“Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life, is a hero to me.” — Fred Rogers
Fred McFeely Rogers was born on this day in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, USA in 1928. Today is the 85th anniversary of his birth.
Rogers was born to James and Nancy Rogers. He also spent a lot of time with maternal grandparents the McFeelys. James started out as a laborer at McFeely Brick Factory and wound up buying out his father-in-law to own the business. From there he bought Latrobe Die Casting Company. The family was well-respected and influential in town. His mother, Nancy, volunteered as a nurses aid. Rogers said she had “something like 25,000 volunteer hours at the hospital…. And during the Second World War she was in charge of making surgical dressings for the troops.” [The Wonder of It All] Nancy also knitted sweaters for the troops.
In fact, my mother, as long as I could remember, made at least one sweater every month. And at Christmas time, she… would give us each a hand-knit sweater … Until she died, those zipper sweaters that I wear on the Neighborhood were all made by my mother.” [Ibid]
That iconic red cardigan — the one that is in the Smithsonian? — Fred’s mom knit that for him.
But despite the outward Norman Rockwell appearance not everything was sugar and sweetness in Fred Rogers childhood. He was painfully shy, overweight and sickly. His parents were hyper protective of the little boy. They worried that he’d get sick, get hurt, or worse, get kidnapped (the Lindbergh kidnapping was fresh in every one’s mind.) The summer air was humid and the Pittsburgh’s factories added to the low air quality. That meant asthmatic Fred spent almost all his time inside his air-conditioned room during school break. He was isolated and lonely.
I was… very, very shy when I was in grade school. And when I got to high school, I was scared to death to go to school. Every day, I was afraid I was going to fail… I resented those kids for not seeing beyond my fatness or my shyness. I didn’t know that it was all right to resent it, to feel bad about it, even to feel very sad about it. … because the advice I got from the grown-ups was, “Just let on you don’t care, then nobody will bother you.” [Ibid]
One thing he did to make himself feel better was to play the piano. He started taking lessons when he was five and he soon found that music allowed him to express the feelings he otherwise had to keep inside.
He blossomed by Senior year, and finished high school as the, and was no longer the painfully shy child he had been when he entered as a Freshman. He started at Dartmouth College but transferred to Rollin College in Florida because their had a better music program. He got his degree in music composition and planned to attend Pittsburg Theological Seminary.
But then he saw his first TV show. It was a base affair — with “people throwing pies at each other” — and Rogers “decided he wanted to be involved with this new medium to make it something better.” [Ibid]
He went to New York and began to work at NBC. He started as an assistant to the producer for NBC Opera Theater and later became floor manager for various music programs. His work on the Gabby Hayes children’s show convinced him that programing for children should be commercial free and educational. He quit NBC.
In 1954 he started as a puppeteer on The Children’s Corner at WQED, a public television station at Pittsburgh. Other shows followed, most famously Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The show went national in 1968.
Not only was Fred Rogers a pioneer in children’s media, but he also was an artist, minister, composer and musician, environmentalist, and advocate for children and families. With his gentle, unassuming manner, he made a profound impression on everyone he encountered. [Fred Roger Center]
Rogers authored the following books:
- Mister Rogers Talks with Parents, 1983;
- The New Baby (Mister Rogers’ First Experiences Books), 1985;
- Making Friends (Mister Rogers’ First Experiences Books), 1987;
- Mister Rogers: How Families Grow, 1988;
- You Are Special, 1994.
He won the following awards:
- Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences as well as the TV Critics Association.
- The Presidential Medal of Freedom
- Two George Foster Peabody Awards.
- Rogers was appointed Chairman of the Forum on Mass Media and Child Development of the White House Conference on Youth in 1968.
- “Pennsylvania Founder’s Award” in June 1999 for his “lifelong contribution to the Commonwealth in the spirit of Pennsylvania’s founder, William Penn.”
In December of 2002 Rogers was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He died on February 27, 2003.