Fred McFeely Rogers — known to the world as children’s television icon Mister Rogers — graduated from Rollins College in 1951. But throughout his life, he continued to visit the campus and Winter Park.
Now, the beloved former music composition major, who taught generations of youngsters about kindness and tolerance through his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, will have a permanent presence at the college, where as an undergraduate he was inspired by a plaque that read “Life is for Service.”
British sculptor Paul Day — whose works include The Meeting Place, a 30-foot-tall sculpture in London’s St. Pancras International, a major railway station — has been commissioned to create a life-sized bronze statue of Rogers. The work, slated for completion in the spring of next year, will be placed on campus at a location yet to be determined.
Of course, the world never entirely lost interest in Rogers, who died in 2003. But during the past several years — perhaps because the values for which he stood seem under daily assault — the soft-spoken native of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, has made a posthumous resurgence.
In 2018, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a documentary about Rogers’ life, became the top-grossing biographical documentary ever produced. And a big-budget theatrical film, It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, was released in late 2019 starring Tom Hanks as Rogers.
Rollins has saluted its most famous alumnus before, displaying his sweater and sneakers in the archives and arranging self-guided tours of Rogers-related locations on campus.
Most recently, faculty, alumni and students along with a cappella superstars Voctave staged a heart-tugging concert, Mister Rogers: The Musician, at Tiedtke Concert Hall — where a Don Sondag portrait of Rogers hangs in the lobby.
A statue, though, will be a fitting tribute to a man whose comforting presence and emphasis on essential human values has guided (and still guides) millions of people through personal challenges while easing the trauma of social upheaval and national tragedies.
Like much of what happens in Winter Park, the initiative began with Allan Keen, owner of the Keewin Real Property Company and twice chairman of the college’s board of trustees (from 2006 to 2008 and 2016 to 2019).
Keen and his wife, Linda, were enjoying a barge canal cruise through rural France when they noticed some intriguing sculptures in the vessel’s gathering area. The wife of the barge captain told the Keens that Paul Day, who happened to be a family friend, was the artist, and asked if they would like to visit Day’s studio near Dijon in Burgundy, France.
Well, of course they would! Then Keen had a thought. Because of Day’s international reputation, wouldn’t a Mister Rogers statue created by him be a meaningful addition to what has already been dubbed the most beautiful college campus in the country?
Day, it turned out, was unfamiliar with Rogers and his cultural significance in the U.S. So, at Keen’s invitation, the sculptor visited Rollins last September to scout locations and interview administrators and staffers who knew the man — including Daniel Crozier, a professor of music theory and composition who is also Rogers’ nephew.
What Day discovered will come as no surprise: Mister Rogers was the real deal. “[Rogers’] many talents, coupled with stupendous discipline and seemingly unlimited kindness, make him a most remarkable man,” Day said in a statement released by the college.
Ironically, as the Keens discovered during their European trip, Day’s work already has a connection to Rollins. Hung above The Meeting Place in St. Pancras International is a neon work of art called I Want My Time With You by artist Tracey Emin. “I thought it looked familiar,” recalls Keen.
As well it might. Another distinctive Emin piece, Everything For Love, is part of the Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art at the college’s Alfond Inn and currently hangs behind the check-in desk.
“This all must have been meant to be,” adds Keen, who along with other private donors is funding the statue’s estimated $150,000 to $200,000 price tag.
The college isn’t yet releasing renderings of the statue and may not, so it’ll be a surprise when it’s unveiled. But whatever form the final work takes, there’s no doubt that it will cause nostalgic smiles, perhaps some wistful tears and at least a neighborhood’s worth of good vibes.