My Kids Grew Up in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood– Part 2

You know someone has arrived when you find his image on a postage stamp. Mister Rogers earned that distinction in 2018. But he was an American icon long before that.

Mister Rogers stamps, 50 cents, 2018, licensed under Creative Commons

Last time I shared how my son’s kindergarten teacher advised parents, “Spend time together. Bake cookies. Read. Snuggle. And let them watch Mister Rogers, NOT Sesame Street.”

That was 2002. But let’s go back a few decades well before Mister Rogers was a household name.

In the 1940s, Fred Rogers originally studied music composition at Rollins College. He planned to pursue theological studies until he returned to his parents’ home and discovered a television set. Watching men throw pies in each other’s faces angered him, but also made him aware of TV’s potential impact–for good or for bad.

He chose to impact for good by making a drastic change in direction. His focus: children. His path: television. Rogers cared deeply about children, at every level of their being.

He went into TV as a music program assistant for NBC in New York City. But that role was at odds with his leanings. He moved back to Pittsburgh and helped to found WQED, “the first community-supported educational television station in the country.”

He co-produced The Children’s Corner (1954-1962) on WQED, functioning as that station’s program manager. During lunch hours, he attended seminary and was later ordained as a Presbyterian minister (1962). He also did graduate studies in child development.

In 1963, he moved to Canada to work for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). For the first time, he took a role on camera rather than behind the scenes. Three years later, he moved back to Pittsburg and launched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It aired nationally in 1968.

“I’ll never forget the sense of wholeness I felt when I finally realized,
after a lot of help from a lot of people, what, in fact, I really wasn’t.
I was not just a songwriter or a language buff
or a student of human development or a tele-communicator,
I was not just a songwriter or a language buff
or a student of human development or a tele-communicator,
but someone who could use every talent
that had ever been given to me
in the service of children and their families.”

—Fred Rogers

Rogers married Joanne Byrd, his college sweetheart and a concert pianist. They had two sons, James and John, who sometimes visited the show.

In 1969, the Senate was considering cutting public television funding. Rogers testified before a Senate subcommittee.

Fred Rogers speaks before a United States Senate Commerce Committee
hearing in support of public broadcasting, May 1, 1969.

“This is what I give.
I give an expression of care every day to each child,
to help him realize that he is unique . . .
I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear
that feelings are mentionable and manageable,
we will have done a great service for mental health.”

—Fred Rogers to the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, 1969

His listeners paid attention. Later, in 1971, Rogers founded his own production company, Family Communications, to produce his own show and other projects.

Over the years, the manner in which Mister Rogers conducted his show was definitely a boon to children’s mental health.

He regularly consulted his mentor, child psychologist Dr. Margaret McFarland. He’d known her since the early 1960s when he took Child Development graduate classes.

Her knowledge of children and families was crucial to the show’s development. From 1966 until 1988 when she died, Fred Rogers and Dr. McFarland met almost weekly to discuss the program’s themes.

Fred Rogers’ Awards

  • Induction into TV Academy’s Hall of Fame, 1999
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2002
  • Commencement speeches and 40 honorary degrees
Mister Rogers’ shoes at The LBJ Presidential Library exhibition, On the Air:
50 Years of Public Broadcasting, Austin, Texas, 2017.

Induction into TV Academy’s Hall of Fame, 1999

In 1999, Fred Rogers was inducted into the TV Hall of Fame. To Rogers’ surprise, Jeff Erlanger, a young man who once visited Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a boy in a wheelchair, showed up to make the presentation. Watch this touching moment here (5:59 minutes)

“I feel that those of us in television
are chosen to be servants.
It doesn’t matter what our particular job,
we are chosen to help meet the deeper needs
of those who watch and listen – day and night.”

“(Life) is the greatest mystery of any millennium,
and television needs to do all it can to broadcast that,
to show and tell what the good in life is all about.
But how do we make goodness attractive?
By doing whatever we can to bring courage to those
whose lives move near our own.
By treating our neighbor at least as well as we treat ourselves,
and allowing that to inform everything that we produce.
Who in your life has been such a servant to you?”

“We all have only one life to live on earth,
and through television we have the choice of encouraging others
to demean this life or cherish it in creative, imaginative ways.”

–Fred Rogers, Television Academy Hall of Fame induction

Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2002

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor. President John F. Kennedy created it in 1963 to recognize individuals who make “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States or to world peace or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

In 2002, it was awarded to twelve Americans. Fred Rogers was one of them.

Fred Rogers receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award by President George W. Bush, July 9, 2002. Photo by Paul Morse, Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library.

President George W. Bush said,

“Some are fighters, others are healers.
All have left an enduring legacy of hope, and courage, and achievement.
Fred Rogers has proven that television can soothe the soul
and nurture the spirit and teach the very young.
The whole idea, says the beloved host of Mister Rogers Neighborhood,
is to look at the television camera and present as much love
as you possibly could to a person who needs it.
This message of unconditional left has won Fred Rogers
a very special place in the heart of a lot of moms and dads
all across America.

Fred Rogers has entertained and educated children
for thirty-plus years. His program helps children understand
caring, safety, and respect for others.
And his legendary commitment to young people
has been an enriching part of American life.
The United States honors Fred Rogers for his dedication
to the wellbeing of children, his faith, his family, and his community,
and for a career that demonstrates
the importance of kindness, compassion, and learning.”

–President George W. Bush

Invocation at Boston university (1992) & College Commencements

Not only children loved Mr. Rogers. Their parents did, too. And the children who grew up watching him still loved him years later, as demonstrated in 1992 when Fred Rogers was invited to give the invocation at Boston University. He sang to them, still singing from the heart as he did in every show.

No wonder he received standing ovations at graduations.

In 2002, Rogers made his last commencement speech at Dartmouth College.

“Anyone who has ever been able to sustain good work
has had at least one person – and often many –
who have believed in him or her.
We just don’t get to be competent human beings
without a lot of different investments from others…
From the time you were very little,
you’ve had people who have smiled you into smiling,
people who have talked you into talking,
sung you into singing, loved you into loving.”

—Fred Rogers

More Than Just Statistics

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ran 32 years, broadcasting 700-plus episodes on 300-plus stations into 8 million-plus homes weekly.

The impact continues years later.

“We know people who, because of Yo-Yo Ma’s visit
to the Neighborhood, are studying cello!
One little four-year-old insisted on getting a cello,
and he’s now in high school and still studying.
To be able to offer a whole smorgasbord of ways
of saying who you are and how you feel,
that was part of our mission.”

—Fred Rogers

Mister Rogers’ sweater at the LBJ Presidential Library exhibition, On the Air: 50 Years of Public Broadcasting, Austin, Texas. 2017.

Fred Rogers passed away in 2003, almost 75 years old. He left behind a wife, two kids, three grand-children, and millions of Americans–children and grown-ups of all ages–who mourned him. It’s fitting that I’m writing this on his birthday, March 20. He would have been 91 today.

Shortly after his death, PBS created a tribute video to the song “Feels Like Home to Me,” written by Randy Newman and sung by Chantal Kreviaszuk. (Also sung by Bonnie Raitt and others.)

Listen to the PBS tribute here. (2:28)

“Something in your eyes, makes me want to lose myself,
Makes me want to lose myself, in your arms.
There’s something in your voice, makes my heart beat fast.
Hope this feeling lasts, the rest of my life.

If you knew how happy you are making me —
I’ve never thought I’d love anyone so much.

Feels like home to me, feels like home to me,
Feels like I’m on my way back where I come from.
Feels like home to me, feels like home to me,
Feels like I’m on my way back where I belong.
Feels like I’m on my way back where I belong.”

—Lyrics by Randy Newman, “Feels LIke Home to Me”

The Mister Rogers official website  

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? 2018 documentary trailer

Mister Rogers & Me, 2015 documentary

Stream Mister Rogers Neighborhood shows

Watch Mister Rogers Neighborhood episodes

Buy Mister Rogers Neighborhood episodes on Amazon

More DVDs on Amazon

As Fred Rogers asked at his induction into the TV Academy’s Hall of Fame, “Who in your life has been such a servant to you?”

I’d love to hear from you!

Ever musing,

Laura


15 thoughts on “My Kids Grew Up in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood– Part 2

  1. Lovely and well-researched and beautifully presented, as usual! I have many friends endowed with a “servant’s heart” but long before that phrase became common in Christian circles, my mother exhibited the trait. She mentored young mothers and gave them love and care and advice (but only when asked.) HER mother was the same. In spite of ill health, my grandmother exhibited sacrificial love to countless people. If I could demonstrate just a portion of their service it would be wonderful. Like Mr. Rogers, they left big shoes to fill! (My babies are playing quietly this morning, which is why I can enjoy this post!)

  2. Beautiful and inspiring post! My husband serves me every day. Life is bliss when you live with someone who really cares about you and just wants to make your life happier.

  3. Thanks for this wonderful post. It made me think of my childhood and much of the values I learned both on the show and in the home. I am grateful for parents who made my home an emotionally safe place to grow up in and hope to create the same place for my children. Although Mr. Rogers has passed away, his legacy lives on, most directly through the show “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood”, which is all cartoons based off Mr. Roger’s characters, but they teach the same values. I sometimes hear my son singing the songs they sing on the show, and it’s all about healthy ways to deal with feelings. God bless those who devote their careers to such things.

    1. So glad you had a safe childhood like that, one that you are passing on to your own kids. It’s so important to help children deal with feelings in constructive ways.

  4. This is a wonderful tribute to an individual who selflessly gave of himself to better the lives of others. Truly the personification of what we were created to be and to do! Thank you for sharing his story!

  5. Sadly, my childhood pre-dated Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood, but I love that his manner and gentle voice spoke into so many other young lives! What a legacy.

  6. His comment: “through television we have the choice of encouraging others to demean this life or cherish it” hit me. I totally understand his frustration with shows that seem to do the exact opposite.

    1. Yes, that is a great quote. We could probably apply it to every possible activity, not just TV watching.

      He might have sometimes felt like his efforts were negated by other TV shows, but no doubt his impact is still felt by millions of adults who grew up watching him.

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