Fred Rogers, a gentle giant of public television who encouraged children’s imaginations, confronted their fears and assured them in every episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” that “I like you just the way you are,” has died. He was 74.
Rogers died early Thursday at his Pittsburgh home after a brief bout with stomach cancer.
Produced from 1968 to 2001 and still on the air in reruns on more than 300 Public Broadcasting Service stations across the country, “Mister Rogers” is public television’s longest-running program. It has been analyzed by social scientists, who praise its ability to calm children and stimulate creativity, and satirized by comics such as Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams, whose spoofs confirmed its influence.
Rogers understood how powerfully intimate television could be. He talked directly to the camera and eschewed the whiz-bang of animation and fast cuts for a pace so deliberate that it allowed for moments of silence -- unthinkable nearly anywhere else on the tube.
He stuck to a small cast, the same few simple sets and an unwavering message of love and respect for children’s innermost thoughts.
“He made a mass medium personal,” said David Kleeman, executive director of the American Center for Children and Media in Des Plaines, Ill. “He had a way of talking to the camera as though there was just one child there. And he made every child feel he was speaking directly to them.”
“Our goal,” Rogers once told Newsweek magazine, “is to confront children with what bothers them. It is good to re-evoke their fears and teach them to deal with them. That’s why children are held by the program.... [I]t deals with their inner dramas.”
In keeping with his philosophy, Rogers’ production company issued a special message to parents Thursday about how to talk to their children about his death -- why he died and why they’ll still see him on TV. It also warned that as parents who grew up watching him “you may be surprised to find you’re more upset than your child.” And, of course, that it’s OK to cry “and smile again later on.” (The message is at www.misterrogers.org under “Helpful Hints for Parents.”)
“Remember that Fred Rogers has always helped children know that feelings are natural and normal, and that happy times and sad times are part of everyone’s life,” the message on the Web site of Family Communications read.
Rogers’ achievements were recognized with two Peabody Awards, four Emmys, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. When the Rose Parade chose “Children’s Dreams, Wishes and Imagination” as this year’s theme, Rogers was one of the grand marshals, along with Bill Cosby and Art Linkletter.
An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers made television his pulpit and pint-sized viewers and their parents his congregation. He preached many messages, but the overriding one had to do with self-worth, a lesson he learned from his beloved grandfather.
Fred McFeely Rogers was born in the small industrial town of Latrobe in western Pennsylvania. He was a sickly, overweight child with a very protective mother who did not like him to play outside by himself and once made him spend an entire summer inside an air-conditioned room because of his hay fever. His father prospered as president of the McFeely Brick Co., one of Latrobe’s largest businesses.
Having grown up in an era when good children were seen and not heard, Rogers said he was expected to be perfect. An only child until he was 11, when his parents adopted a baby girl, he spent many hours alone, often working out anxieties and frustrations by playing with puppets. He also immersed himself in music, tinkling the keys on a toy piano and later on an electric organ. He began to compose and eventually had more than 150 songs to his credit.
He spent winters in Florida with his grandfather, Fred Brooks McFeely, after whom he was named (and after whom Rogers named a character on his show). An entrepreneur, McFeely tried to imbue his grandson with his can-do spirit, teaching him how to ride a horse and freeing him to try things he might not ordinarily have been allowed to do, such as climb a wall.
“I climbed that wall. And then I ran on it. I will never forget that day,” Rogers recalled many years later. His grandfather modeled the trusting, patient behavior that became a hallmark of Mister Rogers.
His signature line -- “I like you just the way you are” -- was taken nearly verbatim from Grandfather McFeely.
“I think it was when I was leaving one time to go home after our time together that my grandfather said to me, ‘You know, you made this day a really special day. Just by being yourself. There’s only one person in the world like you. And I happen to like you just the way you are.’
“That just went right into my heart. And it never budged,” he told writer Jeanne Marie Laskas in “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: Children, Television, and Fred Rogers,” a collection of essays published in 1996.
After graduating from Latrobe High School, where he was Student Council president and editor of the newspaper, he entered Dartmouth College as a Romance languages major. He later transferred to Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., to study music composition.
He planned to study for the ministry after graduating from Rollins, but changed his mind after seeing some children’s shows on television. Their quality appalled him.
In 1951, after finishing magna cum laude at Rollins, he was hired by NBC in New York City as an assistant producer of “The Voice of Firestone” and the “NBC Television Opera.” He later became floor director of “Your Lucky Strike Hit Parade” and the “Kate Smith Hour.”
In 1953 he made a decision that astounded his NBC colleagues: He was quitting the network for a job back in Pittsburgh to launch WQED, the first community-sponsored public television station.
“The people at NBC said, ‘You’re out of your mind! That place isn’t even on the air yet!’ ” Rogers recalled to Laskas. “And I said, ‘Well, something tells me that’s what I’m supposed to do.’ And that was it.”
Within a year, he was writing and producing the hourlong “Children’s Corner” in partnership with his friend, Josie Carey, the show’s host. Rogers remained behind the camera to work a handful of homely puppets -- from boastful King Friday and troublesome Lady Elaine to timid Daniel Tiger, the same ones that would inhabit his later show.
He also was enrolled at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and studying child psychology at Pittsburgh’s Arsenal Family and Children Center, founded by Benjamin Spock and Erik Erikson. At Arsenal he met Margaret McFarland, a child psychologist whose ideas about the inner life of children and the importance of being genuine would influence him profoundly.
Rogers was ordained by the United Presbyterian Church in 1963 and charged with the mission of using the media to help families and children. The result finally put Rogers in front of the camera, molding a 15-minute daily program for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Called “Misterogers,” it was picked up in Pittsburgh in 1964; the following year, the Eastern Educational Network bought 100 shows.
When production money ran out, cancellation loomed, stirring an audience revolt. A new benefactor, the Sears, Roebuck Foundation, came to the rescue, granting Rogers $150,000; National Educational Television threw in an equal amount. A new series, “Misterogers’ Neighborhood,” was born.
When Sears agreed to finance a half-hour version of the program for public television in America, the show became “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
After the program debuted on Feb. 19, 1968, Rogers became a celebrity. When he came to Los Angeles to make an appearance at KCET, the station had room for 200 people; 6,000 clamored for tickets.
The kudos streamed in -- and never stopped. “There is no one else doing what Rogers does,” George Gerbner, emeritus dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, said in 1992. “He treats children as human beings. It’s a shame that he’s the only one.”
The show barely changed over the years. Music, soothing and improvisational, was an important element. The opening chords of the show, written by longtime music director Johnny Costa, were inspired by a Beethoven sonata. Many of Rogers’ guests were music figures, such as Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Van Cliburn, Tony Bennett and Wynton Marsalis.
Each show was structured like a musical composition too.
The overture, for instance, was Rogers coming through the door into his living room, exchanging his sport coat for a sweater and changing into comfortable shoes. All the while, he was singing:
It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?
The exposition was Rogers explaining the themes of the day, such as what makes a person unique or why it’s OK to miss loved ones. He developed the theme through visits from friends such as Mr. McFeely the Speedy Delivery man, and through the mini-dramas that his puppets played out in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. An old-fashioned toy trolley took the viewer from Rogers’ living room into the fantasy world, symbolizing an inner journey that analysts said gave his show so much value.
Every segment was planned to address not just the hows and whys of things, but also children’s feelings and their developmental milestones. Rogers showed how a violin was made and how mushrooms grew, but he also brought in Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz,” to explain how the witch was just an act and not something to really fear. He demonstrated that getting a haircut is not awful, and that you can’t get sucked down the bathtub drain. No concern was too trivial.
He never spoke down to his audience. But his sincerity and simple, direct speech made him irresistible to lampooners. “Can you say entropy, boys and girls?” Robin Williams, in a sickly sweet voice, asked in a famous parody. Rogers said the imitations sometimes hurt because he was Mister Rogers. But he tried to remember, as Johnny Carson once told him, that the satire sprang from affection.
The show inspired reams of research, documenting everything from its ability to reduce physical and verbal aggression in children to enhancing the level of imaginative play. Rogers was the key. Children identified with him because he was so supremely in touch, to use a well-worn phrase, with his inner child.
Cellist Ma once described meeting Rogers. The television icon sat uncomfortably close to him -- “about 3 inches away from my face” -- smiled and said, “I’m so happy you’re here.”
Ma said: “I started sweating. Then I realized that that’s what our kids do to us. You know -- ‘Daddy, I love you so much,’ or ‘I’m so glad you’re my daddy.’ Kids of a certain age really have no barriers.... Fred Rogers deliberately opens himself to such an extent that to a socialized person it seems somewhat ridiculous.... But actually that’s what 3-year-olds are used to and that’s what they want; they want to believe in somebody. I think Mister Rogers feeds on that trust, that pact that he has with his television viewers.”
Rogers told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he always tried to remain true to himself on the show. This, he believed, was the reason for its longevity.
“One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self,” he said. “I’m like you see me on the ‘Neighborhood.’ ”
“That was 100% the way he was,” said Kleeman, who worked in children’s programming at PBS when he met Rogers years ago. Kleeman recalled that Rogers would begin every meeting by asking everyone to take a minute -- and he would watch the time -- to think of a person who had been a positive influence on his or her life. He held fast to the ritual even when he opened a session of a White House conference on children and television some years ago.
“There was President Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, Tipper Gore, Bill Cosby, the heads of networks. It was carried live on C-SPAN. For a full minute,” Kleeman said, “Fred had us sitting absolutely in silence, thinking about who had influence in our lives. He was just that genuine.”
He led a life of fastidious routine: He rose at 5 a.m., went swimming at 6, weighed himself (always 143 pounds) and did some writing before going to his office at Family Communications in Pittsburgh. He did not drink, smoke or eat meat. He was in bed by 9:30 p.m.
In 2000, after five Emmys and three decades of writing nearly 1,000 scripts and doing the puppet voices, he decided to tape the last new episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He continued to produce teaching and parenting videos and made public service announcements telling parents how to talk to their children on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
He was especially popular on the college circuit, where he often made brash young adults cry with his love-thyself message.
The last original installment of the show aired in August 2001, with no special fanfare.
He hung up his sweater at the end, as he always did, saying, “I like being your television neighbor.” With a wave and a gentle smile, he went out the door.
Rogers is survived by his wife, Joanne; sons James and John; and two grandsons.