Fred Rogers, 73, relaxes
in his Family Communication Inc. office in Pittsburgh earlier
this month. The last fresh episodes of his TV show were taped
in December, to be shown in August, and Rogers has plans for
ON THE WEB
Two Web sites offer more information on Mister Rogers and his
neighborhood, both real and imagined: www.misterrogers.org
WORDS OF WISDOM
A few of the most familiar lines from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood":
• It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood,
a beautiful day for a neighbor, would you be mine?
• It's such a good feeling to know
you're alive; it's such a happy feeling, you're growing inside.
• There's only one person in the whole
world like you, and people like you just the way you are.
• You always make each day such a
special day. You know how - just by being you.
• I'll be back when the day is new
and I'll have more ideas for you, and you'll have things you'll
want to talk about. I will, too.
• It's good to talk about things,
whether they're good or scary or sad.
RELATED LINK:• Stingl:
Mr. Rogers helped ease their pain
Mister Rogers' message continues to encourage
By ALAN BORSUK
of the Journal Sentinel staff
Last Updated: May 17, 2001
Pittsburgh - Fred Rogers was a bit perturbed by something that
had happened a few mornings before in Mister Rogers' actual neighborhood.
He said, "I swam early this morning" - he does that every day - "and
somebody grabbed me on the street. He knew who I was. And he was talking
to some co-workers, and said to me, 'Tell these people there's only one
way to God.'
"And I said, 'God loves you just the way you are.' "
" 'No, no, no, there's only one way' " - imitating the other man, Rogers
switched to the authoritarian voice of King Friday the XIII, one of the
characters he made famous in his TV show's "Neighborhood of Make-Believe."
"It really concerned me," Rogers continued, as he sat on the couch in
his tiny office on the east side of Pittsburgh. "I've just been living
with that ever since I got here, and I don't know how well I handled it.
"But I trust that I was able to help the people that he was in some way
excluding to feel that there are. We have a song on 'The Neighborhood'
that says, 'There are many ways to say I love you' and I want so much
for children to know that that's so. Because each one of us is unique."
Interesting things happen when Mister Rogers goes out in public, even
if, these days, you can expect to find him wearing a bow tie and sport
coat and not his famous cardigan sweaters, made by his mother.
For example, when he walked into a room packed with about 150 planetarium
officials from the eastern United States the evening before this conversation,
he was greeted with an enthusiastic standing ovation. Earlier, at a reception,
people - all adults - lined up to tell him what he meant to them and their
If the crowd at the Marquette University spring commencement today at
the U.S. Cellular Arena is typical, Rogers will be greeted with almost
childlike enthusiasm - and we mean that in the best way - when he gives
the commencement address and receives an honorary degree. Marquette will
join more than three dozen universities and colleges that have honored
him in that way.
Then there are the people who want to share their pain with him. Or who
sing out, "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood," one of his trademark
lines. Or, like the man at the pool, want him to tell them or the people
they are with how to lead their lives.
Making goodness attractive
It's not just that Fred Rogers is famous. It's that, at 73 and after 33
years as host of the public television children's show, "Mister Rogers'
Neighborhood," he hits such a sweet, strong and emotionally healthy chord
with two generations of Americans. He is part of the bedrock of America's
If God loves you just the way you are, Rogers has made a career of telling
children by the millions that people should follow the same principle,
and he has dedicated himself to trying to do that.
Perhaps the best way to understand his career is to view it as his ministry.
He is, after all, an ordained Presbyterian minister. His is a television
pulpit, where he has done all he can to build the self-confidence of children,
give them a calm time in their day filled with music and imagination,
aimed at bringing out the good in them and letting them see the good in
"It's very easy for some reason to make evil attractive, and it's very
difficult to make goodness attractive, but the latter is what we must
be about, those of us who care about the future," he said in a 90-minute
One television expert once joked that Rogers was like a singing psychiatrist
for children. His response?
"Hopefully, I'm a singing neighbor who loves them and whose only expectation
for them is that they have a healthy, happy childhood."
He defined a neighbor as "the person you happen to be with at the moment,"
especially if that person needs help for any reason.
"Never underestimate the value of the neighbor, the uncle, the aunt,
the grandparent," he said. "That's who I consider myself to be in this
whole neighborhood scheme, the person who comes and loves you as you are."
Rogers does that in the slow, soft style that makes his show almost painful
for many adults to watch and makes him ripe for parody by some of the
nation's most prominent comedians.
But the show is for children, and for them, the pacing and gentleness
is an excellent fit. Nielsen ratings have shown that in some seasons,
Mister Rogers' audience has numbered as high as 9 million people a week.
In person, Rogers is as gentle, as slow in his speech, and as kindly
as he is on the air.
"Fred is completely authentic," said John Wilson, a senior vice president
of the Public Broadcasting System who oversees children's programming.
"He is the man you see on 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.' "
Wilson said that Rogers had set the tone for all children's programming
on PBS and called Rogers' neighborhood "a quiet snug harbor where they
(kids) can go."
Changing but going on
But changes are under way in "The Neighborhood." The last fresh episodes
were taped in December, to be shown in August.
That hardly means the end of the show. It is largely undated and programs
shot 20 years ago or more are frequently used on PBS. With almost 1,000
programs on tape, it is fair to assume that the show will keep running
- perhaps on PBS, perhaps not - for many years to come.
The end of new shows hardly means Rogers is done with his ministry. He
said he feels good about the end of production, but is definitely not
retiring. He and and the dozen other people who work for his non-profit
company, Family Communication Inc., have numerous ventures under way.
Some are in the classic vein of the "Neighborhood" shows. There is the
collaboration with Pittsburgh's Buhl Planetarium to create a planetarium
program, "The Sky Above Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," introducing sky
phenomena to preschoolers through a story line involving the "Neighborhood
of Make-Believe" characters. That's what Rogers was presenting at the
recent planetarium convention.
But other projects show how Rogers and Family Communication have increasingly
tackled some of the heaviest matters a child can face.
Rogers' show over the years has taken on subjects including death, divorce
and adoption. Now, Family Communication has created books and videos for
children who have a mentally ill parent or who have lived in battered
women's shelters. It has put out material on how to sensitize children
to racial and ethnic issues. It also has a training program for educators
on anger management for children, and is developing programs for law enforcement
agencies on dealing with children in crisis situations.
The power of listening
Rogers said that throughout the ages, sages have said the keys to a good
life are "silence, solitude, helping others and refraining from consumerism."
"I don't know why more of us don't listen," he said. "We're living the
consequences of that." He sees it in the mail he gets each day, some of
it from people who are now adults and who write about how he was an island
of caring in their childhood homes filled with anger and pain.
Rogers' views on television probably are not typical for someone who
was made a star by the medium.
Wonderful things can be done on TV, he says, and it's an enormously personal
medium. But he sees many things on TV that are harmful to both children
"One of the most damaging things that television has done . . . in the
spirit of fun . . . is the number of put-downs that some of the comedy
programs and some of the other programs have broadcast," he said, a complaint
made all the more emphatic when children are the ones dishing out the
Beginning with "Laugh-in" three decades ago, television shows have moved
increasingly to shows that use fast changes on the screen, zooming in
and out, changing scenes quickly. That's not Mister Rogers' style, and
he argues that what is known about child development supports him.
"I'm convinced that kids are not served well by quick changes on the
screen like that," he said.
His advice for parents when it comes to their children and television:
"This sounds so elitist that I hate to even say it. They will have to
be prepared to be the ogre, to set the limits and to say, 'Turn it off.'
The sad thing is that there aren't that many, as far as I know, who are
able to censor it all."
"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" has always relied heavily on routines and
rituals, things Rogers says are both healthy for and appealing to children.
That goes for the little things he is famous for - putting on his cardigan
sweater and sneakers at the start of each program, feeding his fish during
every show - as well as for the bigger structure of the show. This calls
for a song, usually on a theme of emotional development, a visit to the
"Neighborhood of Make-Believe," where each week's plot focuses on a theme
and message, visits by characters such as Mr. McFeely, the Speedy Delivery
Man, and slow-paced monologues by Rogers.
For many now-grown watchers of the show, those rituals stick in their minds
- and they still bring out that sense of warmth about Fred Rogers.
Andy Stith, who was president of the Marquette student government this
past year and who will be one of the graduates in the audience today,
said, "You look back at the parts you remember, like him changing his
sweater or changing his shoes or the trolley or the Land of Make-Believe
- it's amazing the things that stick with me."
He called Mister Rogers a "kind, caring, gentle persona" who brought
him as a child a message that people should be good to one another.
Laura Monahan, an education major from Mount Prospect, Ill., who will
be one of the graduates, had an immediate association with the name Mister
Rogers: "Sweaters and shoes."
The sneakers thing, which began in the 1950s when Rogers had to rush
around behind the scenes of a Pittsburgh children's show he worked on,
is still part of him. A pair lies on the floor of his office, right next
to the little table where he keeps his laptop computer.
Moynihan said she was glad Rogers would be her commencement speaker.
"It's something everybody can relate to," she said. "Everyone knows who
Jessica Navratil, a graduate student in speech and language pathology
from the Milwaukee area, said that, just like in one of Rogers' best-known
songs, she was afraid as a child that she would go down the drain when
she took a bath. His song helped reassure her it wouldn't happen.
Several students said they liked the idea that graduates would reach
the end of college with the person who was there when they began their
education as preschoolers.
John Hopkins, a spokesman for Marquette, said Rogers was chosen for the
commencement speech and honorary degree because he has demonstrated the
personal values that Marquette stands for - personal excellence, faith,
"He's got a real commitment to clear ethical values," Hopkins said.
In his remarks at the planetarium convention, Rogers used two phrases that
stood out: He urged the audience to do what it could to "help children be
appreciators." And he said that anything that served that goal was "a holy
Amplifying on those phrases later, Rogers said, "I'm convinced that,
for me, God is the great appreciator. That God would look for whatever
is best in all of us, and encourage that to be what is communicated in
He said he likes the gesture of people bowing to each other and has thought
a lot about what it means. His answer: "I'm bowing in appreciation of
that which is the best about you . . . We are bowing in appreciation of
the eternal within the other."
Showing appreciation of another person in that way is "sacred business,"
It's the business in which Rogers has carved a huge niche.
Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on May 20, 2001.