For over 30 years and nearly 1,000 shows, Fred Rogers created the friendly world of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for children to enjoy across the nation. Thankfully, Mr. Rogers turned out to be the same generous, amicable, neighborly man off camera that he was during his PBS program. Here are 16 things that you didn't know about Mr. Rogers, the man many people consider to be a hero.
"The world is not always a kind place," the TV icon stated. "That's something all children learn for themselves, whether we want them to or not, but it's something they really need our help to understand."
Rogers's show constantly reminded children that they mattered and, most important, that the emotions they felt deserved to be embraced rather than ignored. The ordained minister did not talk down to children, but instead treated them the same way he treated adults, helping them to cope with their feelings of anger and sadness.
Fred Rogers's bio reads like that of a man who was sincerely dedicated to helping children. He wrote hundreds of songs for his show and answered thousands of letters with prayer. These true Mr. Rogers stories will make anyone feel nostalgic for simpler days spent watching the host's routine of putting on a sweater and changing his shoes.
Just as he opened his show the same way for over three decades, Fred Rogers maintained that same sense of routine in his own life. What exercise did he do every day in the nude? How did he save PBS? Why was he obsessed with keeping his weight at exactly 143 pounds? Mr. Rogers may not have been perfect, but he was probably about as close to perfect as a person could get.
It wasn't until after Tom Hanks played Fred Rogers in the 2019 biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood that he learned he was related to the very man he was portraying.
Hanks was informed of the connection by Access Hollywood on November 17, 2019. According to Ancestry.com, Hanks and Rogers are sixth cousins and share the common ancestor of Johannes Meffert. Later generations of siblings shared the last name of Mefford. Rita Wilson, Hanks's wife, said Access Hollywood must have been "pulling [the couple's] leg," but according to Ancestry spokeswoman Keri Madonna, the connection is legitimate.
"Fred Rogers and Tom Hanks are sixth cousins sharing the same 5x great-grandfather... who immigrated from Germany to America in the 18th century," Madonna later told CNN.
Hanks responded jovially to the news, saying, "It all just comes together, you see."
At just 5 years old, Rogers would hear songs on the radio and then play them on the piano by ear. He also began writing original songs that he said described the way he was feeling. His grandmother then bought him a piano and encouraged him to learn Paderewski's "Minuet in G" in just one week, so that he could audition for a respected piano teacher. The teacher took Fred on as a student when he was only 9 years old.
As an adult, he composed and wrote the lyrics for more than 200 songs for his television program, composed nine children's operas, and released 12 albums of children's recordings. He was a Grammy-winning songwriter, pianist, and singer, and even won four Emmys for performing. His most popular song was, of course, the show's catchy theme, "Won't You Be My Neighbor." Overall, his songs were extremely enjoyable, with lyrics written to encourage children.
Rogers spoke passionately about his love for music during a 1999 interview with Karen Herman for the Archive of American Television:
My first love is music. It is a unique way for me to express who I am and what I am feeling. Music was always my way of saying who I was and how I felt. I was always able to cry or laugh or say I was angry through the tips of my fingers on the piano. I would go to the piano even when I was five years old. I started to play how I felt. And so it was very natural for me to become a composer. Having written all of the music for the Neighborhood, I feel as if that's one of my gifts to children... There is something very mystical and wonderful about how music can touch us. You know it's elemental. It must be what Heaven is like.
In the spring of 2017, an old video of Fred Rogers testifying before a US Senate subcommittee in 1969 went viral. In the video, he successfully fought against incoming President Richard Nixon's proposal to slash PBS funding from $20 million to $10 million. The video resurfaced in March 2017 as a rallying cry in opposition to President Donald Trump's plan to cut federal funding for the arts.
Sitting in front of Sen. John O. Pastore, the chairman of the subcommittee, Rogers discussed the things he wanted to accomplish with his PBS television program. His most important goal was to teach children how to deal with their problems in a healthy way and to instill confidence in them. He spoke simply to convey his point:
This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, "You've made this day a special day, by just your being you. There's no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are." And I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that it's much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger - much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire.
Senator Pastore had never watched Rogers's show before, and the speech made a visible impact on the legislator. "I'm supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I’ve had goosebumps for the last two days," he said. "Looks like you just earned the $20 million."
Mr. Rogers opened his first show on PBS by walking through the front door of the studio house, taking off his jacket, hanging the jacket up in the closest, reaching for and then putting on a sweater - all while singing the program's theme song, "Won't You Be My Neighbor." Rogers would repeat that ritual for every show over the next 33 years. His sweaters would ultimately become just as iconic as his famous characters, like the delivery person Mr. McFeely and Queen Sara Saturday.
Rogers had more than 20 different sweaters, all handmade by his mother, Nancy. He revealed that when he put on a new sweater, it was his way of saying hello to his mother. During one episode of the program, he held up one of the sweaters for the audience to get a good look at his mother's design and said, "She makes sweaters for many different people, but that's one of the ways she says she loves somebody." His red sweater even made it into the Smithsonian Institution as an exhibit in 1984.