Fred Rogers, known as Mister Rogers, planned to become a Presbyterian minister, but realized his true calling was teaching children how to love each other — and themselves.
If you are one of the millions of Americans who grew up watching Fred Rogers on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, you may have heard the stories about his darker past.
There was his time in the Marines as a crack-shot sniper, who recorded the 150 “kills” he made during the Vietnam War with arm tattoos. And how he hid those tattoos while on-air, by covering them with one of the many signature sweaters his mother knitted for him. In another story, Rogers used his television show as a platform to abuse children. There’s also the GIF of Rogers flipping kids off during one episode.
But as intriguing as these stories may be (to some at least), all are urban legends. For those who can’t let the internet meme go, the GIF was captured at just the right moment during an innocent on-air game of “Where is Thumbkin” He gave the double bird — but only to teach kids about which fingers are which.
So why is Rogers the target for these unfounded stories? Maybe its because people find it difficult to believe that someone can be as good and as wholesome as Rogers appeared to be — and by all accounts actually was.
Fred Rogers was the real deal.
Who Was Mister Rogers?
Fred McFeely Rogers was born on March 20, 1928, in the small industrial town of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. Childhood was not a particularly good time for him. He suffered from asthma and was often bullied because he was a chubby kid.
Children would taunt him saying “We’re going to get you, Fat Freddy.” But the harassment was also a defining moment for Rogers. He vowed to look past people’s shortcomings to the “essential invisible,” as he called it, that lay beneath.
He played with puppets not only for fun, but to help him work out the root causes of his anxiety. A loner, he played the piano and organ and then started composing songs. He would go on to compose 150 of them in his lifetime.
After high school, Rogers left his hometown for his first year of university at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Then he transferred to Florida’s Rollins College, where he met his future wife, Joanne Byrd, and graduated magna cum laude in music composition in 1951.
He planned to attend a seminary, but his first exposure to television changed all that. “I saw people throwing pies in each other’s faces, and I thought: This could be a wonderful tool for education! Why is it being used this way?”
So he told his parents that he was putting his plans to become a Presbyterian minister on hold in order to pursue a career in television. After a short stint at NBC, he was hired by WQED-TV in Pittsburgh to write and produce The Children’s Corner with Josie Carey, the show’s host.
The local children’s show was where he developed many of the music and puppets that would later become regulars on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, including Daniel the Striped Tiger, X the Owl, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, and King Friday XIII.
He continued studying theology part-time, earning his divinity degree in 1962, and was ordained with the mission to educate children through television.
In 1963, Rogers appeared on-camera for the first time as host of Misterogers, a 15-minute Canadian children’s show which once again became a testing ground for ideas and the development of set pieces used later in Mister Rogers Neighborhood.
In 1966, Rogers, armed with the rights to his CBC show, returned to Pittsburgh, where he incorporated elements from his previous shows to create the regional show that he is known and loved for, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Two years later the show was broadcast nationally on what would later become the Public Broadcasting Service, or PBS.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was one of the longest-running television shows ever, with more than 900 episodes airing over 33 years. The final episode was broadcast in August 2001, but it has since lived on in reruns.
Fred Rogers was the show. He produced, hosted, and wrote the scripts and music. Music played a vital, soothing role and each episode was structured like a musical composition.
A key aspect of all of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was the low-key and evenly paced format, which was in stark contrast to the highly kinetic approaches of other children shows. There were no special effects or animations to speak of. Instead, Rogers relied on his puppets, a cardboard castle, and thoughtful one-on-one talks with guests.
Rogers was serious about fostering self-esteem, tolerance, creativity, kindness, imagination, and empathy in his child viewers. A number of his ideas were drawn from child-rearing principles developed at the time, working with leading child psychologists like Margaret McFarland, who acted as Rogers’ chief advisor on the show until 1988. (In 1968, this knowledge would be useful outside his television show when Rogers acted as chairman of a White House forum on child development and mass media.)
Rogers also wanted to foster in children the notion that making mistakes was a part of life and learning. “Fred thought it was important that kids understood that you’ve got to make mistakes so you get better and that making mistakes helps you grow,” said Margy Whitmer, a longtime producer of the show.
Most of all he respected children who were watching him from their living rooms. “He made a mass medium personal,” said David Kleeman, the former president of the American Center for Children and Media. “He had a way of talking to the camera as though there was just one child there. And he made every child feel he was speaking directly to them.”
Rogers explained the hows and whys of things, like the inner workings bulldozers, or how mushrooms grew. Some of his guests were experts on these subjects and helped explain them in accessible ways.
But he also explored the inner lives of children — especially their feelings and stages of development. Topics ranged from irrational childhood fears like being sucked down the drain in the bath, to coping with the first day of school. Lessons were often performed as songs.
Nothing was overlooked. For instance, the hand puppet King Friday XIII was developed to keep kids from developing superstitions around Friday the thirteenth, which was the king’s birthday and celebrated as a fun day.
But Rogers recognized that some issues that affected children could not be dealt in a light-hearted and humorous way. He faced those events — like parental divorce and the loss of a beloved pet — head on.
“I know a little girl and a little boy whose mother and father got a divorce,” he said on one show. “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. Things like weddings and having babies and buying houses and cars and getting divorces are all grown-up things.”
Time magazine referred to those episodes as “the darkest work of popular culture made for preschoolers since perhaps the Brothers Grimm.”
In one 1969 episode, Mister Rogers and his frequent guest star, “Officer” François Clemmons, a black man, soaked their feet in the same kiddie pool. You wouldn’t bat an eye now, but back in the late 60s, at the height of the desegregation movement, that simple act was a bold statement for equality.
Rogers didn’t shy away from medical conditions that could affect children directly and tried to help his viewers understand them. In an episode from 1981, Rogers interviewed Jeffrey Erlanger, a 10-year-old quadriplegic, and got him to demonstrate how his wheelchair worked. Rogers really wanted the children watching to see how comfortable Erlanger was talking about his condition.
To Rogers, these difficult subjects needed to be talked about with children, not ignored. But these subjects were always delivered with sincerity and in a kind, gentle way.
He earned millions of fans across America as a result. Not all his fans were human. Koko, the gorilla famous for her ability to communicate in sign language, paid Rogers a visit. The encounter aired on July 28, 1998. Koko, who was a regular viewer, instantly recognized him and told Rogers in sign language that she loved him.
Comedians like Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams lampooned him. Sometimes the parodies hurt Rogers, but Johnny Carson reassured him it was done out of fondness rather than malice. When Murphy finally met Rogers, all he wanted to do was hug him. Other famous people such as actor Michael Keaton, famed horror director George Romero, and others got their start on Rogers’ show.
Lawsuits, Senate Hearings, And Saving The VCR
Despite his mild manner, Rogers was no pushover. When Burger King used a lookalike to sell fast food to kids in a commercial in 1984, Rogers demanded they remove the ads, which they did. In 1990, he even sued the Ku Klux Klan for using imitations of his voice and the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood theme song in racist telephone calls.
But his biggest coup came when he single-handedly defended the funding of television itself. In 1969, Rogers addressed the Senate to convince them not to cut a $20 million grant to PBS. At the time, he was relatively unknown. Sen. John Pastore, who chaired the hearing, had never heard of Rogers, but after just a six-minute speech, Rogers made sure PBS got to keep their funding.
“I’m supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I’ve had goosebumps for the last two days,” he said. “I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the 20 million dollars.”
Rogers demonstrated that his nice guy approach could be just as persuasive with senators as it was with children. He spoke of the erosion of values through violent television programming and the need to protect and educate children on everyday things.
“We deal with such things as the inner drama of childhood. We don’t have to bop someone over the head to make drama,” he told the senator. “We deal with such things as getting a haircut. Or the feelings about brothers and sisters, and the kind of anger that arises in simple family situations. And we speak to it constructively.”
Years later, Mr Rogers went in front of the Supreme Court to save the VCR. There were legal concerns that recording a television show constituted copyright infringement. But Rogers, who always championed families, convinced the justices that the VCR was essential for hard-working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows together as a family.
In 1999, Rogers was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame; he already had a Lifetime Achievement Emmy and a Peabody Award. Even in his acceptance speech, his expressed concern over how television influenced children at home. He asked celebrities in the audience to reflect on their position as people “chosen to help meet the deeper needs of those who watch and listen, day and night.”
In February 2003, Fred Rogers died from stomach cancer. He was 74. And even after his death, he comforted children: His official website left a message saying “that feelings are natural and normal, and that happy times and sad times are part of everyone’s life.”
After learning about the life of one of television’s most beloved figures, Mister Rogers, take a look at the first drama ever broadcast on television. Then, learn all about the incredible true story of Charles Van Doren and the quiz show scandals.