Another year without Fred Rogers, and more reminders of why we miss him

With some members of Congress intent on eliminating federal funding for public radio and television, a friend sent me this remarkable video.  It reminds us of what we lost when the remarkable Fred Rogers died eight years ago this Sunday, but it has a second powerful message about the value of public television and radio, then, now and tomorrow:

Many of us in broadcasting and the helping professions have their own stories about Fred, who was one of the most generous and sincere human beings I have ever known.  Of course, I ‘knew’ Fred from watching The Neighborhood with my young children, but we became friends when — believe it or not — he wrote me a fan letter after hearing my documentary about children in mental institutions on NPR.  That must have been in the late  1970s, and after that we would go see him whenever he came to DC for some public television event.

I used to visit him on Nantucket, when I was thinking about leaving NPR and trying my hand at television.  That was in 1981 and 1982.  I remember once I persuaded my daughter Kelsey, then 3 or 4, to come with the promise that he would sing the song to her.  After about 30 minutes of conversation, I felt we should leave (not overstay our welcome), so I said we had to leave but asked if he would sing the song to Kelsey before we left.  He said, ‘of course,’ and leaned over toward Kelsey, who was sitting next to me on the couch, about three feet from Fred.

He began singing, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood….” and Kelsey shrieked, jumped up, and hid behind me.  I was totally embarrassed, but Fred took it in stride.  He said it happens all the time. Kids were used to seeing him inside a box and couldn’t deal with the idea that he was a real person.

Fred was incredibly talented. He wrote all his own music, often in the little studio he built next to his Madaket cottage.  His music director Johnny Costas, Mr. McFeeley, and one other member of the Neighborhood lived next to Fred and his wife and kids.

I also did a half hour documentary about him before I left NPR; I probably did it just so I could spend more time with him. He was a very special man.  BTW, he was a fanatic about swimming. He had to swim 30 minutes a day, no matter what. Once told me how he checked into a motel late one night, discovered it did not have a pool, so checked out and drove until he found one with a pool.

Such a loss, one we still feel eight years later. I hope you will share your own stories about Fred, and of course we hope you are speaking out in support of public radio and television.

26 thoughts on “Another year without Fred Rogers, and more reminders of why we miss him

  1. Fred Rogers was a man who wore his heart on his sleeve, something “smart people” are taught not to do if they want to survive. He had more than a big heart, of course, or he could not have achieved so much: he was also a man of intelligence, diligence, courage and art. In fact, he had the combination of qualities that all good teachers have. Thank you for helping us recall his example and encouraging more of us to wear our hearts on our sleeves, no matter how vulnerable it makes us. If the rest of the ingredients are there, vulnerability gives us an unusual kind of power—not power “over” but power “with,” the kind of power that brings people together instead of setting them apart, the kind of power that makes democracy work.


    • Years before I myself went to work at CPB in 2003 I was the programming director for The Health Network and called on the PBS station in Pittsburgh. My kids were still quite young and had grown up loving Mr. Rogers. Going through the office and studio one was struck by how tiny his set really was, out of which radiated an entire loving imaginary universe captivating children around the world. The metaphor of the mustard seed multiplying came to mind and still does whenever I contemplate the goodness that Fred Rogers so self-effacingly brought to broadcasting.


    • Fred Rogers is a national treasure because there are countless of adults walking around today who have benefitted from his thoughtful,entertaining and loving persona.
      He taught them as kids that they were special, that their feelings were legitimate and they had the power to control them. He also taught them humility and modesty of thought by reminding them of all the people in their lives who help make them special. He taught grace and kindness and respect for oneself and for others. I’m sure he would be the first to admit how lucky he was to have found a home on PBS. He would be deeply troubled that its funding is under threat. For so many reasons it was always a wonderful day in his neighborhood and let’s hope it remains so for the broadcasting world it once was such an important part of.


  2. I agree with Parker that Fred Rogers wore his heart on his sleeve. I have never had children, although the woman now my wife has four younger siblings who were, 36+ years ago when we first started dating, young enough to be fascinated by Mr. Rogers. I occasionally found myself watching and being delighted. How much more human than much of the drivel that then passed for programming for children.

    As a teacher, and one greatly influence by the work of Parker Palmer, I have come to believe that is essential for teachers to be genuine and honest with their students. That includes letting them know when they delight you, but also when they break your heart. If the latter is done in the larger context, and without anger or condemnation, it is often the most effective way of motivating students.



  3. Thank you for sharing, John…

    I’ve seen and heard this clip replayed several times recently while Congress is considering cuts for PBS. Fred Rogers is a hero of mine.

    My high school in Pittsburgh was next door to WQED, where Rogers taped his shows in Studio A. I attended an all-boys, Catholic high school, and many of us thought ourselves really tough-minded guys, but when we saw Mr. Rogers walking by on Fifth Avenue or other parts of Oakland, we would become giddy like young school girls.

    I believe his goodness really connected with people (evident in the clip above), and thereby helped make PBS a safe and constructive place for kids. Now that my wife and I have a young daughter, I’m reminded of this daily.

    Thanks again for a trip down memory lane.

    – Paul


  4. Wonderful, John, that you are helping us remember Fred who, like you, represents why public broadcasting is so vital to this nation. If anything, Congress should double its funding of only $1 per American!

    When Fred passed away eight years ago, a number of us had been discussing with him his vision for a teaching and research center in his hometown of Latrobe, PA, where he would retire from production and focus on research, policy, and fellowships, including helping the next generation carry on in his sneaker’s footsteps. That center is now the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at St. Vincent College, headed by executive director Rita Catalano, with an advisory board chaired by Prof. Everette Dennis of Fordham.

    I had the honor of being the first chair of the advisory board and helping give birth to the Center. I came to learn about the many dimensions of Fred’s impact, foremost, his connection to his child viewers. One of my favorite books is “Dear Mr. Rogers, Does it ever rain in your neighborhood?,” a book of letters from his viewers. One of them, like Kelsey, was shocked to see him in real life and asked him, “How did you get out of the box?” Fred described how TV was “just a way to show pictures.” The boy nodded his way through the explanation and then said, “But, Mister Rogers! How are you going to get back in?”


  5. Thank yoiu John for not only elevating the importance of public television, but the elequent paragon of children’s television programming, Fred Rogers. I know his agent Bill Eisler (we serve together on the board of Pennsylvania’s Education Policy and Leradership Center) and one of his former writers, the wondferful Susan Linn who now directs the Center Commercial-Free Marketing top Children located at Harvard. Fred knew how to surround hiomself with some of the most talented child advocates in the field.

    The first time I had the honor of meeting Fred Rogers was when I with National PTA, A coalition of organizations worked with former Senator Paul Simon from Illinois, and current House of Representatives member Ed Markey from Masssachusetts, to draft the Children’s Television Programming Act which was designed to require the Networks to carry more children’s programming, and provided funding to encourage producers to create quality children’s progamming. The bill was vehementally opposed by the Reagan White House which also wanted to defund PBS. As it turned out, a hearing was scheduled on the bill and Fred testified on behalf of the measure. Well, I want tell you, that was one of most dramatic, civil and compelling testimonies (which are usually as dry as a bone) as you could imagine. Fred had on his sweater, he sang part of the testimony, gave the committee a lesson on children learning and psychology, and then brought in some kids in from Cable in the Classroom accompanied by Ted Turner, totally unbeknownst to me or the committee. He was such an advocate for public and children’s TV, a rare combination of kindness, with strong convictions, and an understanding that his work was not only about the chilldren, but about the values of tolerance, civility, understanding, listening, intellect, humility, curiosity—the behaviors of a strong democracy.

    In his memory, to commemorate the first year of his passing and his work, the Campaign presented Senator Tom Harkin the Fred Rogers Award, for the work that Harkin did in support of PBS funding and for children’s programming. As the Congress once again attempts to defund and eliminate public television and radio, we need to support those Senators and House members who understand the values that a Fred Rogers brought to the public space, not only in the United States, but internationally as well. Thanks again, John.


  6. I got to know Fred from working in the kids TV world, where he was the icon for everything good.

    Once I ran into Fred on the beach in Nantucket, with one of my daughters, who was 5 at the time. Fred was dripping wet and shivering, but he stayed anyway for a while to chat with my daughter. She told him how much she loved his show, and he said, in his way, “Oh I’m so glad you can use it!” Later my daughter told everyone “I met Mr Rogers in human!” I still kid her about saying that.


  7. My acquaintance with Mr. Rogers was through experiencing his television show with my young sons. The calm that he elicited every hectic day nourished my soul as well as those of my children. When I needed someone to emulate in showing the caring that I felt but sometimes forgot to show, I returned in my mind to his songs, quiet assurances, and willlingness to be open with all kinds of feelings. In fact, after my sons grew up and left home, I sometimes watched Mr. Rogers by myself: I could become recentered during a half hour with Mr. Rogers and his friends.

    Now more than ever we need adults who assure children of their worth, who teach about being a whole person, and who demonstrate every day how to love others. I work in Washington, DC, where right now despair deepens daily as human services, like PBS, are put on the chopping block. I hope that the testimony and life of Fred Rogers will remind some policy makers of what will be lost with drastic cuts to public television. Thank you for posting his video and reminding us that his influence can still be with us.


  8. I just came across a letter from Fred, in his lovely, distinctive handwriting and on the familiar yellow paper with blue lines. He wrote it not long after Kelsey and I met him at his house. It’s dated August 31, 1981, and the message indicates that my letter to him on Nantucket was forwarded back to his home in Pittsburgh. So it was 1981 when Kelsey hid behind me. She was 3 1/2 years old.
    Fred refers to the letters that he wrote on my behalf to potential funders–which worked, by the way, because I received grants from Dayton Hudson, Target, Mervyn’s, and the Lilly Endowment to get my television career started. And, ever thoughtful, he adds, “Please give Kelsey a big hug for me—and for you too.”
    Because I am a pack rat,I was able to put my hands on another note from Fred, this one from 1997 on his ‘Crooked House’ stationery. He’d just watched one of my documentaries and said some nice things about it. But–and this is what Fred did so well–he then connected me with an English teacher in New Jersey, someone who had become disenchanted with the push for bubble tests and drill. He ends with an anecdote about the truck that just went by with a yellow kayak strapped to the top. “Of course I thought of you,” he wrote.
    Fred, I think of you often….


    • As you asked; here is the reply I sent you after receiving the incredible “defense” video and story. Who was really on the defensive in that piece? Please ignore the misspellings. I have no idea how to run spellcheck in blogs.


      What a wonderful remeniscence, John. Such a gentle person and such a giant of social instruction. How I and my friends used to deride him in the safety of our own living rooms, and how we wish we could take it all back now. I think we were good examples of Mencken’s beer-soaked Booboisie back in those days. How fortunate you were to know Mister Rogers, right in his own neighborhood. BTW — most of us, these days, have enlightened ourselves and are trying desperately to educate adults without getting beaten up or shot.

      What can we do? I think we need to educate adults through any means possible. If they have been duped by the smokescreen of emotional non-issues, maybe we can re-dupe them with imaginary glasses to see through the smog. Woody Guthrie did it until Joe McCarthy made his footing a little less steady. His direct response to HUAC: “No, I ain’t a Red, but I been in the red all my life.”

      Should I ask Kelsey to sing a song for the neighborhood??



  9. John: Thanks so much for sharing this. That’s John Pastore, a crusty old Rhode Island Democratic Senator, questioning Mister Rogers. Pastore was clearly putty in Rogers’ hands!

    The clip is so meaningful in so many ways. It shows what PBS at its best could offer in contrast with how it’s threatened today. It demonstrates what public service used to mean by contrast with how teachers and civil servants are belittled today. And of course it demonstrates how anger used to something to be managed (what do you do with the mad that you feel) not indulged and encouraged. We need to find a way back to the spirit of that period, which looks to me to be sometime in the early 1970s.

    My kids grew up watching and loving Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He struck me as a loving man who, through his stories and his characters and his songs, reached out to small children and spoke to them on their level. I love the stories in the exchange here describing young people worrying about how he got out of the “box” and how he was going to get back in!

    The United States needs a new Mr. Rogers to help its citizens figure out “what to do with the the mad that they feel.”

    James Harvey, National Superintendents Roundtable

    Jim Harvey


  10. This one took me gently by surprise. Not Fred Rogers’ commitment to children or Public Television, but the response of Senator John Pastore. I had to wiki Pastore…most of the post in wikipedia was about the Rogers testimony. Fascinating that a Senator would be defined by this single moment. Speaks to the power of individuals to make a difference:

    Pastore served as the chairman of United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications. He is probably best remembered for taking part in a hearing involving a $20 million grant for the funding of PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which was proposed by Former President Lyndon Johnson. The hearing took place on May 1, 1969. President Richard Nixon had wanted to cut the proposed funding to $10 million due to all the spending during the Vietnam War, and Fred Rogers, host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, appeared before the committee to argue for the full $20 million. In about six minutes of testimony, Rogers spoke of the need for social and emotional education that Public Television provided. Pastore was not previously familiar with Rogers’ work, and was sometimes described as gruff and impatient. However, he told Rogers that the testimony had given him goose bumps, and after Rogers recited the lyrics to “What Do You Do with the Mad that You Feel?”, one of the songs from his show, Pastore finally declared, “I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”[1] The following congressional appropriation, for 1971, increased PBS funding from $9 million to $22 million.


  11. Interesting to read comments, mostly from men, about Fred Rogers. Do any of you see a multi-cultural presence for children on PBS? I was with some African American and Hispanic educators last week of approximately my age (early 60’s.

    None had much to say about Rogers. They and their families didn’t watch him.

    It’s clear Rogers touched many people’s lives. Today (and 20 years ago,) I think we need role models of various races – including African American, Hispanic, Native American, Asian American, as well as white. Sesame Street does some of this.

    Do other agree all kinds of youngsters benefit from diverse role models? Do others agree it’s good for white, as well as other kids, to see powerful people of color? If so, how well is PBS doing this? Not accusations. Questions.


  12. February 28, 2003—the day Fred Rogers died. Like the surprising deaths of other important figures of our lives, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I found out eight years ago.

    I say surprising, but perhaps his death shouldn’t have surprised me. I knew that he was ill and that he was having surgery because Bill Isler, the President of Family Communications, had asked me—on behalf of Fred—if I would give a speech for him that spring, just in case Fred wasn’t well enough to travel yet. Even so, Fred’s death was truly shocking. Perhaps because he was so associated with children, with hope, and with our future itself, I felt he would always be with us. So when I heard about his death early that February morning eight years ago, it literally seemed unfathomable.

    In reading the reasons why we miss Fred, I have a few of to add to John’s and the other commentators who wrote in.

    First, Fred was the consummate example of an adult who was an ongoing learner. The stories of how he continued to study children’s development and learning are legendary. But what may be less well known is that he studied adult development and learning too. I had a chance to see that in action because I was the guest expert on some shows he experimented with beginning in 1980—Mister Rogers Talks to Parents About (Superheroes, Starting School, etc.). For the first show, he adopted the television style of the times—fast cuts, lots of jazzy production elements, and it just didn’t work well. It was jumpy and jarring. Little by little, Fred and his producers refined the show so when he concluded this series, he had created programming that was a tour de force. He had dropped all of the fancy and—in fact intrusive—production gimmicks and concentrated on building a relationship with parents, just as he did with children.

    For Fred, it was always about relationships—all the time, everywhere. So many children felt that they really knew Mister Rogers and that he knew them—miraculously because that sense of knowing came right through the television screen. However, some of them, like John Merrow’s daughter Kelsey, shrieked and hid behind her father when she met Fred in person and he sang “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” just to her. Fred said that happened to him all of the time.

    The relationships that Fred built with people through television and in person were not ephemeral—they lasted. My daughter took photographs of Fred and me on the set of the Mister Rogers Talks to Parents shows and hung them in every college dorm room she had. She still has one in her office—and I have the others in my own office. I even have the Trolley that Fred signed to me, though his signature faded away years ago. When Fred visited my office once, it was like a rock performer walked in. All of the adults seemed truly star struck. And when my mother was ill and hospitalized, Fred sent a book to her. I left the book on the table beside Mother’s hospital bed, with the page open to Fred’s loving note. I notice that his kindness radiated. Mother was treated like royalty when the hospital staff noticed that Fred was her friend!

    John writes eloquently about why he misses Fred Rogers so much, especially now because some members of Congress seem intent on eliminating funding for public television and radio.

    I miss Fred Rogers too, but I now know that his legacy is unstoppable. It lives on in those of us he continues to inspire. It lives on in the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at St. Vincent College in his hometown, Latrobe, PA. Like Milton Chen, I feel honored to be one of the planners of that Center, beginning with Fred himself before his sudden illness and death.

    Whenever there was something really important in the news that affected children and families, Fred Rogers spoke out. I especially remember his eloquent show to children and families following the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.

    John, you do that too. In rereading your blogs for writing this one, I am reminded once again that you speak out with knowledge, with uncommon insight and with passion whenever there is something that affects the healthy development and learning of children and families. In you, Fred Rogers’ legacy lives strong!


  13. Thanks for your wonderful recollection about Fred Rogers, and how moving to read the reminiscences also of so many people whose work I admire — Ellen Galinsky, Bill Damon, Milton Chen, Arnold Fege.

    I had the pleasure of meeting Fred a few times when I worked at PBS national headquarters, and currently work closely with the Fred Rogers Center at St. Vincent’s College in Latrobe.

    I have one qualm about the remarkable video of Fred addressing Senator Pastore. While he makes the substantive argument for public service media more eloquently than anyone else could, within his remarks he also seems to make the fiscal argument that the Republican Congress would use — that others will step forward and support valuable programming if it is threatened. He speaks of local stations and a foundation funding “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in a time of need.

    Of course, national funding for public broadcasting provides the infrastructure and the creative development foundation necessary to building a comprehensive and coherent schedule — for children and adults — of deeply educational and thoughtfully produced media. Without it, rural and small market stations would likely disappear, and the best producers would be unlikely to bring new works to PBS or NPR. So, I agree entirely with Fred Rogers, but worry that his words may get turned around in this fight.

    I, too, published a piece on Huffington Post about support for public broadcasting. Here is the link:


  14. John,

    I loved PBS growing up. Love PBS now for me and my kids. Used to love NPR. Not so much now.

    However, this is from 1969. Fred was right back then. We didn’t have cable. We didn’t have the internet. We didn’t have the technology and libraries we have now, 42 years later.

    While i love you and the work you do on PBS, I would follow you to cable and where ever else you go when, and if, funding is withdrawn.

    And we will all live. We will live lives rich with books and technology and family and museums and each other. And who knows! I bet those wonderful funders on this very website would front the dough to get you your own educational channel on cable! See, the government need not be the answer to all our funding problems. We can all step up to the plate.


  15. Thank you for all of your educated and personal responces
    to the life and work of Fred Rogers/Mister Rogers, and to
    remembering about the “going to heaven” of the Rev. Fred
    Rogers. I am from Grand Rapids, MI, and I tell the people in
    my work circles that I wish to just become like Mr. Rogers as
    I grow older. I am very interested also in the religious perspective
    of the Rev. Fred Rogers. He is portrayed as such in the books
    of Amy Hollingsworth and Tim Madigan, and in articles in religious
    periodicals. I think that both the men and the women in the
    articles above identified with the thinking of Fred Rogers. I think
    it important to carry on the legacy of Fred Rogers that we could
    decide to “think” more like Fred Rogers. Three influences on me
    from Fred Rogers: his religious perspective and lifestyle behind
    his life and work, his genuine kindness, from which I appreciate
    any verse from the Bible that has kindness in it, and his sense
    of humor, a kind whimsy, or a whimsical kindness, a humor of
    kind whimsy has become an important part of my daily life. I like
    to tell people that they can join my “Society of the late Saint Fred
    Rogers for the encouragement of kindness”. God bless you all.
    Mr. James A. Kramer


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  17. I have an awful lot wonderful statements to make about Fred Rogers, and that he was the hero of my childhood, and that I have to believe that he was a much nicer man than Jim Henson, or Walt Disney, because he was not concerned about being successful, as where he was entirely concerned about being helpful! Make no mistake about this one that he was a real human being all the way without question, and I do mean this one for real that he was not a Pee-Wee Herman, where that is important! Now this is extremely important, and that is that Fred Rogers came into my life at a time in my life where I had experienced being sexually abused from the time I was 3 until the time I 6 almost 7, and he was someone I just found that I could really trust! Yes I truly found comfort watching Mister Rogers Neighborhood, because he was just brilliant! I want to say that Fred Rogers was truly a wonderful Presbyterian Minister for what he did to help the human race, and he was the hero of my childhood!


  18. I recently came across a letter written from Mister Roger’s to our family. It is dated 1971. It was a thank you letter hand-typed from him thanking us for sending a picture of “the crooked house”. We meet him (like many of you) on a beach on Nantucket. He took us for a row-boat ride… and my brother. I was 7 and my brother was 8. Even then, I knew it was something special. He touched so many of us born in the 60’s and 70’s and I miss his voice and his graceful way he interacted with others. I think about him often…and I believe that that keeps his beliefs and kindness going. Thank you many times over….Mister Fred Rogers. You were a gem.


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