Who Was Mister Rogers? The Real Man Behind the Sweater
It's clear that improbable host taught is still teaching generations of kids about compassion, love and empathy in the most unique ways.
A new spotlight is being shined on children's television icon Fred Rogers, with the anticipated release of the Tom Hanks-led biopic and the acclaimed success of the documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor. And it's clear that improbable host taught is still teaching generations of kids about compassion, love and empathy in the most unique ways.
So who was the real man behind the beloved shoes, sweater and smile?
Fred Rogers was born March 20, 1928, to James and Nancy Rogers in Latrobe, Pa., just 40 miles east of Pittsburgh. When he was 11, his family adopted a daughter.
Rogers graduated from Latrobe High School in 1946 before continuing his studies at Dartmouth College for two years. He then transferred to Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., where he earned a B.A. in music composition in 1951.
While at Rollins, he met Florida native Sara Joanna Byrd. They married in 1952. They had 2 sons — James, born in 1959, and John, born in 1961.
Immediately after graduation, he was hired by NBC in New York City as an assistant producer for "The Voice of Firestone" and later as floor director for "The Lucky Strike Hit Parade, The Kate Smith Hour" and the "NBC Opera Theatre."
After a year-long stint at NBC, Rogers and his bride moved back to Pittsburgh, where he began working at WQED Pittsburgh, the country’s first community-sponsored educational TV station, where he was asked to develop children’s programming. It was there that Rogers got his break into TV for kids where he produced the daily live hour-long series The Children’s Corner. Rogers, who was not the host, served as a puppeteer, composer and organist.
Two years after its debut, "The Children’s Corner" won the Sylvania Award for the best locally produced children's program in the country.
During off-duty hours from his day job, he studied from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and in 1963 he graduated from their program and was an ordained minister at the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.
Later that year, he was invited to create children’s programming for the CBC in Canada. He made his on-camera debut when he hosted "Mister Rogers." The show lasted three years.
In 1966, Rogers and his family moved back to his beloved Pittsburgh where he created a new series called "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood." In 1968 it was made available for national distribution through the National Educational Television (NET), which later became Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
The series, in which Rogers donned his signature cardigan sweaters and tennis shoes, became a household name across America and brought him inside the homes of all demographics.
Using minimal sets and a soft speaking voice, the show was aimed for preschoolers in an effort to teach them moral value and how to deal with emotions and promote diversity. Rogers dealt with a variety of adult topics like death, divorce and disability while presenting them in conversations with the children on his show.
"Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood" ran from February 1968 to August 2001. It is one of the longest-running TV series in television history.
African-American actor Francois Clemmons was a regular on the show. In the documentary "Won’t You Be My Neighbor," he says: "They didn't want black people to come and swim in their swimming pools. My being on the program was a statement for Fred."
In 1969, Rogers went to Washington to defend public television from budget cuts proposed by President Nixon.
As he sat in front of a senate panel led by then-Rhode Island Sen. John Pastore, Rogers was bold as he discussed the importance of public television in only a way he knew how — through compassion.
“This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique,” he said during part of his speech. "I end the program by saying, “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.
"And 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. I think that it’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger ― much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire."
Pastore, a Democrat who had never seen Rogers’ show, was touched by his speech and helped save public television from the proposed cuts.
"I’m supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I’ve had goosebumps for the last two days," Pastore said. “Looks like you just earned the $20 million."
Rogers would go on to win a plethora of accolades including every major award in television such as two George Foster Peabody Awards, Emmys, Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the TV Critics Association.
In 1999, he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame, and in 2002, President George W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Rogers died in 2003 of stomach cancer. He was 74.
One of his famous cardigans currently hangs in the Smithsonian.
In 2018, Rogers’ face began appearing on U.S. postage stamps.
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