Books and Beyond
We learn so much about Fred Rogers in the biography written by Maxwell King, published in 2019: “The Good Neighbor: The Life and work of Fred Rogers.”
In 1966 the Rogers family returned to Pittsburgh after a few years in Canada, and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” was begun on Feb. 19, 1968, on WQED. Fred wanted his children’s program to be free of commercials, which was a very difficult standard to achieve.
In 1969 he testified before Congress about the value of public television, and he earns the $20 million that was needed to keep public television on the air.
Fred wanted to be honest with children about sad things that happen. Here’s one example: On this program he was feeding fish in a fish tank. It was a surprise when he saw that there was a dead fish at the bottom of the tank. He didn’t ignore this or ask to retape that section of the program. He talked to those watching about how he felt about finding this fish, and later in the show he and another character buried the fish and put up a grave marker. Then he talked about the time he was a little boy and his dog Mitzie died. He said he cried. Rogers’ main message in his program for children was “feelings are all right, whatever is mentionable is manageable, however confusing and scary life may become” (p. 191).
Fred had puppets since he was a boy. The puppets on his program were not fancy puppets, but what they said was honest and good for children to hear. The most important puppet on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” was Daniel Striped Tiger, and the favorite puppet of children was X the Owl. “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” is now on public television and is produced by the Fred Rogers Company.
In 1975 Mr. Rogers stopped his children’s program for four years and did a program for adults: “Old Friends … New Friends.” He interviewed many people, but it was not successful.
When he returns to “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood,” a change he makes is to follow a theme for one week. He continues the approach to have both reality and fantasy sections in the program. Let’s not forget that the trolley took us to the land of make-believe!
An example of one-week reality programming was the subject of divorce. He believed children needed to hear adults talking with them about the meaningful parts of life, even when these parts were sad.
Because of Fred’s talents as a musician, music was always in the program. He wrote 200 songs for the show. The music was often improvisational as well as collaborative. Many well-known musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma and Wynton Marsalis and family were on “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.”
It was interesting to read that the children’s program “Sesame Street” was watched by more people than the well-known Fred Rogers’ program. Other children’s programs were “Howdy Doody” and “Captain Kangaroo.”
We hear about the daily life of his family. Every day, Fred read the Bible and went swimming, usually before he went to the workplace. A bookshelf by his bed had spiritual books from many beliefs, not just Protestant Christian. He and his wife had two sons — John and James, born two years apart. They now report that their father was consistent with how he was with them and how he was with children on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
Fred Rogers wrote several books, and many are still available. A book of letters was published in “1996: Dear Mister Rogers, Does It Ever Rain in Your Neighborhood?”
He did 865 television shows and stopped doing new programs in 2001. He was more an educator than an entertainer. One project after he retired was developing a children’s media center at Saint Vincent College. This was at a monastery about an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh.
Fred was wealthy, but as he got older, he bought some clothes at a thrift shop.
He began to have stomach problems, but he put off a medical visit to see what was going wrong in his body. When he finally had surgery, the cancer had spread, and doctors took out his entire stomach. He only lived two months after the surgery. He died on Feb. 27, 2003. He had left instructions for many gifts to be given after he died.
Watching “Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood,” children learned cooperation and how to express feelings of sympathy for others and to find ways to help them. We can still benefit from Mr. Rogers’ teachings. They are not outdated.
Well-known historian David McCullough said: “Mr. Rogers was the greatest teacher of all time. He taught more students than anyone else in history” (p. 355).
A consistent message given to children who watched the program was that Mr. Rogers likes you just the way you are. Each program began with him singing “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
Your library is a good neighbor, too, whether in a physical space, online, or through a pop-up visit around the community. marshalllyonlibrary.org 507-537-7003.