In the postmodern age of Bluetooth®, Blackberry® phones, second world computer games, e-mail and instant communication, it seems absurd that a man in a zip-up cardigan and sneakers should be one of the United States' most beloved celebrities. Yet Fred Rogers is a universally loved and respected figure. Everyone likes Mister Rogers. He's everyone's favorite neighbor.
Fred Rogers, born 20 March 1928 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, was an ordained Presbyterian minister. However, he never did much preaching. His gift of ministry was in helping children see themselves as valuable, in confronting their fears and anxieties, in teaching the joy of learning.
Fred Rogers started out in television with NBC in the early 1950s, but went to work in public television in 1954 after deciding commercials undermined the education and nurturing value of network children's programming. His work in Pittsburgh, PA laid the foundation for his later series. A three-year stint with Canadian Broadcasting Corporation led to a show called "MisteRogers" and when he was able to acquire the rights to his show, Fred Rogers moved back to WQED in Pittsburgh and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was born. It began airing nationally on 19 February, 1968.
Fred Rogers wanted to reach children in a different way than most television programs did. He wanted to teach them about their world, and about themselves. His efforts ran for 998 episodes, the longest-running PBS program ever. His program was simple, gentle, consistent and effective. Children waited every day to see him come into his house, change into his cardigan and sneakers and lead them into his world — their neighborhood.
One of Fred Rogers' many talents was in music. He wrote or co-wrote all the songs on his shows, including the familiar "Won't You Be My Neighbor" he sang at the opening of every episode. Nearly every adult who watched his program can still sing along with this song, as well as with many others.
Fred Rogers understood that consistency is vital to children. They like seeing the same thing over and over. So, his characters did many of the same things. Mr. McFeely, courier for Speedy Delivery, always came by with a package for Mister Rogers and Chef Brockett could be counted on to provide a healthy treat that children could make in their own kitchens.
Every show had a theme or lesson Fred Rogers wanted to teach and nowhere were these lessons more evident than in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. The Neighborhood Trolley, with its piano theme, took children into that land where King Friday XIII and his wife, Queen Sarah Saturday, ruled benevolently over their subjects. These subjects were also beloved characters such as Henrietta Pussycat, X the Owl, Daniel Striped Tiger, Corny and Lady Elaine Fairchild. Rogers did much of the puppetwork and also provided most of the characters' voices. Whether the citizens were learning about sharing or dealing with Lady Elaine and her boomerang ("Boomerang! Toomerang! Zoomerang!") they always knew they were friends as well as neighbors, and that everyone was important in their neighborhood.
Fred Rogers aired his show through 2000 and in the process, became a favorite, internationally-recognized figure. When he died in 2003 of stomach cancer, he was mourned around the world. His show had won numerous awards for excellence in programming, but Rogers would have said his greatest achievement was to help children learn to like themselves. After all, he liked us. He even said so in his song, "I like you, just because you're you." He never asked us to change who we were.
Fred Rogers has an exhibit in the Smithsonian, complete with one of his cardigans. His 80th birthday was celebrated by his production company asking friends and his television neighbors to wear their favorite sweaters on "Won't You Wear a Sweater Day" in his memory.
"Mister Rogers" still airs on PBS every day so children now can still benefit from his gentle, sincere teaching. This author still watches Fred Rogers at any opportunity and finds much to learn from him.