Awesome People In History: Fred Rogers

Most of the people I have picked as Awesome People in History were notable for being physically tough, often fighting in wars or overcoming some kind of major challenge. However, there are many, many ways to be awesome, and not all of them involve fighting or struggle. In fact, sometimes being awesome is a simple matter of being the nicest guy ever.

Fred Rogers image from Gratefulness

Fred McFeely Rogers – yes, that was his actual middle name – was born in 1928 and grew up with his sister and parents in a fairly typical American family. Who he really took after, though, was his grandfather. As a boy, Rogers spent as much of his spare time as possible with his grandfather, who taught him how to play the piano and encouraged him to learn how to express himself with puppets. Rogers attended Dartmouth College and Rollins College, studying music and meeting his wife, Sara Joanne Byrd. Rogers decided to go into the ministry, studying at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and becoming a Presbyterian minister in 1963.

The day that would change his life, though, was the day he saw television for the first time. He HATED it. Television was such an amazing invention, he thought to himself, and it was being wasted on showing people throwing pies in each others’ faces. He decided right then and there to make television better.

To that end, he went to work for NBC, starting at the bottom of the totem pole and working his way up. Concluding that commercial advertising was the culprit for how bad television was in America, he quit NBC and returned to Pittsburgh to help start America’s first community-supported TV station, WQED, which would later be one of the main PBS stations. At the time, people thought Rogers had made a major career blunder, but he stuck with the new station for seven years, helping out its educational programming and putting his puppet skills to use on a show called The Children’s Corner.

Rogers eventually did leave the station, spending a few years in Canada making a children’s show called Misterrogers. Buying the rights to the show, he brought it back to the states, renamed it Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and aired it on WQED. The station soon realized just how big this quirky, homegrown show could get, and began distributing it to other stations, and by the time PBS was started, it was one of the network’s biggest children’s programs.

One of the reasons for the show’s success was due to Rogers himself. He was one of those rare adults who remembered what it was like to be a child. Many episodes took children on behind-the-scenes field trips to factories, stores, or construction sites to spark children’s sense of wonder, or would feature frank, if gentle, discussions on things that might worry children, such as moving, divorcing parents, disasters, or war, in order to reassure the audience that everything would be all right. The show, of course, also featured Rogers playing piano and entertaining children with puppets.

In our cynical age, we like to imagine that celebrities are really someone different than we see on the TV screen, and that is often true, but not with Mister Rogers. Persistent rumors that Rogers was a sniper in the military are false. And while there is a widely-circulated image where it seems like a frustrated and angry Mister Rogers is flipping the bird, it turns out it was all a misunderstanding, as he was just singing a song with children where he was counting on each finger, and the middle finger just happened to come up in the rotation.

No, the real Mister Rogers was a vegetarian who never drank or smoked, who prayed and swam every morning, and who read and answered every single piece of fan mail. He wore sneakers because they made less sound on the air, and he wore his trademark cardigan sweaters because they were knit by his mother. He was fascinated by people, and would take time out of his day to talk to total strangers. Some of his most memorable stories come from this habit:

  • He approached one boy on a train playing with a toy gun and told him, “You are strong inside, too.” This reportedly made the little boy feel much better.
  • He would often frustrate his staff by giving children visiting the set his undivided attention, even as they fell behind schedule in filming.
  • He was a hard man to interview, because he would ask the reporters questions about their lives and their families, and then take photos of them and call them back a few days later to ask how they were doing.
  • When visiting a big PBS executive’s house, he heard that the limo driver would have to wait outside. Rogers invited the limo driver inside to have dinner with them. Not only that, but on the way back, he sat up front with the driver to learn more about him, and asked if they could all stop by the limo driver’s house and visit his family.
  • On Halloween, his house was the most generous candy-giver in his neighborhood.
  • He reportedly loved a satire of his show made by Eddy Murphy for Saturday Night Live. Rogers and Murphy gave each other a big hug when they first met in person.
  • One of Rogers’s biggest fans was Koko the gorilla, whose zookeepers put the show on for her. She was eventually able to meet him face-to-face – and immediately took off his shoes.

Mister Rogers was also surprisingly important in shaping the face of America’s media, and not just by the popularity of his show. In 1969, he testified before the Senate to persuade Congress to not cut funding for public television, and his testimony persuaded the senators to not only not cut the funding, but to increase it. Then, in 1979, he gave another powerful testimony, this time in court over the existence if the VCR. Many big media businesses hated the VCR for allowing people to record television shows, and tried to have the technology banned. But Rogers argued that the VCR did his audience a service, by allowing busy parents to watch his show with their children on their own schedule. His testimony was cited by the Supreme Court in their decision Sony vs. Universal City Studios, which ruled in favor of the new device.

In areas not concerned with media, though, Rogers stayed away from political or social controversy and the so-called “culture wars”. When pressed, Rogers said “God loves you exactly the way you are.”

Interesting side-note: Rogers was colorblind; he couldn’t distinguish red from green. Bet you didn’t know that.

Rogers eventually retired from the show in 2001, and died of stomach cancer two years later. More than 2,700 people attended his funeral. The city of Pittsburgh, where he lived and filmed his show, built a statue for him, and he has been honored by Congress and the Presbyterian Church.

No, Rogers was not awesome for being a warrior or a political leader or a fighter against discrimination. He was awesome because he inspired people, he worked to make life better, and he did it with a calm smile.

“If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”
― Fred Rogers

Information from Mental Floss, Gratefulness.org, and Wikipedia.

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One Response to Awesome People In History: Fred Rogers

  1. This was a totally awesome story about a wonderfully awesome man. Thanks for enlightening me.

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