Have you ever felt worried and upset? One day in 1951, Fred Rogers, a college senior majoring in music composition, turned on the first television his family ever owned, saw a pie fight, and felt worried and upset. Fred was visionary enough to see that this new medium would become a colossal social force, innocent enough to hope it could show kids better stuff than a pie fight, and confident enough to believe he might make a difference.
He went a long way on his vision, hope, and belief. And he made a huge difference. Fred McFeely Rogers died of stomach cancer on Feb. 27 at age 74, survived by his wife and two sons, by two generations of toddlers who daily visited Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and, of course, by Mister Rogers, the icon he created simply by being true to himself — as loving, pure of heart, and undefended by cynicism and irony as the tots he’d greet every day with a smile and a song.
His secret was that he kept no secrets: Over the course of 38 years, he talked to his audience about such difficult topics as divorce and war, disease and death, assuring them that ”whatever is mentionable is manageable.” Rogers had a master’s degree in child development, a divinity degree (he was an ordained Presbyterian minister), and was an accomplished composer, puppeteer, and author. He also knew that any child’s world sometimes could be a lonely and brutal neighborhood.
”The world is not always a kind place,” he noted. ”That’s something all children learn for themselves, whether we want them to or not, but it’s something they really need our help to understand.”
Everything about Rogers’ show — the glacial pacing, the lack of quick cutting, his direct gaze and slow, soft delivery — reflected a deep understanding of TV itself and his refusal to go in any creative direction but his own. He made the distinction between fantasy and reality clear by having viewers follow his trademark trolley to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, where he voiced many of the hand puppets, including King Friday XIII, X the Owl, Henrietta Pussycat, and Lady Elaine Fairchilde.
He moved to New York City in 1951 to work at NBC as an assistant producer and floor director. Two years later, he returned to his home state to help produce children’s programming at Pittsburgh’s WQED — America’s first community- supported public-television station. He debuted on camera in 1963, when he created and hosted a show called Misterogers for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., and came back to Pittsburgh in 1966, where he wrote and produced his show until he hung up his sweater in 2000.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood received an astounding 59 Emmy nominations, the Smithsonian holds one of his zippered cardigans, and Rogers was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. He also won the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Still, he was aware of being the butt of many jokes. He understood, but that didn’t mean he had to like it.
”It has hurt,” he once admitted, ”because I am who I am and nobody likes to be made fun of.”