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The real ‘Mister Rogers’

 

This Presbyterian minister is as genuinely nice in person as he is on TV

by Eva Stimson for Presbyterians Today | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Late in 1997, Fred Rogers sat for an interview in the studios of WQED in Pittsburgh with Eva Stimson, then the editor of Presbyterians Today. Receiving an in-person visit from King Friday XIII are Stimson’s children,  Luke and Rachel. (Photo by Jerry Van Marter)

Editor’s note: The film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” has rekindled the nation’s appreciation for Fred Rogers, the best-known Presbyterian clergyperson since John Witherspoon. In 1997, Eva Stimson, then editor of Presbyterians Today, was fortunate to interview Rogers. Below is her piece, published in the March 1998 edition of Presbyterians Today .

PITTSBURGH — 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, Pennsylvania, 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 legal pads.

His shelves and walls are full of mementos — from 71 years of living and 49 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’ Neighborhood.”

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, Florida, 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 PC(USA) 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’ Neighborhood.”

As it turns out, Rogers’ principal 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 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 children. 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 grief.

“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 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 put-downs.”

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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