‘Would you be my neighbor?’ How Mr. Rogers Neighborhood helped a generation of children
He asked us to be his neighbor and invited us into his home where King Friday XIII, X the Owl, and Ms. Cow waited for us. He was soft-spoken, patient, and gave millions of children a voice when they felt they had none. Fred Rogers wasn’t just a man in an iconic red sweater, but he was Mr. Rogers: a friend and ally during tough or happy times.
1. Would you be my neighbor?
“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, would you be my, could you be my, won’t you please be my neighbor?” For many, Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood was much more than a children’s television program — it was an emotional phenomenon that helped heal and soothe the hearts and minds of children all throughout the country.
For those of us who were fortunate to grow up in Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood, we learned how to trust, be honest, and love others in the most neighborly way possible. Mr. Rogers wasn’t just a television figure. He was friends to millions of viewers whether they were young, disabled, or forsaken. This is his story.
2. He never forgot his childhood
Before he was our favorite neighbor, Mr. Fred Rogers never imagined ever being a famous icon. To Rogers, being present in the lives of children was his main focus, and he had pure motives to capture the eyes and minds of children, intent on strengthening their characters. He made that possible, because he never forgot his own childhood.
In Jennifer Warner’s book, “Mister Rogers: A Biography of the Wonderful Life of Fred Rogers,” Warner illustrates the Pied Piper secret of how to forge meaningful connections with children. “He had a remarkable connection to his own childhood… Fred made it a point to remember and was able to see things from a child’s perspective.” His reasons for doing so were personal.
3. He couldn’t talk about his feelings, so he turned to music
In an interview with the Television Academy Foundation, the man himself comments on his childhood and how that impression of his young life carried into his adulthood. Born in 1928, and growing up during the second world war, he grew up in a generation where “…you didn’t speak your feelings as much as you express them artistically.”
Instead, Rogers only had music to communicate his feelings. He would connect his innermost and vulnerable emotions through the keys of a piano. A gift was given by his grandparents who made him feel special just the way he was. If he was angry, morose, or frustrated, he expressed that on his piano. His love for music was carried through his adolescence.
4. His relationship with his grandfather had a huge impact on him
That isn’t to say Fred Rogers had a troubled childhood. In fact, quite the opposite. Rogers grew up in a loving and nurturing environment where he was close to his family, especially with his grandfather. Rogers would note how he and his grandfather shared an unbreakable bond.
His grandfather was the kind of person who would tell his children how special they were, and that was no exception for Rogers. In fact, Rogers fondly remembers his grandfather always telling him, “You are so special. Thank you for being you.” From a young age, Rogers felt comfortable to be who he was. But that didn’t hide his timid personality.
5. He was a timid teen
Because he was such a shy individual, he was often introverted and would avoid speaking to his peers. The biggest thing he feared in high school was failure. However, it was a jock who changed his social life. Rogers remembers the memory vividly. Born and raised in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, he attended Latrobe High School where a well-to-do senior athlete named Jim Stumbaugh was in his school.
Stumbaugh had everything a young man could possess: He was handsome, athletic, and sociable. Rogers had a class with the school jock, and one day, Stumbaugh was injured and sent to the hospital. Their teacher sent Rogers to deliver his homework to him and when he got there, something remarkable occurred.
6. A jock changed his life
Rogers couldn’t believe he was delivering the athlete’s homework. Anybody could have taken it, why did it have to be him? What could he possibly say to the renaissance man of sports? Rogers entered Stambaugh’s hospital room where his fellow classmate was resting. He was shocked to see Rogers step through the threshold.
Rogers, as the awkward introvert he was, delivered Stambaugh’s homework as promised, but shuffled in place upon arrival. However, after the two got comfortable, they struck up a deep and meaningful conversation that lasted for quite some time. At that moment, two strangers made an undeniable connection. But what was more surprising is when Stambaugh returned to school.
7. He was more than just ‘alright’
We all have that idea of how a high school jock behaves. We believe that jocks are meat-heads who are all brawn and no brains and can be cruel to those who are less physically inclined. But not Stumbaugh. After coming back from the hospital, Rogers was passing him and a group of friends.
As they passed, Stambaugh nudged his friends, and with the inclination of his chin, he said, “That Rogers kid? He’s alright.” Rogers heard him, not knowing if he was supposed to hear or not. What Rogers felt at that moment was overwhelming acceptance. It was that young man’s way of saying “I like you just the way you are.” From then on, everything changed.
8. He became president of his student council
Before, Rogers was anti-social and felt that he was an outcast with his classmates. After visiting Stumbaugh, he felt a surge of overwhelming confidence. It was like he was receiving complete approval from everyone around him that he was a good-hearted boy who was well-respected in all social circles.
When he heard Stumbaugh compliment him, Rogers went on to do things he never thought he’d do. He became president of the student council and even joined his school’s newspaper as an editor. “It’s amazing what kind of difference one person could make,” Rogers said. Rogers never thought his influence would become a prime-time show on national television.
9. He wanted to gift others with music
His social interactions in high school gave Rogers the courage he needed to face college. He already knew what he wanted to major in, he wanted — more than anything — to be a musical composer. So he packed his bags, kissed his mom and pop good-bye, and attended Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. Music was his life.
Everything he felt was written in sound. “There’s something very mystical and wonderful about how music can touch us, you know. It’s elemental,” Rogers once said in an interview. Music was a tether to, not just his emotions, but a tether to his faith. In fact, he was an ordained Presbyterian minister.
10. He was an ordained minister
His family was an integral part of their church community. Nurturing and God-loving, they figured Their Freddy would too. It seemed like everything was coming together, but there was something missing. He knew he wanted to send a positive and powerful message, especially to children, nationwide. He knew first hand what it felt like to be a misunderstood child.
He was fully aware that as a child, you are restricted from sharing too much of yourself, believing that adults did not have either the patience or the time to truly understand a child. But Fred Rogers wanted to change all that. He believed that his music, faith, and the positivity he carried within him could change the way people perceived children’s education.
11. His first job after college was at NBC
When he graduated from college with a degree in music, he wanted to find an occupation that would utilize his degree (looks like kids back in the day were also struggling to apply their majors in the workforce). After speaking with the human resources at NBC in New York, the network was impressed with Rogers’s tenacity.
They figured “why not” and had Rogers come to the studio as an assistant to television producer, Charles Polacheck. But unlike high school, there was no Jim Stumbaugh to tell everyone on set that Rogers was “alright.” He learned the hard way that the world oftentimes was a hard, negative, and mean place.
12. The ugly side of the world became apparent to him
Rogers was working hard as an assistant. And for those of you who have ever worked in an assistant’s position, you’d know that it is nothing more than a glorified coffee bearer. You run errands, pick up dry-cleaning, fetch coffee, and make sure your boss was, more or less, content.
However, no matter how much you try, they’re always unsatisfied. Rogers knew this well. He remembers a specific memory that forever shaped how he projected his future professional attitude. It was during his time as an assistant that Rogers realized “how a person’s true nature is revealed when they’re being served” — even if it’s a cup of coffee.
13. He saw the truth while serving others
While fetching his producer and other various producers on the network a cup of coffee, one of the producers decided to take the time to point out how Rogers messed up his coffee order. Without being subtle or even private about the matter, the individual openly chastised Rogers for completely forgetting his coffee sweetener.
Can you imagine the exchange? How many times have you witnessed someone being thrown into the flame of ridicule for a simple mistake? Can you hear the words? “He can’t even accomplish the simplest task,” or “I’m sorry, was the errand too challenging for you? Perhaps you should have stayed in college and learned an extra lesson or two.” Rogers learned a valuable lesson.
14. Fred Rogers hated their negativity
After his experience with network executives and producers, Rogers learned something: negativity stung. Negativity not only affected his overall work environment but also affected the people in it. Something needed to be done, or else, all was lost. The interaction affected him strongly. From that moment, he tried to bring a positive, engaging attitude to work.
No matter how hard it got, or how frustrated he felt, he would always show kindness and encouragement whenever it was needed. It was then that Rogers had an epiphany. How often have children been subjected to such a negative environment? Rogers began to wonder if it were the same for the children at home. He wondered after how they were getting the love and positivity they needed in such a cruel world.
15. He was astonished by children’s entertainment
That was his power, and slowly, he was beginning to realize what he really wanted to accomplish in his life. It was his time at NBC that Rogers realized he wanted to share that positivity with others around the nation. Once, he saw a television program for children where a pie was smashed into someone’s face. He looked at the action with a look of concern.
It was a cheap way to entertain the children. There was no substance behind it. In his mind, it was only a distraction — it was not giving any solution for children watching at home. So Rogers decided to do something a little unconventional. He wanted to create an educational TV program for children.
16. He started on a children’s show called ‘The Children’s Corner’
In 1953, Rogers left NBC and decided to join WQED, a public television station in Pittsburgh. The station offered him work as a puppeteer on the station’s children show, “The Children’s Corner.” The show was entirely unscripted. It was through “The Children’s Corner” that Rogers developed many future characters for his Neighborhood.
Characters such as King Friday XIII, Queen Sara Saturday, X the Owl, and Daniel the Striped Tiger. With these elements in place, he began to plan the beginning of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. He had faith, both religiously and internally, that he had what it took to make a successful television show.
17. Television was more than mindless entertainment
It was like a lightning bolt of realization: an epiphany. His personality, his love for music, children, and media — it was all there. In 1968, he brought the wonderful world of “Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood” to life. Rogers felt that television was a personal experience and a powerful medium that could connect him to viewers. “Television is an exceedingly personal medium.
It reflects the story back to us, and the story we bring to the screen. Whatever we happen to be watching, we bring our own story to the screen.” After years of making friends and connections, there was just one more thing he had to do.
18. He asked Francois Clemmons to join the show, but he declined
He had to ask a friend to be a part of his neighborhood, and you may just know him as the beloved Officer Clemmons. Francois Clemmons would go on to be the first black American to have a recurring role on a children’s television. At the time, it was a considerable milestone. But despite his appearance on the show, Clemmons almost didn’t take the part.
In fact, Clemmons flat-right said “no” when offered the role of a police officer in the neighborhood. To Clemmons, it just didn’t feel right. In a time where a police officer represented hatred, fear, and struggle, Clemmons couldn’t see himself taking on the role. But something changed.
19. Rogers made conscious efforts to address common stereotypes
“Fred came to me and said, ‘I have this idea: You could be a police officer,’” said Francois Clemmons. Fred Rogers had given him a part to play an officer in his televised series, “Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood.” Though Clemmons would have been thrilled to accept, he couldn’t see himself playing an authoritative figure during such a tumultuous time.
“I grew up in the ghetto,” continued Clemmons. “I did not have a positive opinion of officers. Policemen were siccing police dogs and water hoses on people.” He was offered the part in 1968 and at the time, police brutality was basically unchecked. As such, Clemmons had reservations. However, that would soon change.
20. Small yet powerful scenes
However, Rogers pushed him on the issue. The beloved sweater-wearing man eventually got Clemmons to take the part in his television show. Clemmons remained on the fence until one fateful day, Mr. Rogers was sitting with his feet in a small kiddie pool on a hot summer’s day. Mr. Rogers invited Clemmons to rest with him.
When Clemmons placed his feet in the water, he understood what Mr. Rogers was doing. “The icon Fred Rogers not only was showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends but as I was getting out of that tub, he was helping me dry my feet.” Clemmons shook his head and smiled.
21. He was the father figure Clemmons needed
It was a powerful and dramatic statement that was visually pacifying for the children and families on network television. Rogers not only convinced Clemmons to take the role but also gave him the love and respect Clemmons needed in his life. As an openly gay individual, it was difficult to find acceptance and kindness in the world.
But Rogers didn’t find it difficult to love Clemmons the way a father would love his son. Clemmons would never forget that kindness. “He was the first one to say ‘I love you.’ My father did not say it, my stepfather didn’t say it, and … It made a huge impact on me that [Fred] loved me in spite of those things.”
22. He believed love was expressed through everyday actions
It seems that since the show aired on PBS in 1969, Mr. Rogers’s love for others was more of an action than a principle. For Rogers, it was easy to love others. Between his faith and his own positive upbringing, he knew what love looked like and was ready to show that to others who didn’t.
He was kind even in the smallest gestures. For instance, did you know he started wearing sneakers on set so that he could step quietly on set? He didn’t want to portray himself as loud and wanted to step lightly for his viewers and those on set. And as for those sweaters? They were all hand-made gifts from his beloved mother.
23. His mother made all his sweaters
As a volunteer nurse during WWII, Fred Rogers’s mother knitted sweaters for the troops overseas. She not only knitted soldiers sweaters but also knitted her children and other family members sweaters. Fred Rogers particularly favored the sweaters with the zipper at the front and even proudly declared on air that all the sweaters he’s worn were made by his mother.
Add in his soft-spoken and patient voice and you have, not just Fred Rogers the adult, but Mr. Rogers, the ambassador for children all over the world. He even composed the music that was on the show. Every chime and sound all thanks to one man.
24. He composed all the music on the show
To him, the music was a peaceful and nonviolent way to calm, soothe, and cater to a child’s mind. Soon he was no longer just a character in a television show. He was much more than that. He was the spokesperson for children who often felt lonely, ignored, or hurt by others.
We should warn you now that the following stories are going to make you openly weep. Each testimony was from the accounts of children (now adults of course) who swear that Mr. Rogers changed their lives for the better. One such story came from a little boy who was going through a heavy situation at home.
25. He indirectly helped a boy out of an abusive situation
One viewer was a young boy who lived in a very troubled home. His father was abusive and often took his anger out on the family. Whenever he felt like all hope was lost, he would turn to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and felt his fears eased, and found comfort in Rogers’s voice and presence.
He suddenly felt secure in a place of danger. This gave him the strength and clarity to pick up the phone and call a domestic abuse hotline. The boy was taken out of the abusive home, and — wouldn’t you believe it?— the woman who answered his call would go on to adopt him. Perhaps seeing what real loved looked like gave him the ability to identify that his situation wasn’t right.
26. He touched on difficult topics
Mr. Rogers used his platform to address serious or important topics that are often hard to explain to children — even for their own parents. Mr. Rogers knew how to talk about such serious topics, whether it’s the scary images seen on the news, death, or even divorce.
Mr. Roger took the time to answer every letter a Neighbor wrote. And some of those letters talked about a very grim and serious topic for kids and their families: divorce. Because it was such a popular topic in the letters children sent him, Mr. Rogers dedicated a week of his shows to address the subject he knew affected many of his viewers in a very impacted way.
27. He talked about divorce
In his program, he made it clear in that soothing ASMR-like voice that divorce is a “grown-up” problem. He told his Neighbors that when their parents have an argument or a vocal disagreement about their happiness, it was important to know that their fighting wasn’t their fault, a common belief of young children of households going through divorce that often translated to low self-esteem later in life.
He would tell them that no matter what happened in their family, their mother would always be their mother, and their father would always be their father. He told them that no matter what happens, their parents would always care about them. He also reassured them that they didn’t have to be afraid to talk about the subject to their parents. Do we hear sniffling?
28. A little girl needed her television idol
Everyone mattered in Mr. Rogers’s life just as Mr. Rogers mattered in every child’s life. This included a little girl named Beth Usher who was five years old when she first met Mr. Rogers. Usher had been watching Mr. Rogers’s show, and even though they never met, Usher felt that Mr. Rogers had always been a dear friend to her.
However, everything changed one day when Usher was admitted to a hospital for a risky surgical procedure. Scared stiff of what would happen, Usher’s mother wrote a letter to Mr. Rogers’s assistant, hoping to cheer up her daughter with an autograph and picture of her childhood hero. Instead, Mr. Rogers did something much more personal and meaningful.
29. He came after Usher’s surgery
Once Mr. Rogers heard about Beth Usher’s serious surgery, he told his assistant that there was no way he was going to write her a letter. Instead, he would go to Beth directly. Prior to the surgery, Mr. Rogers reached out to Beth and called her by telephone. Beth couldn’t believe what she was hearing!
It was during that telephone conversation that Beth confided in the television neighbor of her fears. She was afraid of the possible outcome of the surgery, fears she had never told her parents. “We talked for nearly an hour. Before I hung up the phone, I said, ‘I love you, Mister Rogers,” Beth said.
30. The real reason he always announced when he was feeding the fish on his show
Before Beth’s operation, her good friend was by her side to keep her company and to comfort her. He was there following her surgery, too. He brought his puppets and made sure Beth felt safe and loved. “Mister Rogers became my real friend and not just a TV friend.” There were no camera crews, no journalists involved with his visit. This was not a publicity stunt. It was one of Roger’s many acts of selfless kindness that defined his legacy.
That’s just who he was. He answered every child’s concern, no matter how small. He even soothed a little blind girl’s worries after she wrote in that she was concerned the goldfish he kept on the set were hungry. From that day on, whenever he went to feed his fish, he would narrate his actions: “I’m feeding the fish now!”
31. He was more than just an adult
Mr. Rogers was a genuinely good person, not just to children, but to an entire generation (and generations after). It’s been 16 years since his death, and though many miss him dearly, he lives on in the hearts of the lives he touched and in lessons he taught on what it means to be compassionate toward one another.
In a time of great struggle trembling the nation, we can always look to someone who always catered to the compassion and sincerity of others no matter what their differences are. He was kind, patient, and benevolent to anyone who’s willing to listen or, perhaps, more importantly, needed to listen to most.
32. Mr. Rogers saved Public Media
By 1969, Mr. Rogers had been working in children’s television for six years and had already begun to significantly change the lives across the country. In 1969, however, budget cuts were being issued during the peak of the Vietnam War. And Nixon was rearing his head to cut down public television networks.
Afraid that the budget cuts would affect his program, Mr. Rogers stood before the U.S. Senate subcommittee and successfully persuaded the room to continue public television programming. It wasn’t easy. Two days into the meetings, the chairman of the committee, Sen. John O. Pastore, had been earning an earful on the matter and was skeptical in continuing to fund public broadcasting.
33. Mr. Rogers spoke plainly before Senator Pastore
Then it was Mr. Rogers’ turn to step before the subcommittee. Mr. Rogers was not a man of politics, and he was not the kind of man who spoke with the same political or legal jargon as his colleagues. Instead, Mr. Rogers did what he did best, and spoke plainly, empathetically, and honestly.
With his soft-spoken voice, he spoke to Sen. Pastore with plain and simple language and explained, not why it would prove beneficial to financially back public broadcasting, but what he did as an educator and as an advocate for children’s mental health. Mr. Rogers explained how his program allows children to express themselves, grow, and understand the world around him. Sen. Pastore said something to Mr. Rogers that changed everything.
34. He was concerned for the children
Mr. Rogers not only explained why his job as an educator was important, but he also gave an example. In court, Mr. Rogers said that he’d like to tell Pastore how he helped children, and he showed it through a song, “What do you do with the mad that you feel? When you feel so mad you could bite. When the whole wide world seems oh so wrong, and nothing you do seems very right.”
“What do you do..? I can stop when I want to. I can stop when I wish. Can stop, stop, stop anytime … And what a good feeling to feel like this! And know that the feeling is really mine. Know that there’s something deep inside that helps us become what we can. For a girl can be someday a lady, and a boy can be someday a man.”
Pastore was speechless.
35. Mr. Rogers did the impossible
After hearing the sincerity and honesty in Mr. Rogers’ voice, Pastore smiled, something he rarely did, especially in court. Seen as a man with strict principles with a “no-nonsense attitude,” his change in demeanor was unbelievable. Pastore reported how he felt “goosebumps” while listening to Mr. Rogers, and it was because of Mr. Rogers’ honesty and empathy that granted the public broadcasting the full budget.
It was all because of a kind-hearted man who thought not of himself, his career, or money, but thought about the lives of children who watched and depended on him for thirty minutes a day. Mr. Rogers continued to be a friend of children and a friendly neighbor until his death in 2003.
36. Mr. Rogers is stepping back into the spotlight
It’s hard to forget an iconic figure like Mr. Rogers. He was a friend, as well as a father figure and role model to many. Those who grew up with Mr. Rogers will never forget how special he made them feel. It’ll be even harder to forget now that Mr. Rogers is coming back into the spotlight, this time in a feature film.
The trailer for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” was recently released, and with it, adults who grew up with Mr. Rogers were struck over the head with a heavy dose of nostalgia. Who will be playing everyone’s favorite neighbor? None but the loveable Tom Hanks. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” will hit theaters on Nov. 22, 2019. The film will focus on how Rogers converted a pessimistic journalist, showing him how to love by example.