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The Legacy Of 'Mister Rogers'

Sep 5, 2018

It’s difficult to imagine children’s programming without the impact of Fred Rogers. For nearly 50 years, Rogers pioneered a model for how children can learn, discover themselves and grow by watching tailor-made programs. Now, 15 years after his death, his legacy continues thanks to a documentary, an upcoming film, and now a new biography that chronicles his life.

With the blessing of the Rogers Foundation, Maxwell King set out to write the first biography of the children’s television icon. King, the president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation, and former president of Heinz Endowments spent seven years crafting The Good Neighbor, which chronicles Rogers’ life through original interviews and archival records.

Recently on Connecticut Public Radio’s Where We Live (you can hear the full interview here), Lucy Nalpathanchil interviewed King and talked about Rogers’ childhood, his personality, his early breaks into children’s television, and the lasting legacy of Fred Rogers.

Interview Highlights

On meeting Fred Rogers...

Back about 17-18 years ago when I was president of the Heinz Endowments, which is one of the big foundations here [in Pittsburgh] and a funder of Mister Rogers Neighborhood,  I got an invitation to come to his office at WQED to talk to him. I assumed, as a funder, we would talk about money and funding. It was none of that. We talked about for an hour and a half and we never talked about money, or the program, or the work We just talked about children, parents, vacation, Pittsburgh--we just talked about life. He was a great listener. A lot of the journalists I talked to said that when they tried to interview him, they got interviewed themselves because he would turn the questions back.

The common understanding was, in person, he was just the way he was on television. And in a lot of ways that was true. His personality was the same, his approach was the same, but actually, in person, there was a real in-depth and intensity to him that you didn’t see on TV.

Why he decided to write The Good Neighbor...

When Fred was alive, he didn’t want a biography done. He refused numerous requests from authors to cooperate with a biography. He was very modest. I said that was fine while he was alive, but he’s gone now and we were trying to raise millions to get The Fred Rogers Center rolling and to advance his legacy, and we need a biography. And Joanne Rogers, his widow, turned it right back on me: “You convinced me, why don’t you write it?” I hadn’t thought about it and I hadn’t thought about how much work it would be. It took me seven years to do a biography... and I’m glad that I did because it gave me the chance to know Fred deeply.

On Fred Rogers’ childhood...

Fred grew up in Latrobe, Pennsylvania and his family was very wealthy. His father ran a couple of big manufacturing firms in Latrobe, but Fred himself was sickly when he was a little boy. He had asthma, he had colic, he was bedridden a lot, he was shy, and an introvert. When he went to school, he was occasionally bullied so he had a rough childhood. But what made the difference was his family. His parents, his mother, in particular, was very loving. [She] treated him as a person. She talked to him as if he was an adult. For Fred, having experienced a rough childhood and having such caring grown-ups in his life really focused him on the work he gave his life to.

The importance of his grandfather, Fred McFeely...

His grandfather was perhaps the biggest factor to help him come out of his shell and advance that strength. His grandfather was great in a variety of ways. He spent a lot of time encouraging Fred, telling him how special he was, but he also encouraged Fred to get out of the cocoon he was in and to take chances. Fred would later tell this story about being on his grandfather’s farm, and as any boy might, he climbed up and played on this stone wall. And his mother and grandmother came running along and said, “Freddy, you’ll hurt yourself.” And the grandfather intervened and said, “No, no, no! Let the kid play. He probably will get hurt but that’s what has to happen when you’re growing up.”

On Rogers being bullied as a child...

There was one seminal moment that Fred has shared over the years. The chauffeur who would pick up Fred [from school] didn’t show up. School let out a little bit early and the chauffeur didn’t get the word. So Fred set out to walk the ten blocks home and a group of kids starting following him. And one of them said, “Hey fat Freddy! We’re gonna get you, Freddy!” And it terrified him and he ran down the street and they chased him. There was a friend of his parents who had a house about halfway between the school and Fred’s house and he knocked on the door, and she let him in. She called his parents and she took him home. And they said, Fred, you have to pretend you don’t care and they won’t pick on you. And Fred Rogers reported that he sat in his bedroom and thought to himself, “I do care. That’s what I am. And I’m not going to pretend I don’t care.” It was a pivot point and almost a time when he told himself of the caring person he would be when he grew up.

On getting in front of the camera for his television show...

[Fred] was approached by people at the Canadian Broadcast Corporation in Toronto. They said we’ll let you create any type of children’s program you want to create. He started working with them to fashion a new children’s program and the director said to him, “We’ll let you take it in any direction you want, but we insist that you come out from behind the camera.” Fred was always the creator, director, puppeteer, but he was never on-screen. And this man said -- I want you to be in front of the camera talking to the children. Fred didn’t want to do it, but he did and it instantly connected and it changed the tenor of that program instantly.

On how Fred Rogers appeared before Congress for public television...

The executives from public television stations from around the country were invited to come to Congress and make a presentation and argue for why the [government funded] money should be saved. The president of the group knew Rogers and he knew he had a magnetic and authentic personality that connected with people. So he said, “I want to make Fred Rogers the key person to testify.” And his mates said, “The children’s television show star? Are you kidding?”

That clip keeps resurfacing because of the power of the presentation and the authenticity of Rogers. What’s interesting about that television clip is for years, it’s been taught in business schools all around the country as a great example of effective marketing.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.