Books and Beyond

“The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers” is a very detailed book, organized into five parts. Each part begins with a quote from Rogers. My favorite is “All our lives, we rework the things from our childhood, like feeling good about ourselves, managing our angry feelings, being able to say good-bye to people we love” (for Part III).

The 400-page book was written by Maxwell King, published in 2019 by Abrams Press. Many positive words are written throughout the book to describe Mr. Rogers.

I read it slowly because I didn’t want it to end. A thought I had now and then was that we cherish each human story.

Fred Rogers was born in his grandparents’ house in Latrobe, Pa., on March 20, 1928. A Pomeranian dog was under the bed. He was an only child in a wealthy family until he was 11 years old and his parents adopted a girl they named Laney. As a young boy, Fred had puppets, and he liked to read and play the piano. He played the piano by ear when he was 5 years old. His mother knitted cardigans for him.

Nancy McFeely Rogers and James Hillis Rogers, Fred’s parents, lived in Latrobe, about 40 miles from Pittsburgh. In the mid-1900s, the town, with a population of 10,000, “looked like quintessential small-town America” (p. 20).

Fred’s parents were philanthropists. In 1918, his mother had helped in a local doctor’s office and at hospitals during the flu epidemic. They always helped anyone who needed it by giving their time, money and/or gifts.

He attended Dartmouth College for two years, and then transferred to Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., and majored in music, graduating in 1951, magna cum laude. Also attending Rollins College was Joanne Byrd. She would become Fred’s wife in 1952. Her family was musical, and Joanne had much musical talent.

When Fred was home for Easter break in 1951, his parents had a television, one of the first in Latrobe. When Fred saw what was on TV for children, his dream was to someday put something on television that was good for children to watch. You already know about “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” but I need to tell you more about his life before the first program was aired in 1968.

After graduation, Fred got a job in NBC television in Manhattan because of his father’s ownership of stocks in RCA. Radio Corporation of America developed the National Broadcasting Corporation. He worked for two years as floor manager, and learned much about how to develop and oversee television programs. One of the singers he met while he worked there was Hank Williams.

Next, Fred’s father influenced him to come to Pittsburgh, where work was being done to develop public television, which at first was called educational television.

Fred worked for NBC for several years, being involved with producing such shows as “The Kate Smith Evening Hour” and “The Gabby Hayes Show.” Then he worked for the Pittsburgh station WQED for seven years on the program “The Children’s Corner.” He was the voice of the puppets. At this time he was also attending classes for his master of divinity degree, which he received in 1963. He needed permission from the Presbyterian Seminary to share important ideas to people on a television program rather than from the pulpit.

Then he volunteered at an early childhood education center at the University of Pittsburgh, where he met Dr. Margaret McFarland. They worked together for 30 years, and she had input into “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” An important belief he gained was that it is important to stay in touch with our childhood. Also, when he began to talk directly to children watching television (in addition to talking through puppets), a friend coached him to think that he’s talking to just one child.

In the early 1960s, Fred was invited to be in Toronto, Canada, to produce a daily 15-minute program for children. This program,“Misterogers,” ran for four years. Many elements of his well-known PBS show in America were introduced on the Canadian program.

The family moved back to Pittsburgh in 1966, and even though Mr. Rogers didn’t have work here yet, he knew exactly what he wanted his program for children to be like. One overall belief that influenced the program was that he wanted to answer the social and emotional needs of children, not just their cognitive needs.

We watched Mr. Rogers with our daughter in the 1970s. When she wrote him a letter, she received a handwritten postcard from him.

Next month I’ll continue to tell you about this biography. Maybe by that time some of us will have seen the movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. Many of you will have checked out materials relating to Fred Rogers from the Plum Creek Library System.


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