As I set about writing this particular column, I notice that on this day – March 20th – in 1928 Frederick McFeely Rogers was born to James and Nancy Rogers in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. With a grandfather who loved music and a mother who sang and played for him, it was probably not unusual that he was playing the piano himself by the age of five, and creating marionettes as the “stars” of his own puppet shows soon afterward.
After earning a degree in musical composition, Rogers went on to study for a career in the ministry, and was in fact ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He may not have realized it at the time, but he was destined to live out that dream of human service from a unique and as yet unimagined “pulpit”.
As a “victim” myself of the “broadcasting bug”, I find it a compelling bit of coincidence that the first locally-produced radio program (KDKA) and the pioneer neighborhood television experiment (WQED) both took place in Pittsburgh. It was with the latter station that the young Fred Rogers was invited to perform as the puppeteer for a children’s program in 1953 – a show which soon became known as The Children’s Corner. While I could end this story right here with the well-known canard “and the rest is history”, I would be cheating my audience as well as the memory of an iconic American figure.
Fred Rogers was not just “another” television performer, even though cited as one of the “top fifty greatest” among such an alumni, with a Peabody Award, a handful of “Daytime Emmys”, two Congressional resolutions and a Presidential Medal of Freedom to prove it.; More than any of these prestigious recognitions, Rogers will be remembered by several generations of Americans who grew up paying attention to him, as a revered and respected public model of compassion, patience and morality in an ocean of broadcasting confusion, indirection and indifference.
In an arena in which most personalities make big money by acting out a role, Fred Rogers made a commitment early on to live the life and be the person he presented to his audience; what you saw was exactly who he was. He believed that children could see right through a lie and he refused to prostitute himself or the podium he occupied in so important a venue as children’s television. Each day for 44 years Mr.Roger’s Neighborhood began with Fred coming through the door, peeling off his rain coat, reaching into the closet and carefully donning then zipping up the comfortable sweater which was his trademark stage apparel. (What viewers might not have known was that each of the two dozen or so sweaters we got to see was hand-knitted for him by his own mother!)
A Mr. Rogers sweater on display at The Smithsonian
Each day, his followers would hear the program’s invitation and theme song, “Won’t You be My Neighbor” sung just for them – one of more than 200 original songs written by Fred himself, in a style and with lyrics which conveyed an underlying love and respect for the children he “courted”, and which supported a simple moral message. Ever the “puppeteer”, he personally voiced most of the show’s “stars”, from “King Friday XIII”, “Queen Sara Saturday”, “X The Owl”, “Henrietta Pussycat”, “Daniel Striped Tiger” and “Larry Horse” to “Lady Elaine Fairchilde”. And every day, children were taught strategies for dealing with life’s everyday tasks and challenges, with a quiet and harmonious continuity of assuredness that wasn’t lost on the parents and adults who were just as captivated as the children.
Fred Rogers never used tobacco or alcohol or allowed coarse language to detract from a clean lexicon. He was also a vegetarian who swam daily for exercise, and was always active in supporting initiatives designed to build a strong youth culture. Contrary to a popular myth, he was not a “sniper/hero” and never served in the military due to red-green color-blindness. The real “Mr. Rogers” died on Feb. 27th, 2003 at the age of 74, leaving behind his wife of 51 years, two children and a vast grieving public. His legacy also includes 36 children’s books and a publishing company which bears his name.
At a time when we hear daily of an increase in childhood bullying, family dysfunction and youth suicides, I may not be alone in believing that THE WORLD NEEDS ANOTHER FRED ROGERS!
Frederick McFeely Rogers in the late 1960s.