin broadcasting.
There he helped to launch the Pittsburgh station as well as his first kids’ show, The Children’s Corner. In 1963 he developed an early version of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in Canada, but soon returned to Pittsburgh to recreate the show there.
Five years later, that program debuted for a national American audience. And for 33 years, tiny tots sat transfixed as a reassuring adult removed his coat and shoes, donned a zip-up cardigan and sneakers, looked them squarely in the eye, and told them they were each special.
Along the way, he attended Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and was ordained as a minister with a mission to work with families and children through the mass media — “the only ministry of its kind in the Presbyterian faith,” his son John points out.
“We all have only one life to live on earth,” Fred said in 1999, when he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. “And through television, we have the choice of encouraging others to demean this life or to cherish it in creative, imaginative ways.”
In other words, no pies in the face.
In the course of his TV career, Fred received countless honors and accolades including two Peabody Awards, four Emmys and, in 2002, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. For some reason, though, he also attracted a surprising amount of conspicuous ridicule.
Probably the most famous spoof of his program was Saturday Night Live’s “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood,” sketches that featured Eddie Murphy as an inner-city version of Mister Rogers who sang, “It’s one helluva day in the neighborhood!”
But even before those SNL bits, funnymen Christopher Guest and Bill Murray teamed up to perform an interview routine in which a sunny, Mister Rogers-like host (Guest) questions a hung-over, jaded jazz bassist (Murray).
Host: When you were playing, I thought of things like sheep and things like that, little candies, fresh little candies, and things like that. Do you think of those things, too?
Bassist: Oh, I basically think about my financial situation. I count every beat I play, every note I play, and I figure how many notes I’m giving out into space and how much I’m being paid. And I am workin’ cheap!
Such parodies addressed the vast disconnect between the cheery, fanciful neighborhood where Mister Rogers lived and the perilous, often impoverished real-life neighborhoods of far too many children and their parents.
Fred appears to have taken the jibes in stride. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood did, on occasion, explore difficult subjects like divorce and death, but in general it was — as some of its biggest fans have always made a point of saying — safe.
“It’s amazing, the peace that he was able to put in any scenario,” notes Mary Rogers, John’s former wife and Fred’s former daughter-in-law. “When he spoke, people quieted down to listen.”
One place Fred himself felt especially at peace was Winter Park. In his later years, in fact, he became something of a fixture locally during winters.
“We came after Christmas and would stay as long as Fred could stay,” reflects Joanne, a native Floridian who still spends part of her year hereabouts. “It was homelike for both of us. To me, it’s the most interesting part of Florida, that little part of New England sitting there like a gem. And while Rollins College is not New England, it certainly is a jewel.”
Fred swam every day at the Langford Hotel; when it closed, he used the pool at Rollins. And he liked to wander the campus, sometimes slipping into lecture halls for classes that interested him, but never calling attention to himself.
“That would be Fred’s way,” Thad Seymour offers. “Fred never wanted to intrude.”
How to classify Fred Rogers as a public person? For most baby boomers he remains an iconic figure. Perhaps a little less so to their children, who were weaned on video games and edgier televised fare.
Although he was the host of a television program for many years, it wouldn’t be quite accurate to call him an entertainer. Joanne Rogers says he was an “educator.” Mary Rogers, meanwhile, thinks of him as a sort of secular clergyman who gave “little sermons to children.”
Then there’s Seymour’s perspective.
“I would in no way think of him as an entertainer or as a TV personality,” he explains. “He was someone who wanted to reach out and care about children, and television was a good way for him to do that.”
Fred once called himself an “emotional archeologist,” and that may well be closest to the mark. Mister Rogers was a sort of Dr. Phil for the very young, someone who could help them explore life’s craggier caverns. The songs, the puppets and television itself were merely tools he employed to do his own truly unique thing.
On Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred would often remind his young viewers, “There’s only one person in the whole world like you.” He might have been speaking of himself. “It’s a one-of-a-kind thing,” says John Rogers of his father’s show. “And how do you explain that?”
“I would like to tell you what I often told you when you were much younger: I like you just the way you are. And what’s more, I’m so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe and to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods.”
— From the the final episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
Editor’s Note: Jim Zahniser is an illustrator based in Pittsburgh. The print used for the lead illustration, as well as many others, is available for purchase at etsy.com/shop/redrobotcreative.