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For those who knew and loved his television program for children, Mr. Rogers needs no introduction. For those new to him, the best first meeting we can offer is through his own words about embracing everyone as his neighbor: "We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It's easy to say `It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.' Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes."
“You always make each day a special day.
You know how – by just your being you. "
© 2006 by A.W. Hatano-Worrell
It was Fred Rogers’ maternal grandfather, Fred Brooks McFeely, who first said, “You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you, Freddy, and I like you just the way you are.” Born in 1928 and growing up a chubby, shy, and lonely boy in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, young Fred cherished this unconditional acceptance from his grandfather, who helped give him confidence by allowing him to climb up and run along a high wall, against the protests of his mother and grandmother. An only child until age 11, Fred often expressed himself through his fingers – by making up stories with hand puppets, and pounding out emotions on the piano.
As a music major in his final year of college preparing to go into the ministry, he returned home for Easter vacation and encountered his first television set. He was disgusted. This amazing new invention was being wasted on the nationwide broadcasting of people putting pies in each other’s faces. Right then and there he changed his plans, and decided to work in television instead – to make something better of it. His family was aghast, but Fred was determined.
In 1951, after graduating from Rollins College with a bachelor’s degree in music composition, Rogers went to New York to work for NBC. Climbing the ladder from “gopher” to floor manager, he began acquiring the tools he would need by working for such programs as “The Kate Smith Hour” and “The Gabby Hayes Show”. It was from Gabby that Fred learned to face the television cameras as though he were speaking to “just one little buckaroo.”
Amidst protests from those who thought he was throwing away a glamorous career, Rogers left NBC in 1953 to become one of the founding members of the U.S.A.’s first community-supported television station, WQED in Pittsburgh. While working full time there, he belatedly answered his call to the ministry, and began attending seminary classes during his lunch hours and evenings after work. At Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, he began studying child development under the expert guidance of Dr. Margaret McFarland, who remained his mentor until her death in 1987.
Rogers now had many tools under his belt, but was still unsure what shape his life’s work should take. Dr. McFarland recalled that he was more in touch with his own childhood than anyone she’d ever met. In fact, working with children was the catalyst which took all of the varied facets that made up Fred Rogers – music composer, creator of puppet characters, lover of whimsy, storyteller, television manager and performer, and even his spiritual self – and transformed them into the man who would become Mister Rogers. In 1963 he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister to “work with children and families through the mass media.”
He knew that he couldn’t produce a program about accepting others unconditionally if he didn’t honestly live that way himself.
After working behind the scenes on “The Children’s Corner” with Josie Carey, and a brief stint in Canada starring as himself in a 15 minute program called “MisteRogers”, he returned to Pittsburgh to start the now-famous “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, which ran for 33 years. Still in circulation today on America’s PBS and in countries around the world, the program speaks for itself – to anyone who is willing to “look and listen carefully,” as Mister Rogers would say. It deals with things that weigh heavily on children’s hearts – not only fears of haircuts, going to school for the first time, or being sucked down the bathtub drain, but also more complicated issues such as divorce, death, war, and perhaps most important, how to deal with difficult people.
He wanted to create a place where children could be themselves, and so he made sure that each half-hour program included a 15-minute visit to “The Neighborhood of Make-Believe,” a world of the imagination where caring adult humans such as Lady Aberlin, Mr. McFeely the Speedy Delivery-man, Mayor Maggie, and Handyman Negri interact as equals with hand puppets such as the sassy Lady Elaine Fairchilde, pompous King Friday the Thirteenth, juvenile X the Owl, and shy Daniel Striped Tiger, who could each sometimes be the “difficult person.” Unfailingly, each was treated with honesty and respect, and never excluded or given up on. The characters’ feelings were talked about, and they learned to deal with their emotions in healthy ways. Mister Rogers himself voiced these and many other puppets, and wrote each script meticulously to demonstrate that talking about difficult and awkward subjects actually helps make them easier to handle, and that each of us really is acceptable just the way we are.
But he knew that he couldn’t produce a program about accepting others unconditionally if he didn’t honestly live that way himself. His widow, Joan, recalls that he worked especially hard at being “other-oriented,” rather than egocentric. When she would come home and tell him she was angry with someone, he would wonder aloud what had been going on in that person’s day. He knew that if we could somehow see life through their eyes, it would be much more difficult to remain angry with them, and that we could even learn to love them. And he became so successful in this focus that he became known as a “tough interview,” simply because he was always more interested in finding out about the interviewers’ lives and families, even to the point of taking photographs of them.
Mister Rogers’ entire life became devoted to his neighbor – that is, whomever he happened to be with at the time. Although his friends included the likes of Henri Nouwen, Yo-Yo Ma, and Levar Burton, he cherished everyday, ordinary people just as much – in fact, he saw no difference between the famous and the unknown. Everybody fascinated him. Children visiting the set of his program were given his complete attention, often to the frustration of his staff, who were trying to keep things running on schedule. Early on he committed to personally answering every single letter he received – and how that mail increased over the years! He lived this way outside the studio, as well. Each person he encountered became, at that moment, the most important person on earth:
In another instance, a young man at an airport recognized him, and approached him to say so. This was during the 1980’s, and the man, Marc Acito, was wearing legwarmers and a sweatshirt – with one shoulder intentionally exposed. “Rogers took one look…and politely inquired as to whether I’d seen Torch Song Trilogy. ‘I hear that Harvey Fierstein is awfully good,’ he said.” Acito continues:
There are countless other such stories of his open and unguarded love for everyone he met. And it is clear that his slow-placed, thoughtful love had – and continues to have – a profound impact on his viewers. But Mister Rogers also changed television in at least two other significant ways. He not only helped start public television, but helped save it as well:
On top of that, if it weren’t for him, we might never have had the VCR:
And so this humble man, who has been the butt of so many jokes and parodies, really did change television as we know it. Children who grew up watching him return to sit down now with their own children – and in some cases, grandchildren – to learn from him. At the close of nearly each program, we hear him repeat the message he learned from his grandfather: “You always make each day a special day. You know how – by just your being you. There’s only one person in the whole world like you, and that’s you yourself. And people can like you – and your neighbor – exactly the way you are.” We know these words are true because he lived them. Although he went to heaven in 2003 – that’s how he would put it – his message continues not only through “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” but also through the love that reverberates and multiplies through the hearts and lives of those he touched. And it is precisely this love that makes Fred Rogers a gift to us all.
Sincere thanks to author A.W. Hatano-Worrell. Mr. Hatano-Worrell teaches English in Japan, is married with two children, and still watches Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood - with or without his kids.
Special thanks to Marc Acito for permission to use a portion of his commentary, "A Sad Day in the Neighborhood: Mr. Rogers, Gay Men, and Me," originally found at lavendermagazine.com
For more information about Fred Rogers, see also: