Located on the banks of the Ohio River not far from the location where the Monongahela and the Allegheny meet is Mr. Roger’s Memorial Statue. His likeness occupies a prime vantage point, overlooking the famed Duquesne Bridge and the skyscrapers of downtown. Sitting within a concrete arch, audio recordings of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” play on a continuous loop. This peaceful park setting would suit Fred Rogers perfectly.
Tuesday of this last week marked the 51st anniversary of the first time Mr. Roger’s invited America to his neighboorhood, and for the next 33 years, Fred Rogers was everyone’s favorite neighbor. He had begun his show initially back in 1962 in Canada before moving to Pittsburgh Public Broadcasting Affiliate WQED in 1968. Rogers became a local fixture and had several cast members with recurring roles on the show including a then-unknown Michael Keaton back in the 1970s. His presentation was groundbreaking in the way he approached children, never talking down to them or minimizing their feelings. His mellifluous and soothing voice had a calming effect on his audience, and his warm, kindly nature put them at ease.
Some people experience hurt, and their response is to hurt in return. Those who are blessed hurt and find a way to keep others from feeling the same. Fred Rogers was one of the blessed. An overweight and sickly child Rogers was bullied by his classmates and mocked for his weight and stammering. This hurting forced Fred Rogers to retreat into himself and his bountiful imagination. This rich inner world created the puppets that would occupy his neighborhood such as King Friday XIII and Daniel Tiger. Rogers had initially planned on becoming a Presbyterian Minister but became convinced that he could do more ministering to Children through the emerging medium of television.
Fred Roger’s was also the best selling author of children’s books that covered difficult subject matter such as the death of a pet, divorce, and understanding prejudice. But it is a television pioneer he is best remembered. Roger’s show always began the same. He would walk through the door singing his theme song “Won’t you be my neighbor?” take off his coat and put on his cardigan sweater, (He had several pairs, and they were all hand-knitted by his mother) and his sneakers. Then he would usually have a segment with his puppets characters and end with a topic of the day. He wasn’t afraid of tackling issues of the day, discussing the Robert Kennedy assassination and Challenger Explosions and September 11thfor example. He offered sage advice both for viewers and parents who had to tackle the subject with their own children.
Rogers never endorsed a product despite his fame. He felt it would be a betrayal to the children who watched his show. Despite this, Fred Rogers was a tireless advocate for children’s education making several impassioned pleas before Congress when they threaten to withdraw PBS’s funding. He amassed40 honorary degrees an armful of Emmy and Peabody Awards and even the Presidental Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. Rogers died in 2003, but his show still airs in the hearts and minds of the generations of children who grew up watching him. Myself included.
The Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh has been the recipient of the sets and much of the props from “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” They are on display in the museum’s fourth floor. The center covers the history of Pittsburgh and the Heinz Brand as well, but Fred Rogers’ exhibit is especially popular.
I may be middle-aged, but the child in me thrills seeing these sets from the Television show I adored as a child. If you come to Pittsburgh, and Mr. Rogers was as much of a part of your life as mine. Let the child in your heart have this gift. Come back to the neighborhood. It’s still a beautiful day.