The year was 1968. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Students occupied Columbia University as Vietnam War protests broke out all over the country. Riots erupted at the Democratic National Convention. American Olympic medalists gave the Black Power salute during the medals ceremony. And Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood went national.
If ever a man was not of his time, it was Fred Rogers. Kind, demure, and decidedly square, Fred Rogers, by the world’s culture at that time, should have never been embraced by the nation. It’s a wonder he was even heard above the bellicose voices. Yet, this soft-spoken son of Western Pennsylvania touched people with his children’s show in a way that no else had ever done before. Certainly, there had been hit children’s shows before like Howdy Doody and Romper Room, but Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood went beyond entertainment to become the representation of the culture’s better nature that had somehow gotten lost in all the turmoil.
Fred Rogers was born on March 20, 1928, in nearby Latrobe to James and Nancy Rogers. As a boy, he spent a considerable amount of time with his maternal grandfather, Fred McFeely, who was musical, and the pair would often sing while Roger’s mother played the piano.
In 1946, Rogers graduated from Latrobe High School and then enrolled at Dartmouth College. After two years, he transferred to Rollins College in Florida to study Music Composition, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1951. While there he met his wife, Joanne, whom he married in 1952, and they had two sons: James, born in 1959; and John, in 1961.
Rogers broke into the entertainment field after graduating from Rollins College. He was hired by NBC-TV in New York for the position of assistant producer for The Voice of Firestone and then as a floor director for The Lucky Strike Hit Parade, The Kate Smith Hour, and The NBC Opera Theater.
In November 1953, WQED became the nation’s first community-supported educational station, and the station asked Rogers to return to Pittsburgh to help it develop programming in preparation for its broadcasting debut. The Children’s Corner was one of the first programs Rogers developed. The hour-long, daily show featured music and puppets and was hosted by Josie Carey. Rogers served as a composer, organist and puppeteer for the program. The show won the Sylvania Award for the best locally produced program in the country in 1955, and it was on The Children’s Corner that beloved characters such as Daniel Striped Tiger, Henrietta Pussycat, X The Owl and King Friday XIII were first introduced to the nation’s children.
While working at WQED, Rogers attended the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and was ordained as a Presbyterian Minister in 1963. He also enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Child Development. Also in 1963, CBC in Canada asked him to develop programming for the network, dubbing his show Mister Rogers. Until that time, all Rogers’ work had taken place off camera, but while working in Canada for the CBC, he served as the program’s on-air host. The Rogers family moved back to Pittsburgh in 1966 and combined what he had done in Canada with what he had previously done at WQED. He called this new show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. In 1968, the show was offered for national distribution.
While the world raged, this gentle man changed into his play shoes and sweater and invited children into his home and neighborhood where they knew they were safe, valued, and loved. For his efforts on behalf of children, Rogers received numerous awards including two George Foster Peabody Awards, Emmys, Lifetime Achievement Awards from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the TV Critics Association, and was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1999. In 2002, President George W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. He was honored for his contribution to the well-being of children and a career in public television that demonstrates the importance of kindness, compassion and learning.
In addition, he received more than 40 honorary degrees from colleges and universities such as Yale University, Hobart and William Smith, Carnegie Mellon University, Boston University, Saint Vincent College, University of Pittsburgh, North Carolina State University, University of Connecticut, Dartmouth College, Waynesburg College, and his alma mater, Rollins College. He became such an icon that Saturday Night Live created a parody of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood entitled Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood which starred Eddie Murphy as the show’s host.
Fred Rogers became a multi-media creator and advocate for children. During his career, he composed and wrote lyrics for more than 200 songs. He wrote numerous books for children, including the First Experience series and the Let’s Talk About It series. He also authored many books for adults, including the Mister Rogers Playtime Book, You Are Special, The Giving Box, Mister Rogers Talks with Parents, and Dear Mister Rogers: Does It Ever Rain In Your Neighborhood?.
On January 1, 2003, he served as a Grand Marshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade, and did the coin toss for the Rose Bowl Game. That was his last public appearance. He died on February 27, 2003, but his work lives on. His nonprofit organization that he formed in 1971 and initially called Family Communications Inc was renamed The Fred Rogers Company and continues his work of educating, entertaining and advocating for children.
In November 2009 a 10-foot, $3 million statue of Fred Rogers was unveiled near Heinz Field on Pittsburgh’s North Shore, allowing residents and visitors the opportunity to remember the best neighbor ever.