Fred McFeely Rogers

views updated May 11 2018

Fred McFeely Rogers

American minister Fred Rogers (born 1928) is the host and creator of the popular and critically acclaimed Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. The program is the longest running children's television program on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

For more than forty-five years, Fred Rogers has been entertaining, enlightening, and informing preschool children with his warm and sincere messages of love and acceptance, which serve to validate and reinforce feelings of self-worth among children of all ages. He accomplishes this through his masterful use of television, books, records, and videotapes. Generations of young people have come of age knowing that they are special and loved by the soft-spoken, kindly man who wears sneakers and a cardigan sweater. His Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) program is viewed by more than eight million people in the United States alone. Rogers's endearing appeal is due to the fact that he never talks down to or belittles his audience, rather he relates to them and their lives on their level. This realistic and honest approach has won him legions of fans and numerous awards, including Peabodys, Emmys, and honorary doctorates.

Fred McFeely Rogers was born March 20, 1928, in the western Pennsylvania industrial town of Latrobe, which is about one hour away from Pittsburgh. The city's claim to fame was that it was the home of the Rolling Rock Beer Company. His parents, James and Nancy McFeely Rogers, named him after his maternal grandfather, Fred McFeely. Rogers's father was the president of the McFeely Brick Company, one of Latrobe's largest companies. He was an only child until the age of eleven, when his parents adopted a baby girl.

A lonely, sickly, and shy child, Rogers contented himself by playing the piano and with his puppets. He looked forward to spending quality time with his grandfather McFeely, who encouraged Rogers to be all that he could be and loved him unequivocally. This deep love was evidenced one day as their visit was drawing to a close, and Rogers's grandfather told him something that would profoundly change his life. Rogers related to Life magazine that his grandfather had said, "You know, you made this day a really special day. Just by being yourself. There's only one person in the world like you. And I happen to like you just the way you are." This reaffirming message became the guiding principle in all of Rogers's work.

After graduating from high school in 1946, Rogers attended Dartmouth College to study music. He left after one year and enrolled in Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. Rogers graduated magna cum laude from Rollins with a bachelor's degree in music composition in 1951. He married fellow Rollins classmate, Sara Joanne Byrd, on July 9, 1952. The couple had two sons.

When he was home on spring break from Rollins in 1951, Rogers was watching television and saw a slapstick, pie-in-the-face comedy routine. This program compelled him to go into television, because Rogers thought that the new mass communication medium of television was not living up to its full potential. Shortly after he graduated from Rollins, he obtained a job at the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in New York City where he worked as an assistant producer and floor director for such programs as the Your Lucky Strike Hit Parade, the Kate Smith Hour, the Voice of Firestone, and the NBC Opera Theatre.

In 1953, Rogers gave up a promising career as a network television producer at NBC and moved back to Pennsylvania, where he helped to establish the nascent Pittsburgh public television station WQED. Of the rather abrupt career shift, Rogers told Broadcasting and Cable, "[it] seemed to be the way to go for me." Initially Rogers was reluctant to get involved with children's programming, but he picked it up when no one else at the station was willing to do it. With children's programming he found a ready-made outlet for his puppetry when he, along with Josie Carey, produced the hour-long show the Children's Corner for National Educational Television (NET) in 1954. This show gave birth to a number of Rogers's beloved puppet friends, including Daniel Striped Tiger and King Friday XIII. During his seven-year stint as the behind-the-scenes puppeteer, writer, and co-producer of the show, Rogers started to work part-time on his master of divinity degree at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He eventually earned his degree in 1962 and was subsequently ordained as a Presbyterian minister by the Pittsburgh Presbytery.

It was also during this time that Rogers started to forge a lifelong association and friendship with his mentor, Dr. Margaret McFarland. McFarland had helped Dr. Benjamin Spock establish the child care development program at the University of Pittsburgh in 1952. It was through her work guiding and shaping the department's program that Rogers had met McFarland. She had served as a mentor to him when he was enrolled in graduate work in the child care development program. After his studies they had stayed in close contact, and McFarland became an informal consultant to Rogers and subsequently his show until she died in 1988. Rogers informed the Los Angeles Times that McFarland had told him once to "'offer the kids who you really are because they'll know what's really important to you.' She was always encouraging me to go to the piano on the program [Mister Rogers' Neighborhood]. She said, 'they'll find their own way, but show them that there's a way that really means something to you."'

In 1962, Rogers was offered the opportunity to create a fifteen-minute children's program for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in Toronto, Ontario. The show was named Misterogers by the head of the CBC's children's programming department. This program, which he not only developed but produced as well, marked the first appearance of Rogers in front of the camera. The fifteen-minute segments were hosted by Rogers and incorporated many of the elements that later would be found in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Two years later he left the CBC and moved back to Pittsburgh and to WQED.

Rogers had obtained the broadcast rights to the Misterogers episodes from the CBC and began to combine them into half hour segments called Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. The new show was broadcast on WQED and distributed through the Eastern Educational Network from 1965 to 1967. In 1967, the Sears-Roebuck Foundation agreed to fund Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, thus making it available to all the public television stations throughout the United States. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was first broadcast across the country in early 1968. Rogers has served as host and executive producer of the show since its inception. In the early 1970s, he established Family Communications, Inc., a nonprofit organization which was committed to producing family-oriented materials for mass distribution.

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood has differed from many other children's television programs because Rogers has actively sought to converse with his preschool audience, not to talk at them. He also speaks to them on their level and holds a genuine interest and concern in their lives and problems. The focus and emphasis of each show is on children and their individual needs and feelings. Just as his grandfather McFeely had done for him, Rogers has sought to validate the preschoolers' existence and lives. He has endeavored to do this by constantly reinforcing their positive images of self-worth and reminding them that they are special individuals who are well loved.

The pace of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is leisurely, and things happen in real time as opposed to the hyper-kinetic jump-starts and flashy cuts and edits of most other programs aimed at young people. There is an established, comfortingly simple routine which starts off each episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Rogers enters the set and begins to sing the show's theme song, a folksy, whimsical tune that urges everyone to join in and become a neighbor. The theme song of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is one of his most famous self-penned songs. As he sings, Rogers changes from his business attire of dress shoes and a sport coat into the more comfortable sneakers and cardigan sweater which has become one of his most identifiable and endearing trademarks. His look has become such a part of American popular culture that one of the cardigans that his mother knitted for him hangs in one of the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.

The show's guests and neighbors drop by Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and help to deal with the issues of the program. This shows the children in the audience that their feelings and concerns are shared by many others who have also been scared, frightened, apprehensive, alone, happy, and sad, to name but a few emotions. Also part of the show is the daily journey by trolley to the "Neighborhood of Make-Believe" where puppets like Daniel Striped Tiger, King Friday XIII, Queen Sara, and Lady Elaine help to deal with the day's issue in a fantasy-like setting. In this portion of the program, Rogers is content to let the puppets do the explaining and remains offscreen.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, Rogers branched out and released six children's music albums. He also has written several books for and about his preschool-aged audience. The books deal with such diverse, real-life events and episodes as going to the doctor, going to school, going to day care, step families, cancer, and death. These issues and the assorted feelings and emotions which arise in response to them have formed the basis of many of the more than 700 episodes of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Many of the shows have been rebroadcast over the years (especially the first day of school series), although Rogers has tried to create about fifteen or so new episodes annually to make sure that the show remains relevant and in touch with the youth of today. He has also produced the PBS programs Old Friends … New Friends which aired from 1978 to 1981 and Fred Rogers' Heroes which aired in 1994.

Rogers told the Boston Globe that the essence of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is "talking about how important the inside [of a person] is in comparison to the outside. Whether the children can use that message right then, at least they can hear it and in some way be comforted by it." Rogers believes that the real test of the show's merit and worth comes when the television is turned off and the show's message is put into practice in the preschooler's day-to-day interactions in the real world.

The strength of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is its constant focus on building and nurturing the self-esteem of young children. According to the official Mister Rogers PBS website, Rogers achieves this by "repeatedly stressing the unique value of each human being-the traits that make us who we are and no one else."

In recognition of his many years of tireless effort to improve the quality of children's broadcasting, Rogers has been honored with numerous awards, including two Peabody Awards, three Emmy Awards, the Ralph Lowell Award from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1975, and a special Christopher Award in 1984. In addition, he has received thirty honorary doctorates from universities and colleges throughout the United States. Child study experts have praised him for his natural ability to effectively relate to preschoolers. He was also honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1998. In the Tribune-Review website, Rogers mentioned the epitaph he would like to be remembered by: "somebody who cared for his neighbor and his neighbor's children."

Further Reading

Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, August 25, 1996, p. 14.

Broadcasting & Cable, July 26, 1993, p. 115.

Christian Century, April 13, 1994, pp. 382-84.

Life, November 1992, pp. 72-82.

Los Angeles Times, January 17, 1993, p. 5.

"Fred Rogers Speaks Out On, " Tribune-Review, (January 9, 1998).

"Mister Rogers: About Fred Rogers, " (January 14, 1998).

"Mister Rogers: Welcome to the Series, " (January 9, 1998).

Williams, Candy C., "Our Favorite Neighbor, " Tribune-Review, (January 9, 1998).

Rogers, Fred McFeely

views updated May 21 2018

Rogers, Fred McFeely

(b. 20 March 1928 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania; d. 27 February 2003 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), pioneer in children’s television programming who attained national iconic status for his gentle, low-key manner in the long-running Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Rogers was born in Latrobe, an industrial town outside Pittsburgh, to James Hillis Rogers, who prospered as president of McFeely Brick Company, and Nancy (McFeely) Rogers. Rogers lived a solitary childhood. He was overweight, sickly, and prone to hay fever. His sheltering mother discouraged him from playing outside or interacting with other children. He amused himself by playing with puppets and learning music. He was an only child until age eleven, when his parents adopted a baby girl. Rogers would winter in Florida with Fred Brooks McFeely, his grandfather. On these annual excursions McFeely would broaden the boy’s horizons by allowing him to test his strength and develop outdoor skills, such as horseback riding, that were denied him at home. Rogers recalled that one day his grandfather told him, “There’s only one person in the world like you. And I happen to like you just the way you are.” Rogers never forgot that conversation and years later it would yield the signature line he would utter hundreds of times on television.

At Latrobe High School he edited the school newspaper and was elected student council president. He attended Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, as a Romance languages major, transferring a year later to Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, where he focused on music composition. In 1951 he graduated magna cum laude with a BM from Rollins and found work in New York City in the fledging industry of television. He got a job at the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in New York City and held technical posts on some of the shows of the era, including The Voice of Firestone, NBC Television Opera, Your Lucky Strike Hit Parade (1951–1953), and The Kate Smith Hour (1951–1953). On 9 July 1952 he married his college sweetheart from Rollins College, the concert pianist Sara Joanne Byrd, after proposing by letter. Their union would produce two sons, James and John.

Rogers was efficient and successful in his jobs, but he was consumed with a gnawing passion for another kind of television: children’s programming. In 1953 he quit NBC and took a job back in Pittsburgh, where a group was launching WQED, the nation’s first community-sponsored television station, a forerunner of modern public television. There he wrote, produced, and played the organ for an hour-long show, Children’s Corner, hosted by Josie Carey.

Among his duties for the show was as puppet master, working some personalities that would transfer ultimately to his own show—the gentle Daniel Striped Tiger, the inquisitive X the Owl, the egocentric King Friday XIII, and the caustic Lady Elaine Fairchilde. In 1955 Children’s Corner won the Sylvania Award for the nation’s best locally produced children’s program.

Rogers studied in his off-hours from WQED. He enrolled at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, earning his BD magna cum laude in 1962; he also studied early childhood development at University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Child Development. There he met and was influenced by Margaret McFarland, a child psychologist who focused on the inner lives of youngsters. In 1963 Rogers was ordained by the United Presbyterian Church with a charge to continue working with children and families through television. He developed a fifteen-minute daily children’s television program for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) called Misterogers. WQED picked it up in 1964 and the Eastern Educational Network underwrote one hundred episodes in 1965. When the funding ran out, the Sears-Roebuck Foundation offered $150,000 to continue the show and the National Educational Television network, forerunner of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), matched the amount. The series was renamed Misterogers’ Neighborhood and became Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood when adapted for the U.S. market. It launched in the United States on 19 February 1968 and was an instant hit in the three-, four-, and five-year-old demographic.

Rogers believed in predictability and routine for children, an idea reflected in the ritualized introduction to the program. Rogers would enter his living room, remove his sport coat and don a sweater, then slip into comfortable shoes. All the while he would sing the song that millions of children would count among their first: “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, / A beautiful day for a neighbor. / Would you be mine? / Could you be mine? / Won’t you be my neighbor?” Then Rogers was off exploring the theme of the day, often based in childhood emotions like sadness, aggression, or fear. A revolving cast would pop in and offer perspective on the topic, people like Mr. McFeely the Speedy Delivery man, named for Rogers’s beloved grandfather. Then from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, the puppets would offer some drama on the subject. Rogers would bid children to join him on a ride in an old-fashioned toy trolley, which carried them from real life to fantasy, a symbolic inner journey that encouraged the youngsters to suspend belief while hearing real-life lessons tailored to their development level. As time ran out, Rogers would hang up his sweater and say gently, “I like being your television neighbor.” He’d wave, smile, and walk out the door.

Rogers explored a range of topics over the years, including death, war, poverty, disability, and even divorce. He sat at the kitchen table, looked into camera, and said, “Did you ever know any grown-ups who got married and then later they got a divorce?” He went on to say he knew such a couple and their children cried, thinking it was their fault. It was not their fault, he reassured his audience, and said the topic was important to discuss with the family.

Less dire topics were addressed as straightforwardly and compassionately, like the fears some children have about being sucked down the drain of the tub or falling into a toilet. In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, he made a series of public service announcements to reassure children that they would be safe and cared for. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was unlike anything on television and was the apotheosis of children’s programming: it did not shout, spin, gyrate graphically, admit slapstick characters, or entertain with violence. It moved at a stately pace with silences that would be considered awkward elsewhere. It was a placid oasis, a place of threadbare puppets and plainspoken truths. Musical guests were a staple of the show, and Rogers attracted many prominent artists; Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Van Cliburn, Tony Bennett, and Wynton Marsalis all appeared.

Rogers never spoke down to his audience or adopted an overbearing tone. His manner made him a target of satire, such as the skit “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood,” a ghetto parody of the show by Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live in the 1980s. His gentle nature concerned some critics, who wondered whether Mr. Rogers was a good male role model. “So, I’m not John Wayne,” Rogers responded. Rogers lived by routine. He rose at five each morning, went swimming, kept his weight at 143 pounds, and went to bed each night by nine thirty. He did not smoke, drink alcohol, or eat meat. Though he was considered as square as a person could be, he was a major draw on the college circuit, where students inexplicably were eager to see their childhood friend and became caught up in emotion during his straight-on message of self-respect.

His ratings peaked in the 1985–1986 season, when he was viewed in about 8 percent of the nation’s households. By the 1999–2000 season, amid intense competition from cable networks aiming programming at children, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was viewed in fewer than 3 percent of households. The program was already the longest-running in PBS history when in 2000 he decided to quit making new episodes. The last original show aired in August 2001, though the show continued in reruns for years on some PBS affiliates, voicing the signature line inspired by grandfather McFeely: “I like you just the way you are.”

Rogers was diagnosed with stomach cancer, died in his Pittsburgh home at age seventy-four, and was entombed at Unity Cemetery near Latrobe. In his career Rogers was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2002), five Emmy Awards, two George Foster Peabody Radio and Television Awards, and in 1999 was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame. One of his cardigans, a red one, hangs in the Smithsonian Institution.

Biographical information is in JoAnn DiFranco and Anthony DiFranco, Mister Rogers: Good Neighbor to America’s Children (1983). Discussion of his early life is in George E. Stanley, Mr. Rogers (2004). Rogers’s spiritual beliefs are discussed in Amy Hollingsworth, The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers: Spiritual Insights from the World’s Most Beloved Neighbor (2005). The foremost book about Rogers’s impact on children through the medium of television is his Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: Children, Television, and Fred Rogers (1996). His philosophy is outlined in The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember (2003). His guide to child rearing is Mister Rogers’ Parenting Book: Helping to Understand Your Young Child (2002). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (both 28 Feb. 2003).

Mark Washburn