Fifty years ago this week, Fred Rogers began appearing regularly on PBS, the beginning of a remarkable 34-year run that elevated and improved the lives of countless children, including my own.
(His signature program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” first appeared on national PBS in February, 1968. New episodes appeared until August, 2001, and reruns through 2008. Even today some PBS stations run the series. The forerunner, “Mister Rogers,” debuted on Canadian television in 1963.)
Twitter has been lighting up this week about Fred, particularly in light of the Manchester terrorist attack. I think the best story came from @Breznican. I suggest you search Twitter for his tale of meeting Fred. Here’s one link.
I met Fred Rogers around 1980 under circumstances that still amaze me. I had a weekly program on NPR, “Options in Education,” and we had just aired a two-part program about children with mental illness, contrasting what was provided privileged kids with what was offered to the less fortunate.
I described what happened in my forthcoming book, Addicted to Reform.
I interviewed Mary, who had been recommitted to a Texas state institution for older children for the third time.
Sometimes I feel so down at heart
I feel like I might fall apart
But then these words come back to me,
‘Just take your time, and you’ll be free.’
Mary wrote that song, which she sang for my tape recorder. She talked about wanting to escape and hitchhike home to Houston, even though her previous hitchhiking trips had ended badly, one in a multiple rape.
She told me that she had not told her doctor about being raped, but he was aware of her sexual activity. “I know that she has had some–she’s quite flirtatious with some of the guys back on the ward. I don’t have any personal knowledge of her having had sexual activity with anybody around here, while she’s here. But it might have happened,” the doctor said.
At one point in our interview Mary said someone–meaning me–needed to massage her ‘sore’ shoulder. Later she asked me to come closer to tell her if she had ‘sleep in her eyes.’ I declined both invitations.
Music mattered very much to Mary, who broke into song during our conversation, including this song she made up on the spot to end the interview.
This is the last song I’ll ever sing for you.
It’s the last time I’ll tell you
Just how much I really care.
This is the last song–
But I’ll sing more later on.
Right now it’s time for lunch
And I think I’m gonna be gone.
Mary, who was smart and aware, didn’t hold back when talking about the dark side of her life, the drug use and sexual abuse. She told me what had happened when her allotted few weeks of treatment ran out the last time. “They gave me a few dollars and opened the gate and told me to go,” she said. She had no family members who would take her home, she said. “I had to hitchhike home. It was a hot day, and a convertible of boys came by and stopped to give me a ride. I got in, but they wouldn’t take me home until I gave them all blow jobs, so I did.”
The program got me thrown off the air in Texas, but Fred, an NPR listener, heard it and wrote me a letter thanking me for bringing the stories of Mary and other children to the public. Think about that: The famous Fred Rogers wrote ME! In his letter, he extended an invitation, to get together on his next trip to Washington. That was quintessential Fred, reaching out with sincerity and generosity. We took our kids to meet him, of course, and he and I bonded over children’s issues. Over the years he wrote me five or six little notes, all of which I have kept.
In 1982, when I wanted to try my hand at making television, I asked Fred for advice. He invited me to visit him on Nantucket, where I also spent part of every summer. On the appointed day in July, I asked my 5-year-old daughter to accompany me, promising that we would ask Fred to sing his signature song, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.”
Fred and Mr. McFeeley, Speedy Delivery and music director Bob Costas (if memory serves) lived in the same neighborhood (!!) on the western end of Nantucket, an area known as Madaket. We lived in Quidnet, at the opposite end of the small island.
Fred greeted us warmly, and we talked about my hopes for making a documentary series for PBS. I didn’t want to overstay my welcome, and so, after about 20 minutes, I thanked him and got ready to leave. Then I remembered what I had promised Kelsey, and so I asked Fred if he would sing his song to her. We were on a couch, and Fred was sitting opposite us, maybe four feet away. He leaned forward, smiled and looked at her directly, and began singing in his warm and gentle way: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood….”
And Kelsey? She jumped up and hid behind me!
She was terrified, I was mortified, but Fred took it in stride. “That happens a lot, ” he said. “Children are used to seeing me inside a box. It’s too much of a shock when I’m outside the box.” And he told me about parents who would drag their kids over to him when he was shopping in the supermarket…and the ensuing panic.
The irony is inescapable, because Fred spent so much time on air talking about the difference between reality and make believe. This is from Wikipedia:
Mister Rogers always made a clear distinction between the realistic world of his television neighborhood and the fantasy world of Make-Believe. He often discussed what was going to happen in Make-Believe before the next fantasy segment was shown (“Let’s pretend that Prince Tuesday has been having scary dreams…”), and sometimes acted out bits of Make-Believe with models on a table before the camera transitioned to the live-action puppet rendition. The miniature motorized trolley which was known in character form as “Trolley”, with its accompanying fast-paced piano theme music, was the only element that appeared regularly in both the realistic world and Make-Believe: it was used to transport viewers from one realm to the other.
From then on, all of Fred’s letters included a message to Kelsey!
We all owe a lot to Fred Rogers. You may know that Fred pretty much saved public television in 1969, when he testified before a Senate committee.
His wisdom is collected on a number of sites, including Mental Floss. Here’s one of my favorites, on the subject of heroes: “When I was very young, most of my childhood heroes wore capes, flew through the air, or picked up buildings with one arm. They were spectacular and got a lot of attention. But as I grew, my heroes changed, so that now I can honestly say that anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me.”
You and your children can watch a lot of his programs now, on Twitch, which began streaming more than 800 episodes earlier this month.
Fred Rogers died of cancer in 2003. He was only 74. We need him today, more than ever.