Still your neighbor
After 33 years, Fred Rogers, now 73, has stopped making new TV shows. But that doesn’t mean Mister Rogers is going away
The Philadelphia Inquirer
August 26, 2001
By Art Carey
By Art Carey
During a recent visit to our neighborhood, at a banquet in Center City, Mister Rogers was honored by the Education Commission of the States for the lessons he has taught children.
The event felt like a retirement party. Some had heard that he had quit making TV programs. But Fred Rogers is not retiring, and he let the audience know that he intends to keep helping kids in new ways.
Then he said, “Let’s take a minute of silence to think about the people who have helped us and encouraged us, who have loved us and wanted the best for us.”
Some bowed their heads. An impatient man in a business suit stopped jiggling his leg. In some eyes, tears began welling.
“Imagine how proud those people must be,” Rogers resumed, “that you thought of them during this special time.”
The audience stood and applauded.
Rogers is 73, and his show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, is more than 33 years old. It made its national debut on Feb. 19, 1968, and is the longest-running show on PBS and the longest-running children’s television show, period. Over the years, it is estimated, 100 million children and families have seen and been touched by it.
It’s such an American institution that one of Rogers’ cardigan sweaters is in the Smithsonian.
When it was revealed that Rogers would stop making new episodes, the news made the front page. Some people thought the show was ending and that Rogers was retiring. Not so. This week, PBS will broadcast the final week of new episodes. Kids watching the program will have no clue; there will be no on-air good-bye.
That’s because Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood will continue, possibly forever. Out of 1,000 episodes, 300 to 400 will be rebroadcast in a yearlong continuous loop so that new generations of preschoolers will be able to watch the best of Mister Rogers with no repeats.
“Over the years, we’ve covered practically every development theme in early childhood,” Rogers said, “and this is what we set out to do -- to create a library that can sustain itself and be used over and over again.”
Rogers himself is busier than ever. Through his Pittsburgh-based nonprofit company, Family Communications Inc., he is involved in many projects. He’s exploring the idea of reading bedtime stories over the Internet. He has co-developed a computer-animated planetarium tour of the sky, and a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood traveling exhibit is making the rounds of children’s museums.
Rogers and his colleagues have produced or are working on various videos, books, pamphlets and workshops. Sample topics: tolerance, grieving, parenting, health care, mental illness, and dealing with fear, anger, and the aftermath of witnessing violence. From time to time, he said, he plans to make TV specials that celebrate America’s heroes, especially those working to better the lives of children.
With Philadelphia’s Running Press, Rogers has created a book of magnetic greeting cards as well as a book and “giving box” that encourage charity.
“I have no plans to slow down,” Rogers said. “I’m going to keep trying to help children grow, and parents to stay in touch with the children they once were.”
It’s fascinating to watch the interaction between Fred Rogers and adult audiences. Most did not grow up with his children’s television show. Some have watched it only rarely, finding it treacly, dippy, preachy, too simple, fey and slow. Yet they invariably salute him with a standing ovation.
Partly, they are saluting his longevity and the admirable notion of steady excellence. But one senses something more profound happening, that they are also saluting a gentleman -- a truly gentle man -- and the embodied possibility of human goodness.
“People long to be in touch with honesty,” Rogers surmises. “I wonder if they’re not thanking us for just being ourselves.”
In person, Fred Rogers is Mister Rogers, and vice versa. “I’m not a character on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” he said. “What I do in the studio is part of my real life, and the person on camera is the real me.”
Unlike many TV people, Rogers does not speak in glib sound bites. Nor is he narcissistic and self-absorbed. An interview with him quickly becomes a conversation.
When I met him in Philadelphia last month, Rogers asked whether I had “grown up with the Neighborhood.” I told him I was a senior in high school when the show began, that I was now 51.
“My goodness, what a young-looking 51-year-old!” Rogers said.
“Thanks for the compliment,” I replied. “It means a lot, especially at this stage.”
“How do you mean that?” Rogers asked. His face was grave, his voice concerned.
I told him I was striving to make my life worthwhile, that I was interested in people who are searching for meaning, who are engaged in growing a soul.
“Wonderful!” Rogers exclaimed. “Then you must read these books.”
He scooted from his chair and grabbed his briefcase. He handed me a copy of Bo Lozoff’s book It’s a Meaningful Life: It Just Takes Practice, as well as a book by Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging.
“These are my gifts to you,” Rogers said.
The next day, a Saturday, Mister Rogers called me at home.
“I thought a lot about some of the questions you asked me, and I realized there was something I forgot to ask you. Who are the people in your life that you love, and who are the people who have loved you?"
Growing up in Latrobe, Pa., Rogers was surrounded by loving people. He especially idolized his grandfather, Fred Brooks McFeely. After a visit, his grandfather would say: “Freddy, you’ve made this day a special day just by being you.” Years later, it would become Rogers’ signature line.
His mother and father were both givers. His mother, Nancy, logged countless volunteer hours in the preemie nursery at Latrobe Hospital. “When Dad retired, he spent 95 percent of the day doing things for others,” Rogers said. On visits to the city, as they walked along the sidewalk, his father, James, would put pennies on windowsills. Fred wondered why. “I like to think about the people who will find them,” his father replied.
“The sages of the ages all tell us that if you want to be happy, don’t set out to be rich or famous, set out to be helpful,” Rogers said. “And I truly believe that.”
In 1963, when Rogers was ordained a Presbyterian minister, his charge was to serve children and families through television. “I’m not that interested in mass communication,” he said. “I’m much more interested in what happens between this person and the one person watching, and the space between the television set and that person who’s watching is very holy ground.”
For three decades, Rogers resisted pyrotechnic glitz and high-tech special effects. He stuck with the same old toy trolley and hand puppets. He insisted on creating a half-hour oasis of calm and serenity, honesty and sincerity. Unabashedly, he exploited television to propagate goodness.
Though his show is aimed at preschoolers, it also is popular among teens and college students -- many of whom are struggling with the same issues of identity and self-esteem -- as well with many grown-ups. His mailbag overflows with heartfelt -- sometimes heart-rending -- testimonials. Rogers shared a few.
From a refugee from Hungary, who credits the show with helping her learn English: “Most of all I started to believe I am special and there is no one like me. I was thirsty to hear those words every day. . . . I became so courageous I went back to college and I had only A's.”
From a 20-year-old struggling with anorexia and bulimia: “The part of me that was nurtured by Mister Rogers’ words is the part of me that wants to be well.”
From the daughter of a schizophrenic mother and abusive father: “I had one person who told me that he loved me and that I was a good person. You were one of the only sources of kindness and love that I had as a child.”
From a mother who was hospitalized for depression after the birth of her daughter: “Your show gave me something to hold on to, and I watched it twice a day with her. It was a real lifeline when I needed one. I just wanted you to know that you saved a life.”
“One of life’s simple rules is that everybody longs to be loved and longs to know that he or she is lovable,” Rogers said. “Consequently, the greatest thing that one can do is to help somebody know that they are loved and capable of loving.
“I have been blessed, so deeply blessed, to be able to give one honest human being to kids. I felt that was my calling.”