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[PCUSANEWS] In memorium: the Rev. Fred Rogers, 1928-2003
PCUSA NEWS <PCUSA.NEWS@ecunet.org>
27 Feb 2003 09:12:55 -0500
Note #7606 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:
In memorium: the Rev. Fred Rogers, 1928-2003
February 27, 2003
In memorium: the Rev. Fred Rogers, 1928-2003
Editor's note - The Rev. Fred Rogers - who taught generations of children the
quintessentially Christian but profoundly universal message "Love yourself,
love others" on his long-running television program "Mr. Rogers'
Neighborhood" - died Feb. 27 at the age of 74 of stomach cancer. In the fall
of 1997, Presbyterians Today editor Eva Stimson interviewed Fred Rogers in
his cramped office at WQED in Pittsburgh. Her story appeared in the March
1998 issue of the magazine. - Jerry L. Van Marter
The Real "Mister Rogers"
This Presbyterian minister is as genuinely nice in person as he is on TV
by Eva Stimson
Editor, Presbyterians Today
Anyone with kids and a television set knows Fred Rogers. Three generations of
children have grown up with "Mister Rogers" - the friendly
sweater-and-sneakers-clad grownup who talks frankly about feelings and
invites them to be part of his TV "neighborhood."
What is less widely known is that Fred Rogers is a Presbyterian minister,
ordained in 1962 by Pittsburgh Presbytery.
Early on a Monday afternoon America's best-loved neighbor is catching up on
stacks of correspondence in his office in downtown Pittsburgh, PA, following
a quick trip to Toronto. Just before a scheduled interview he squeezes in
time for a carton of yogurt.
Then he appears, smiling and relaxed, to ask, "What do you want to talk
about?" For the next hour his comments emerge thoughtfully, deliberately,
graciously - just like on TV.
It is not hard to imagine this man giving up his lunch break for eight years
to take Bible and theology courses. "It's fairly unorthodox to go to seminary
on your lunch hour," he says. "Which is what I literally did."
That was back in the 1950s. Rogers had just begun working for WQED in
Pittsburgh, the nation's first community-supported public television station.
He had planned to go to seminary right after college - in fact had already
been accepted - but got sidetracked by a call to work in television. A few
years later seminary became a way of undergirding this call - to minister to
children and their families through the media.
"I never in a million years thought that I'd be on TV - that that would be
part of what I was supposed to do," Rogers says with bemusement, sitting on a
couch surrounded by papers, cassette tapes and stuffed animals. His tiny
office has no desk or computer. He writes his TV scripts longhand on yellow
His shelves and walls are full of mementos - from 69 years of living and 47
years of working in television. One of these, a framed sign, reads, "Freddy,
I like you just the way you are." The words are from Rogers' grandfather,
Fred Brooks McFeely. They are an accurate summation of the message Rogers
tries to communicate to children through his TV program, "Mister Rogers'
Rogers grew up in the western Pennsylvania town of Latrobe, where he attended
Latrobe Presbyterian Church with his family. He was an only child until age
11, when his parents adopted a baby girl. "Being an only child, he played by
himself a lot and made up activities," says Hedda Sharapan, an associate
producer who has worked with Rogers for close to three decades. "There was
always that play element that was cherished in his childhood. That's what's
so marvelous about Fred's work - you can feel the creativity."
When he was a senior majoring in music composition at Rollins College in
Winter Park, FL, Rogers had his first encounter with television. He describes
his reaction in the introduction to his book You Are Special: "I was appalled
by what were labeled 'children's programs' - pies in faces and slapstick!
That's when I decided to go into this field. Children deserve better.
Children need better."
So instead of going directly to seminary after graduating in 1951, he used
his degree in music to get a job in television. NBC in New York City hired
him to work as floor manager for its network music programs - "The Voice of
Firestone," "The Kate Smith Hour," "NBC Opera Theatre." A year later he
married Joanne Byrd, a pianist and fellow Rollins graduate.
In 1953 Rogers was invited by WQED in Pittsburgh to co-produce a daily
program called "The Children's Corner," hosted by Josie Carey. He never
appeared on screen but worked behind the scenes as the program's organist and
puppeteer. The experience convinced Rogers he had a future in children's
television. "I realized that's where my talents were," he says.
He began taking classes at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and graduate
courses in child development "to deepen what I could bring to television."
In the early 1960s, Rogers recalls, national media staff in the United
Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. began talking to him about developing a
children's TV program as an outreach for the denomination. But then
priorities shifted and money for the project evaporated. Did the church miss
a big opportunity?
"It's hard to say," comments Gregg Hartung, executive director of
Presbyterian Media Mission and a personal friend of Rogers'. "I'm not sure a
ministry like Fred's could be done within an institution." If a church-Rogers
partnership had come to fruition, the PCUSA might be known today as a
trailblazer in TV evangelism.
On the other hand, the constraints of working within a church bureaucracy
might have had a stifling effect on Rogers' creativity. Or his programming
might have been buried in a "religious ghetto," reaching only a fraction of
the people whose lives have been affected by watching "Mister Rogers'
As it turns out, Rogers' principle tie to the Presbyterian Church is his
unusual ordination to the ministry. In 1962 Pittsburgh Presbytery ordained
him with a charge to continue his work with children and families through the
media. He has never served in the traditional role of pastor, but through
television he brings his simple message of affirmation and acceptance to a
"congregation" of millions.
"I've seen it happen so often - what I present in faith somehow nourishes the
viewer," Rogers says. Before taping a TV show, he always prays to God: "Let
some word that is said be yours." He firmly believes in "holy ground," which
he describes as "the space between the person who is offering his or her best
and how the Holy Spirit can translate that to help another person in need."
First broadcast in 1968, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" celebrated its 30th
anniversary in February 1998 and is the longest-running program on public
television. Rogers writes all the scripts himself, discussing and refining
them with six staff members at Family Communications Inc., which produces the
TV program and other resources for children and families. "We make three
weeks' worth of new shows a year," Sharapan says.
Rogers also writes the words and music for songs featured in the series.
Each program begins and ends in the living room of Rogers' "television
house." It then moves from a visit with someone who does interesting work in
a real "neighborhood" -factory, school, grocery store, etc. - to a segment in
the puppet kingdom known as the "Neighborhood of Make-Believe." Reflecting
the personality of its creator, the show moves along slowly and deliberately
- in stark contrast to the quick-cut, MTV-style of other TV fare for
Producers of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" say its leisurely pace best
accommodates the learning abilities of young children and teaches them
patience and self-control.
Feelings - anger, fear, sadness, love, satisfaction - are the centerpieces of
the program. While other children's shows focus on building cognitive
ability, Rogers tries to encourage children's healthy emotional development.
Hartung remembers an instance when Rogers talked on TV about his pet dog
dying. Later a young woman whose husband had died recently contacted Rogers
to thank him for the show. She said her daughters had not been able to talk
about their father's death until hearing Rogers' frank discussion about
"Because Fred was willing to engage in a conversation about death, this
family was able to open up and talk about their tragedy," Hartung observes.
"I hear so many stories like that." Which only confirms his belief that
Rogers has "a remarkable ministry."
On TV and in person Rogers comes across as refreshingly genuine. His
gracious "Mister Rogers" persona is not an act, says Hartung. "It's really,
truly Fred." His affirmation of the goodness in people elicits powerful
responses from adults as well as children.
In May of 1997 the Daytime Emmy Awards honored Rogers for lifetime
achievement. His acceptance speech, as he recalls it, followed a dreary
sequence of insults and off-color jokes by other awards ceremony
participants. In contrast Rogers asked his audience to take 10 seconds to
think of "people who helped you become who you are today." The roomful of TV
stars and producers sat in silence for 10 seconds, some of them with tears
streaming down their faces. Looking back on the incident, Rogers observes, "I
think we don't realize how hungry people are for what is honest and real."
Rogers receives about 4,000 letters a year, many of them from children. All
the letters are filed and cataloged in a Pittsburgh warehouse. Besides
commenting on his TV program, the letter writers ask for advice on
everything from dealing with divorce to getting along with siblings. Rogers
answers as many of the letters as he has time for and reads and signs replies
to the others. "Viewers' input, reactions and letters are very important to
him," says David Newell, director of public relations for Family
Communications Inc. "He tries to make his responses as personal as possible."
Being a good listener is a vital part of ministry, especially ministry with
children, Rogers believes. He cultivates his own listening skills by
integrating silence into his life as a daily spiritual discipline. He says he
has been profoundly influenced by the devotional writings of the late Roman
Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, who was also a personal friend. "Silence is
becoming more and more of a luxury," he remarks. "I'd encourage everyone to
have more quiet time."
Rogers gets up at 5 a.m. for his quiet time - seven days a week. At 7:30 he
goes to a local pool to swim laps. Apparently uninhibited by the presence of
lifeguards and other swimmers, he sings "Jubilate Deo," a round from the
Taize community in France, before climbing into the pool. "I don't sing it
very loud," he says.
When he's in town Rogers worships at Sixth Presbyterian Church, a 300-member
congregation in Pittsburgh. His wife, an ordained elder, sings in the choir
and has chaired the church's music committee. Their two sons grew up in this
church, attending confirmation classes and youth group there. Rogers has
preached a few times, says Sixth Presbyterian's pastor, John S. McCall. "But
he's got to be careful now because he's in such demand. I think one reason he
likes this congregation is that we treat him just like anyone else."
McCall describes Rogers as "consistently supportive." One Sunday morning last
fall, for example, McCall slipped on the church steps and broke his arm.
Rogers, who was at the church early for church school, called the minister's
family and stopped by the hospital to check on him later. "In some ways
Fred's been a pastor to me," says McCall.
Nurturing children in the Christian faith is a challenge in today's world,
Rogers acknowledges. "There are so many forces against it." He still is
appalled by many of the things kids are exposed to in the media.
Particularly annoying to him are situation comedies in which the
lines spoken by child actors "are invariably smart-aleck remarks and
Rogers bases his work with children on the maxim, "Attitudes are caught, not
taught." The best way to cultivate faith in children, he says, is to "share
our own enthusiasm about what we believe."
The most important thing the church can offer children, he adds, is "a place
where they know it's OK to be a child." This means stocking church school
rooms with age-appropriate furniture and toys. It means allowing time in the
worship service to "appreciate what children might have to give."
Jesus welcomed children and so should the church, Rogers believes. In fact,
he says thoughtfully, flashing one of his trademark smiles, "I think Jesus
delighted in the presence of children."
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