It's somehow appropriate that Fred Rogers's middle name was McFeely. It's appropriate, too, that the first word Rogers uttered at one of his last public appearances -- Commencement Day, 2002, at his alma mater, New Hampshire's Dartmouth College -- was, simply, "Wow."
Fred Rogers touched millions of people, children and adults, for more than half of his 74 years--years that came to an end yesterday when he died of stomach cancer at his home in Pittsburgh. Sometimes Rogers's reaching out was literal, but most often it was done figuratively, as the gentle, sweet-tempered, benignly humorous star of television's Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
Rogers filmed or taped thousands of episodes of that show between 1963 and its last instalment, recorded in December, 2000, and aired just before Sept. 11, 2001. Indeed, it's in this country -- Canada -- that the concept and the style of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was first established, then carried to the rest of the world.
In the process, Fred Rogers became not just a star, but an icon, albeit one in a zippered cardigan and blue canvas sneakers. He was the quintessential "good American," part preacher (he was, in fact, ordained as a Methodist minister in 1962), part psychologist (he actually studied early-childhood development at the University of Pittsburgh), part showman, part comfort blanket and totally decent guy. Even if he did like to swim in the nude every morning in the pool at his house.
Rogers first got serious about children's television in 1954, shortly after he'd married his high-school sweetheart, Sara Joanne Byrd. He'd done some behind-the-scenes TV work earlier in New York for The Kate Smith Hour and Your Hit Parade, but it was in Pittsburgh, at the first public-television station in the United States, that he began to realize there could be a career in children's entertainment. For seven years, Rogers was the unseen puppeteer and voice in The Children's Corner, a largely unscripted 15-minute show that eventually featured such Mr. Rogers staples as King Friday XIII, "Monarch of Calendarland," and Daniel S. (Striped) Tiger.
In 1961, Rogers was visited in Pittsburgh by Fred Rainsberry, national supervisor of schools and youth programming for CBC Television in Toronto. Rainsberry had met Rogers before, and had brought him to Canada on at least one occasion earlier to appear as a guest puppeteer on CBC's Junior Magazine, which was sometimes hosted by a young Patrick Watson.
According to John Twomey, Rainsberry's associate at the time, Rainsberry was determined to bring Rogers to Canada on a more permanent basis. Moreover, says Twomey, who later went on to direct Butternut Square and The Friendly Giant and to head Ryerson Polytechnical's TV arts program, Rainsberry was equally determined to put Fred Rogers in front of the camera. "He said, 'Look, Fred. You're a fine presenter, but you're behind the camera. I want you in front,' " Twomey recalled yesterday.
And so it came to pass that on Oct. 15, 1962, at 1:30 p.m., CBC-TV broadcast the first Misterogers program. Again, it was Rainsberry's idea that the show should be named after its star. And "the look that Rogers had, that look of looking right at those four- and five-year-olds, and speaking to them, that started here in Canada," Twomey said. In fact, in his memoirs, Rogers wrote that he doubted he "would ever have faced a camera if it hadn't been for [Rainsberry's]encouragement."
(Also joining Rogers on the trek to Canada, as devotees of Canadian TV know, was a puppeteer from Maine named Ernie Coombs. After Misterogers, Coombs got an on-screen spot on Butternut Square that, in turn, led to his famous gig as Mr. Dressup from 1967 to 1996.)
Rogers stayed in Canada for a little over a year with his wife and their two young sons, but then decided to return to his hometown of Pittsburgh, bringing the CBC concept with him to WQED, expanding it to a half-hour local broadcast and calling it Misterogers' Neighborhood.Rogers later changed the spelling to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,"out of a concern," appropriately enough, "for viewers who were learning to read."
Depending on which account you read, the program went national in either early 1968 or early 1969. Regardless, for the next 30 years, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood became the show most North American parents wanted their young children to watch -- or at least hoped their kids would watch, love and learn from. For many, it served as an oasis of calm, wit and familiarity through the agonies of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, Vietnam and Watergate, Bosnia and Ethiopia, Oklahoma City and Waco, the Gulf War and Somalia. Indeed, no one was really surprised last September when Fred Rogers came briefly out of retirement to record four public-service announcements to help children deal with the anniversary of 9/11.
"The whole idea," he once said, "is to look at the television camera and present as much love as you possibly could to a person who might feel that he or she needs it."
Noted childhood educator and author Barbara Coloroso said yesterday: "What he was for so many generations of children was a safe harbour. He wasn't surrounded by hype. He discussed serious issues. He didn't always make children feel happy, but he made them feel good."
Of course, icons in a secular society are ripe for mocking, and Fred Rogers was mocked, most notably in Eddie Murphy's hilarious "ghetto-fabulous" riff Mister Robinson's Neighborhood on Saturday Night Live. Usually, Rogers took this razzing in stride, but sometimes he'd say "enough is enough," as he did when he shut down a Web site called "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood Watch" or got a court order to destroy a run of T-shirts that displayed his image superimposed with a handgun and the message, "Welcome to my 'hood."
It seems real life and persona were pretty much the same thing for Fred Rogers. He was a vegetarian for a great part of his life, so you never found any Mister Rogers trinkets in McDonald's Happy Meals (although the Smithsonian Institution in Washington did manage to get him to part with one of his cardigans, a red one reportedly knitted by his mother, for display). He was a teetotaller, also, and stayed married to the same woman for 50 years.
Barbara Coloroso liked the way Rogers "did things that took time." Sometimes the puppets and humans in the Neighborhood of Make Believe would take an entire week to prepare and mount an opera, written, of course, by Fred Rogers, who started taking piano lessons at age 9 and is now credited as the author of more than 200 songs. "With so many shows these days, it's rush in and rush out," she said. "But Fred Rogers took the ability to rest and recreate to heart."