Fred Rogers was the host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a beloved American children’s show. Many dark and dramatic urban legends surround the man, but make no mistake; Rogers actually was as kind and wholesome as he appeared to be on television. However, there was something sad in his past, and he gave his all to overcome it.
There’s a popular story that Rogers was a sniper for the Marines before turning to television, and that he recorded 150 kills in tattoo form on his arm. Later, he would cover up those marks by wearing a long sweater his mother made for him. It’s all an untrue legend, however, apart from the sweater part; his mother really did make his famous cardigans.
That was the sort of person Rogers was – a man completely unafraid to show a sensitive side. The beloved TV host passed away in 2003 at the age of 74, but his legacy lives on. And today, he’s considered every bit an icon of compassion as he was back in his heyday.
The show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood began in 1968, and it was a massive success. It actually kept going until August 2001, only two years before Rogers passed away. It’s the second longest-running children’s TV show of all time, just behind Sesame Street. And its cultural impact was huge.
Rogers did some tremendous things while he worked on his show. During a 1969 episode, he asked black policeman Officer Clemmons, played by actor François Clemmons, to soak his feet in a pool alongside him. Public pools were still segregated by race at the time, despite the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
François Clemmons still remembers his old co-star and friend very fondly. In 2018 he gave an interview to Vanity Fair, and was asked, “When did you know that [Fred Rogers] was someone you could confide in as a father figure?” In response, Clemmons described the day in 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King was shot.
Clemmons said, “[King’s assassination] was a tremendous blow to me personally and politically and emotionally. My world was absolutely shattered. And I was living in what they call Schenley Heights in Pittsburgh, a black bougie neighbourhood… I remember Fred Rogers called me and said, ‘Franc, what are you doing? How are you doing?’”
Rogers, for his part, made sure that his friend was okay. He told Clemmons on the phone that he would come and bring him to safety, and he did. The latter told Vanity Fair, “I never had someone express that kind of deep sense of protection for me… and that experience drew Fred and me really, really close. I thought, Well, this is the real thing right here.”
Clemmons was gay, and homosexuality was barely accepted by society at the time Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood got started. He continued, “I had my ear pierced and [Rogers] said, ‘You can’t wear that on the program. There might be the wrong people who would pick up the signal.’ I wanted to wear the earring on the program, and he vetoed that.”
Clemmons said, nevertheless, that Rogers was much more accepting than many people of the era. When Vanity Fair asked if the latter had ever condemned him, he answered no. Rogers and his wife Joanne also had many gay friends, Clemmons said, adding, “I knew them very well. Not just casually, but very well.”
And Clemmons isn’t the only one who has sung Rogers’ praises. After his death in 2003, many people released statements talking about how he had affected their lives. Michael Keaton, who had worked on Neighborhood, called Rogers “one of the truly great guys; a really, really good person.”
Yo-Yo Ma, who was the cellist on set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, released a statement that summed up what most people seemed to be thinking. It read, “In real life, as [on the show], Mister Rogers was an extraordinary man. Through music and stories, his caring and wisdom transcended every barrier; his advocacy for children was truly an advocacy for the human race.”
A few years before his death, in 2000, Rogers gave an interview to Newsweek and was asked if he and the character from the show were really one and the same. He answered, “One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self. I also believe that kids can spot a phony a mile away.”
And when he was asked about how the show had lasted so long, Rogers said, “I do think that it has to do with offering yourself. I’m like you see me on the [show]. People long to be in touch with honesty and with another human being that they feel is real, rather than a show.”
Rogers tackled subjects that were considered taboo for children’s TV of the era, all in the name of giving kids an honest look at life. In 1981 he decided to do an episode dealing with divorce, having been told by his staff that children were increasingly growing up in separated homes and needed guidance.
In the episode, which aired in February of that year, Rogers told his audience, “I know a little girl and a little boy whose mother and father got a divorce. And those children cried and cried. You know why? Well, one reason was that they thought it was their fault. But, of course, it wasn’t their fault.”
That same year, Rogers invited a disabled child onto his show. This was ten-year-old Jeffrey Erlanger, who had been left quadriplegic by a tumor. Rogers got him to explain how his wheelchair worked, wanting to show the audience that it was a normal thing. Touchingly, Erlanger would later show up to surprise Rogers at his 1999 Television Hall of Fame ceremony.
In fact, Rogers was especially good with disabled children. Once he received a letter from a blind little girl named Katie, who wrote, “Dear Mister Rogers, please say when you are feeding your fish, because I worry about them. I can’t see if you are feeding them, so please say you are feeding them out loud.”
That letter – reprinted in the 1996 book Dear Mister Rogers, Does It Ever Rain in Your Neighborhood? – spurred Rogers into action. From then on, every time he fed his fish, he told the audience he was doing so, so that Katie and other blind children could feel reassured. It was a small gesture – but it meant the world to them.
In 1997 journalist Charlie Rose interviewed Rogers, and asked him how many children he believed he had influenced. The latter answered, “I don’t care how many, even if it’s just one. We get so wrapped up in numbers in our society… If we can be present to the moment with the person that we happen to be with, that’s what’s important.”
Rogers added, “I know that when I walk out of the studio someday and there is a child who has Down syndrome, for instance, and that child comes up and gives me a hug, I know that that’s the field I want to be growing in. Because I see that people who are not the fancy people of this world are the ones who seem to nourish my soul.”
Rogers drew on his Christian faith to do his work, to. He told Rose, “Jesus said to the people around him, ‘Please, let the little children come up here. I want to learn from them.’” And though Rogers was a Christian, he studied other faiths too throughout his life too, including Buddhism and Judaism.
Rogers was a fairly progressive Christian; for example, letters he wrote throughout his life indicate he didn’t particularly believe in a traditional concept of hell. In 1978 he wrote to a fan, “I believe we participate in eternal life through the grace of God. We are accepted as we are and loved exactly as we are.”
But how did Rogers become the person that he was? Well, the clue might lie in his childhood. He was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to James and Nancy Rogers in 1928. And when he was 11 his parents adopted another child, a girl called Elaine. But at the time, the future TV star was plagued by health problems.
In an old interview featured in the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Rogers explained that he had “every imaginable childhood disease, even scarlet fever.” In those days, sick children didn’t have the options available to them now. He had to, he said, “make up a lot of my own fun.”
The young Rogers also suffered from asthma, which was a common ailment among children living in that industrial part of Western Pennsylvania at the time. Because of this, his parents often kept him inside during the summer months, where he was put in an air-conditioned room and left to his own devices.
So Rogers, stuck in his bedroom, would let his imagination run wild. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? replays a quote from him, where he says, “Whenever I was quarantined I would be in bed a lot. I would put up my knees and they would be mountains covered with the sheet. And I’d have all these little figures running around and I’d make them talk.”
Rogers’ parents Nancy and James, meanwhile, were two of the richest people in their town of Latrobe. Although Nancy taught her son the importance of philanthropy, she also had him driven to school by a chauffeur every day, scared that her child might be kidnapped for a ransom. Wealth, though, didn’t make Rogers popular at school.
The young Rogers was shy, pudgy and suffered abuse at the hands of bullies. In the 2007 book The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers, author Amy Hollingsworth claimed that other boys would pick on Rogers as he walked home from school. They would torment him with cries of, “We’re going to get you fat Freddy.”
In Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Rogers’ widow Joanne said that he “got a good taste of what bullying was all about” during his childhood. And David Newell, who played delivery man Mr. McFeely on the show, said to the cameras, “I’ve often wondered if there hadn’t been a fat Freddy, would there have been a Mister Rogers?”
On the official website for the Fred Rogers Center, the Early Life section states, “For a time, Fred Rogers’ childhood was difficult… He felt his childhood isolation – physical and emotional – acutely in ways that build the depth of sensitivity and empathy that characterized his life and work as an adult.” So Newell may have been correct, then.
Luckily, the young Rogers had a helpful adult of his own – his grandfather and namesake, Fred McFeely. In 2000 the former told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette all about his granddad, saying, “Invariably, he would say something when we left that was very much like what I say to the children.”
In the interview, Rogers revealed just how much he had learned from his grandfather, adding, “He’d say, ‘You know, you’ve made this day a special day just by being yourself.’ It’s been a privilege to pass on the good stuff that was given to me, and television has really been a fine vehicle for that.” And as you could probably guess, he named the Neighborhood character Mr. McFeely after his granddad.
But not all the adults in Rogers’ life were supportive. The Won’t You Be My Neighbor? documentary unearthed an old Neighborhood clip where Rogers put on a record of canned laughter. While doing that, he tells his audience, “As a young boy, I felt that the adults around me were pressuring me to what I couldn’t be yet.”
Rogers goes on in the clip, “‘Act like a grown-up,’ I’d hear them say. Well, I was afraid they’d laugh at me when I tried. So I found a record like this, and I could make the laughs start and make them stop whenever I wanted to. For someone who hated to be laughed at, it was a good feeling to be in charge of at least this laughter.”
And Rogers also found an outlet in music, something he would pursue for the rest of his life. He says on the Won’t You Be My Neighbor? documentary, “Music was my first language.” It was a way of him being able to take out his frustrations at his childhood. Rogers then adds, “I could literally laugh or cry or be very angry through the ends of my fingers.”
During a 2002 interview with broadcaster Diane Rehm, Rogers spoke about how toys and play had also helped him as a child. He explained, “I made up all sorts of characters that could help me through those times. And I think that play is one of the most essential ingredients of a child’s life. And to be able to make up solutions through puppetry or any kind of imagery is an enormous help for a child.”
Despite all the bullying he faced as a child, however, Rogers never became a bully himself. The Fred Rogers Center website notes, “Fred’s own sense of loneliness and self-doubt taught him to be aware of the insecurities and needs of small children. What he learned about himself and life as a child – much of it from his loving grandfather – prepared him to help millions of young children later.”
In a 2003 book put together by Rogers’ widow Joanne, The World According to Mister Rogers, the former then touched on the subject of forgiveness. He said, “Like all of life’s important coping skills, the ability to forgive and the capacity to let go of resentments most likely take root very early in our lives.”
In 2000 Rogers told the magazine Christianity Today, “The underlying message of [Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood] is that if somebody cares about you, it’s possible that you’ll care about others. ‘You are special, and so is your neighbor’ – that part is essential: that you’re not the only special person in the world.” No wonder his legacy has lasted for so long.