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Lessons from Mr. Rogers on his 95th Birthday
Mar. 13, 2023 12:00 am
March 20 marks the 95th birthday of Fred McFeely Rogers, otherwise known as Mr. Rogers from the public television series, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Equally as important, the year also marks the 20th anniversary of his death.
However, with reruns of the original children’s show and subsequent series by his production company, Fred Rogers Productions, the spirit and warmth of the mild-natured writer and puppeteer continues on well beyond two decades after he last hosted a show.
Fred McFeely Rogers was born in an affluent suburb outside of Pittsburgh. In his childhood, he showed a talent for music and storytelling, and at the age of 10, his parents purchased a $50,000 Steinway grand piano for their prodigy son. He began composing music and authoring lyrics for his own songs.
This led him to Rollins College in Florida, where he met Sara (Joanna) Byrd, an accomplished classical pianist, and they married in 1952. He graduated with a degree in Music, and in 1954, along with an added acumen as a puppeteer, was hired as a writer and puppet actor for a children’s television show in Pittsburgh titled “Children’s Corner.”
The show gained in popularity, but Rogers felt he wanted to inspire children, and adults, on more of a spiritual level, so he enrolled at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and graduated in 1962. Shortly thereafter, he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, but resumed a television career on Canadian networks until returning to Pittsburgh where he commenced production of a short program featuring puppets in a land of make believe with the merged name of “Misterogers.”
Rogers wrote the script, the music, and voiced and performed all the characters. The program was picked up by the National Educational Television network - today’s Public Broadcasting System - and ran with the same format, in an entertaining way, teaching children how to cope with daily challenges of life.
Along the way, he introduced a few other characters in tribute to his family, including Queen Sara (the wife of King Friday) whom he named after his wife’s less used real first name, and Mr. McFeely, the Postman, an homage to his family lineage. His favorite star of the show, however, was Daniel Striped Tiger, whom Joanne always called the character closest to Fred Rogers’ true personality.
The series, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” persevered in production for more than a quarter-century, almost fifty years if you include its antecedents. By the end of the final show in 2001, Rogers had penned more than 200 songs, which he sang in more than 1,000 episodes.
Sadly, the iconic actor, clergyman and child psychologist was diagnosed with stomach cancer in the early 2000s and passed away, at the age of 74, in 2003. The Land of Make Believe, though, continues on in many ways to this day.
His family perpetuated Fred Rogers Productions to keep the legacy alive. Four television series, in consultation with other production companies, were created as a result, the most acclaimed being “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” featuring the 4-year-old son of Mr. Rogers’ alter ego, Daniel Striped Tiger.
“Donkey Hodie,” a play on the name of the popular play “Don Quixote,” showcases a circle of barnyard animal friends voiced by the same actors who played the role of Cookie Monster in “Sesame Street” and Beaker on “The Muppet Show.”
The spirit of Sesame Street also live on through another series titled “Alma’s Way,” written by Sonia Monzano, Maria of “Sesame Street,” highlighting the adventures of a 6-year-old Puerto Rican girl in New York. The final series, called “Peg and Cat,” follows a young grade school girl and her cat as they learn the fundamentals of mathematics.
All of these programs help to develop social and academic skill levels. However, perhaps the greatest legacy of Fred Rogers is not necessarily what appears on television today, but rather the cognitive curricula that ensued in the 1990s as a direct result of his teachings.
Psychologists began to realize the wisdom being shared by Rogers in his daily lessons of understanding, patience, and perseverance. As such, techniques he demonstrated on his show were adapted into what has become known as Social Emotional Learning, a practice followed by school psychologists and children’s behavioral therapists across the country.
It is a basis for the cognitive resolution procedures enacted by professionals in the field, and in schools for students exhibiting traits of ADHD, autism, anxiety, and other clinical disorders. This was a revolution in treatment and perspective that has proved successful in assisting students, and their instructors, to cooperate and achieve progress at school and at home.
Mr. Rogers may no longer be physically here to tell us this, but his subtle voice and encouraging message of the last three-quarters of a century rings louder than ever.
“As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each of us really is,“ he said.
In this 95th anniversary of his birth and 20th anniversary of his death, may we never forget that.
David V. Wendell is a Marion historian, author and special events coordinator specializing in American history.
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