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 on Fred McFeely Rogers
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, http://www.tribune-review.com/features/cities/mrogers2.html (January 9, 1998).
"Mister Rogers: About Fred Rogers, " http://www.pbs.org/rogers/about.html (January 14, 1998).
"Mister Rogers: Welcome to the Series, " http://www.pbs.org/rogers/series.html (January 9, 1998).
Williams, Candy C., "Our Favorite Neighbor, " Tribune-Review, http://www.tribune-review.com/features/cities/mrogers.html (January 9, 1998).