The King of Kindness

October 23, 2019

By Robert Stephens

Why is there a renewed groundswell of interest in Fred Rogers ’51? The answer is as radically simple as the man himself.

A lily-thin man with a bedtime voice and a stash of cardigan sweaters had what he thought were splendid ideas for a children’s television show quite a few years ago. He would call himself Mister Rogers. And Mister Rogers would feed fish, tie his shoes, and perhaps explain the wonders of an egg timer going tick … tick … tick. Critics said the show would be too slow. Too real. Too nice.

The show lasted 912 episodes across four decades because Fred Rogers knew something that maybe the adults had forgotten: All we really want is a trusted friend. And who could be more trustworthy than a man so gentle and deliberate that he seemed to literally listen from the other side of the TV screen?

It’s been 16 years since Fred Rogers passed away, and 18 years since he sang the final song of the final episode from the most welcoming neighborhood ever known. And now we’re experiencing a second coming. In 2018, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? became the highest-grossing biographical documentary of all time. In November, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Fred, will debut.

A logical question has arisen: Why are we still so interested in Fred Rogers? In talking with family, classmates from Rollins, the author whose story in Esquire inspired the movie more than 20 years later, even Tom Hanks, little themes about Fred start to piece together like stained glass in a church. His work ethic. His temperament. His transparency. His power. If we’re as honest as he’d want us to be, a revelation about ourselves also emerges: We need his message and his way, and we need Fred Rogers more than ever.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is based on author Tom Junod’s experience with Fred while writing a feature story for Esquire in 1998.

Joanne Rogers (Fred’s wife of 50 years): All the renewed interest has taken me by surprise. The movie producer and the writers said they read the story about Fred way back and never forgot about it.

Tom Hanks: The screenplay bounced around years ago with no director, so it was just an interesting idea. [Director] Mari Heller and I had been exchanging ideas to work together, but either my stuff didn’t gel with her or vice versa. Then she called me with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. We agreed to shoot it as soon as I was available.

Joanne Rogers: The biggest shock of my life is when I heard Tom Hanks said “yes” to being cast as Fred.

Mister Rogers changes his shoes.Mister Rogers changes his shoes.

Junod: The screenwriters contacted me in 2015—17 years after the story was published. You think it’s all passed you by and then it’s like this freight train coming right at you. They changed my name to Lloyd Vogel in the film because it isn’t completely who I am—my mother didn’t die when I was young, and Lloyd’s more cynical than me. But my connection with Fred … it was so unexpected, and that’s pretty accurate in the movie. I wept through half the screening. It reminds me of what he’s meant to me.

Hanks: I learned so many details [about Fred]. He woke up at 5 a.m. and never drank coffee? Crazy good details!

John Rogers (Fred and Joanne’s son): I told Tom Hanks he was perfect for the role because he’s genuinely nice and because Dad must have watched Forrest Gump a hundred times.

Hanks: My biggest challenge for this role? I had to slow down.

Joanne Rogers: Tom asked me at dinner one night if Fred really talked that slowly. I said, “Yep, that’s him.” Some people tried to get Fred to speed up for the TV show, but he said, “Nope, the kids understand me fine.”

Dan Crozier (son of Fred’s sister, Elaine, and music professor at Rollins): Uncle Fred was never afraid of time. He had a routine to start every day—wake up at 5, pray, study the Bible, and swim.

Gloria Cook (close family friend and music professor at Rollins): Fred’s swimming wasn’t really … swimming. It was very slow, very relaxed. You’d find yourself just staring.

Crozier: My dad would time Uncle Fred when he swam in the bay in Nantucket. He wanted to swim for exactly 17 minutes. Then my dad would blow a conch shell as a signal to stop. Uncle Fred never rushed. Every minute had a purpose in his life.

Fred was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where his family had successful business interests. His great-grandfather was also a founder of RCA, the original parent company of NBC TV.

John Rogers: My grandparents guarded Dad because he was an only child for his first 11 years, and that was around the time of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. People with money were concerned.

Crozier: He had bad allergies too—another reason he stayed inside. He had to create his own ways to play. After my mom was adopted, he had more freedom.

John Rogers: A man named George Allen taught Dad how to fly a plane when Dad was 16 or 17. My grandmother didn’t know anything about it. The first time Dad flew a Piper Cup solo, sure enough, Grandma shows up at the airport and asks George, “Where’s Fred?” George points to the sky and says, “Up there.” I guess Dad had a little rebelliousness in him.

Joanne Rogers: He was never comfortable with the wealth.

John Rogers: Dad said, “The less you need, the richer you are.” He believed in hard work and self-sufficiency. He didn’t want to rely on his family’s money.

Cook: Fred spent enough time around the family’s manufacturing businesses to be familiar with all the social classes. I think that’s a reason he could put himself in the shoes of others.

Crozier: My mother said that even at a young age Uncle Fred started to shy away from meat. He’d eat lots of side dishes and say in that voice of his, “Oh. That … is … excellent.”

John Rogers: He said, “I don’t eat anything that has a mother.” He was also concerned about addictions. His only vice was pouring a little Kahlua on ice cream because he liked the taste.

Joanne Rogers: His grandfather told him if he didn’t smoke or drink until he turned 21, he’d buy him a boat. They both lived up to their word. Fred used the boat on Lake Virginia near Rollins.

An illustration of Mister Rogers playing the piano.An illustration of Mister Rogers playing the piano.

After one year at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, Fred transferred to Rollins, where he graduated with a degree in music composition, met his future wife, and began to visualize his purpose.

Crozier: All I really know about his time at Dartmouth is that he wasn’t comfortable and maybe didn’t feel accepted.

John Rogers: He froze his butt off at Dartmouth. He told me it was so cold at night that he didn’t want to walk down the hallway to the bathroom, so he’d just relieve himself out the window.

Joanne Rogers: In winter, the school stored stacks of yellow squash outside instead of using refrigerator space. Fred didn’t like squash or the climate. He wasn’t crazy about the music program either. I’m not sure whose idea it was for him to go to school there [laughing]. After his freshman year, a man arrived at Dartmouth—Arnold Kvam. He told Fred about this small school in Florida known for music. It was Rollins.

Jeannine Morrison (Rollins classmate and lifelong friend): There were only about 600 students at Rollins then. Fred liked that it was more personal … and that he could be the center of attention with his jokes.

Joanne Rogers: I told Fred, “There are a lot of rich students here. You’re just one of many.” He was sensitive that someone might like him for his family’s money.

Morrison: He’d park his car where no one could see it. When he took us for rides, he’d point to a little bag on the dash so we’d chip in for gas.

An illustration of Mister Rogers walking past the Life is for Service plaque.An illustration of Mister Rogers walking past the Life is for Service plaque.

Crozier: The show [Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood] had some roots back to Rollins. The music. The values. At the west end of campus is a plaque that says, “Life is for service.” It became one of his mantras.

Joanne Rogers: His junior year he took a trip to France with a Rollins instructor. They went to an orphanage for war orphans. He talked about it a lot. It broke his heart.

Morrison: He went home at Easter that year and saw children’s programs on TV. He thought it was a wasted opportunity to improve the lives of kids. Things started to click.

Joanne Rogers: I was mildly surprised when he told me he was going to New York City after graduation to work in television. He could have taken over the family business and done very well. But he wouldn’t have been happy.

John Rogers: So he went to New York and swept floors. Dad knew he was going to do something for children eventually.

Fred helped shape children’s programming in Pittsburgh and Canada from 1953 to 1966 while earning a degree from seminary during his lunch breaks. All of it led to the birth of Mister Rogers, a concept so simple in form that it was radical.

Hanks: The show was so odd, so specifically odd, in the way he dedicated everything to the audience he made it for [children].

John Rogers: Some people thought maybe he was acting. But those are his words. That’s his real voice. It’s so genuine, I’m not sure the pilot would succeed today.

Crozier: Our family spent summers in Nantucket. He’d go there to write scripts in “the workhouse.” When I was old enough, I’d pick him up at the airport in Nantucket and he’d say, “I leave two weeks from today and need to accomplish this and this and this.” He kept a detailed mental calendar. He’d disappear in the workhouse, come out and visit on the porch for 10 minutes, and go back in to work.

John Rogers: Dad drank this stuff called Postum. It looks like coffee but doesn’t have caffeine. He had that fear of addiction. Yet he had this incredible energy. He said he was high on life, and his work was a big part of his life.

Joanne Rogers: Whenever he had a hard time getting started on a theme, he did what he called “sharpening pencils,” which basically meant doing all kinds of menial tasks until he thought of something. He’d come onto the porch and say, “Does anyone have any ideas?”

John Rogers: He wrote everything. But he did use lyrics I wrote as a 10-year-old for the song “Tree, Tree, Tree.” Besides the word “tree,” there are only 10 words in the entire song. I hear the lyrics are used in a drinking game now. That’s my contribution [laughing].

Crozier: In his study I’d see his sketches for songs and stacks of books that he massively annotated—like the collected works of Freud and the Bible. His Christian faith formed the underpinnings of the show, including the principle of “my neighbor.” He couldn’t be outward about it, though, because the show was on PBS.

John Rogers: We didn’t have a TV in Nantucket—we still don’t. We had one in Pittsburgh, and we only used it on Thursday nights to watch The Waltons.

An illustration of Mister Rogers feeding fish.An illustration of Mister Rogers feeding fish.

Sharon Carnahan (executive director of the Child Development and Student Research Center at Rollins): It’s a big mistake to think he was just a great guy who liked children. He was prolific behind the show, involved in camera angles, music, and each word. It wasn’t about ratings. It was, “How can I use this to make the world a better place for children?” It’s genius.

Hanks: I wish now that I’d made Fred’s show a regular part of [my kids’] TV viewing. I would have been doing them a favor to have Mister Rogers talking to them, looking them in the eye, and explaining the wonders and joys of “the neighborhood.”

Cook: We named our son Daniel after a puppet on the show, Daniel the Tiger, long before we met Fred and Joanne. He had a way of making us feel good through the TV.

Joanne Rogers: He worked better than he played. One of his great pleasures was to respond to every piece of mail in his beautiful handwriting. Later he used email.

Junod: I recently found a trove of notes from him. They still blow me away. He told me that he prayed for me, and I know he meant it. I can hear the playfulness of his voice but the seriousness of our friendship. Who does that?

Rita Bornstein (the 13th president of Rollins, from 1990-2004): I remember watching when he accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Emmys [in 1997]. He had a whole room of celebrities in tears. He took time to listen. He legitimately cared. How many people can say they have someone like that in their lives?

Joanne Rogers: I was horrified what they might try to do to him on certain talk shows. The night he went on The Tonight Show with Joan Rivers, I didn’t know about it until he’d left the house. He didn’t watch TV, so he had no idea what he might be getting into.

Crozier: The family knew Joan Rivers could be caustic and that she might try to embarrass Uncle Fred. He sang one of his children’s songs to her and almost brought her to tears.

Cook: That’s when everyone knew that she was an actor, and he wasn’t.

Crozier: He didn’t mind the spoofs about him as long as they didn’t cause harm to others. I saw him upset once about a radio skit. Someone imitated his voice and said, “What if you take mommy’s hair spray and daddy’s lighter and put them together?” He said, “A child might think that’s really me. They could do something bad.”

Joanne Rogers: He’d have a hard time today. It bothered him a great deal when people wouldn’t forgive each other or reconcile their differences.

John Rogers: I only remember 20 minutes of my life when we were angry at each other. I’d had a few minor accidents, so he’d taken my car away. One evening I needed to get my girlfriend home. I grabbed the keys and drove out in an ice storm … and slid into a lamppost. The damage wasn’t serious, but Dad and I really got into it.

Joanne Rogers: I think I left the room for that. Raising boys stretched Fred.

John Rogers: After all the shouting, Dad got real quiet and said in his normal voice, “Wow. That’s the angriest I’ve ever been. That felt pretty good.” And that was it.

Crozier: He didn’t have to say anything. If you simply sensed his disappointment, it was really scary. One time he thought John and I were being mean to John’s younger brother. Uncle Fred didn’t like that and I knew it, so I ran to a closet and hid from him. His disapproval felt awful. Think about it—he’s Mister Rogers.

John Rogers: Dad was so kind, he could easily make you feel like crawling under the carpet for doing something wrong to someone. He once heard that a guy had swindled me out of a little money. Dad invited him to come over. Didn’t yell at him. He just said, “I feel bad for you to want to do that to my son.” The guy melted.

Joanne Rogers: Fred would only accept about $25,000 a year to do the show.

Cook: He bought secondhand clothes to wear. He didn’t want the extravagant life of a celebrity. Still, everyone gravitated toward him. When he and Joanne would fly to Florida for winters, I’d have to sit and wait at the airport because there were so many people around him. He talked with every single one of them.

Bornstein: My husband and I went to have lunch with Fred and Joanne at a restaurant in Pittsburgh once. They were at their customary table, behind a pillar. People found him anyway.

John Rogers: Our family had to share him a lot. I’ve said he came as close as you can come to being Jesus Christ himself. It bothered me that I couldn’t measure up to his example, until I was about 30 years old. He would have been the first to tell me “just be you.”

Crozier: Once you were in his presence, you didn’t want to leave. He’d politely say, “Now, Dan, I need to go do this and this. Would you like to come do it with me?” It was his way of saying, “I have to go.”

In 1991, Rollins honored Fred by laying a stone in the school’s Walk of Fame near the house where he lived as a student. The ceremony didn’t go quite as planned.

Bornstein: Oh gosh. The Walk of Fame.

Joanne Rogers: Fred was concerned about word getting out. He told Rita, “If you want me to spend time with the adults, then don’t make this an occasion for children. If children come, they’ll get first dibs.”

Bornstein: He asked me to work it out.

Carnahan: The administration wanted to keep it low-key. But I said, “Why not have him visit our children’s development center? We won’t make a big deal out of it.”

Bornstein: Word got out. Children came from everywhere. Girls were wearing princess dresses. Boys were all excited to see Mister Rogers. I thought, “Oh … my … God.”

Carnahan: When he came to our back area, he almost couldn’t get to the door. In all the commotion, he saw one little girl visibly upset. He knelt down, looked at her, and said, “You’re wondering how I’m going to get back into the television, aren’t you?” Then he took time to explain to her how television works and that he’d be OK. I could not believe how he made each person feel special despite everything going on.

An illustration of Mister Rogers laying a stone in Rollins’ Walk of Fame.An illustration of Mister Rogers laying a stone in Rollins’ Walk of Fame.

Cook: We were at the Walk of Fame ceremony with our two boys, Daniel and Andy. I didn’t know Fred at the time. For some reason he came over to talk with my sons in the middle of the crowd. That’s what started our friendship.

Bornstein: He did what only Fred could do. I have a picture from the ceremony of him surrounded by children—the children I was supposed to keep away.

Esquire first published Junod’s story about Fred, “Can You Say … Hero?,” in November 1998. The story tracked how their relationship grew from the moment the two met—something Junod never saw coming.

Junod: Fred was a wonder to me from the start. I called him from the Esquire office in New York and it turned out he was in an apartment just a few hundred feet away from me. He invited me to come over, so I did. And there he was—in a bathrobe and slippers. He immediately got me talking about a stuffed rabbit from my youth. I felt like I was in an episode of The Neighborhood.

Crozier: Before his interview with Tom Junod, he told me, “I’ll be busy for a few days with Tom.” He said it as if they were lifelong friends, even though they hadn’t met.

Joanne Rogers: Fred was more interested in meeting Tom than he was in the article.

Junod: I’m sitting there in those first few moments processing how Fred already has me back in my childhood. Then he pulls out a camera and takes a picture of me. He says, “I like to take pictures of my new friends.”

Joanne Rogers: He carried a Canon camera in his pocket. Whenever he took a picture of someone, he’d mail it to them with a handwritten note.

Junod: I remember wondering, “Why has he chosen to take a personal interest in me? Why is there a connection that he not only discovered but has insisted on?” To this day, I’m still not sure why. But I know he had a purpose.

John Rogers: Tom was with Dad 24-7, watching his work and his life. Then Tom told the world in his Esquire story that the guy on TV really is that guy.

Junod: I’ve done interviews with Brad Pitt, Ashley Judd, Leonardo DiCaprio, a lot of people. But it’s journalism. Most people consider it a transaction. Once it’s done, you go your separate ways. With Fred, the transaction was never done. I’ve often thought, “What did I do to deserve this?”

An illustration of Mister Rogers changing his sweater.An illustration of Mister Rogers changing his sweater.

Fred and Joanne made their permanent home in Pittsburgh, but for two months in winter they’d travel to Florida and rent a house near the Rollins campus. Wherever Fred went, it became his neighborhood.

Joanne Rogers: I bought him a laptop and he’d carry it over to campus and sit in classes to learn what he could do with it. I’m not sure what those students thought, sitting next to Mister Rogers.

Daniel Parke ’97 (Rollins Hall of Fame basketball player): I’d see him walking to the chapel to pray every day in winter. Every day. He’d take the time to stop and talk with students as if it were no big deal.

Crozier: Uncle Fred would put his face up to the window of my music class and everything would come to a stop. He’d walk in and say, “How are things in this neighborhood?” The students were in awe.

Cook: He’d sit at the piano with students and make up songs. The kids would skip their next classes to spend more time with him. He changed the mood wherever he went.

Bornstein: One day I took him to lunch at a campus restaurant … and … I get emotional just talking about this. As we walked to our table, people stood up one at a time … until everyone in the restaurant was standing … applauding. It was so spontaneous. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Crozier: Walking is the only thing Uncle Fred did quickly. He took long strides. But as he got older, he slouched a bit. My mom said he was feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders.

President George W. Bush presented Fred with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2002. Fred rode in the Tournament of Roses Parade as the Grand Marshal on January 1, 2003, and then made the ceremonial coin toss at the Rose Bowl that afternoon. It would be Fred’s final public appearance. He died of stomach cancer on February 27 that year.

Crozier: He had pain for about a year, but didn’t think too much about it. He took papaya enzyme to help. I found out at Christmas they’d found a mass in his stomach. It was shocking because he seemed so young for that kind of thing [74] and had taken such good care of himself. But he accepted it calmly.

John Rogers: He didn’t fear death.

Joanne Rogers: He’d talk about how wonderful his next journey would be.

Carnahan: We had a memorial service for him on campus. Rita Bornstein asked me to speak on behalf of children. The family wanted that. So I spoke from the voice of a child, expressing why we would miss him.

Crozier: There was also a memorial service in Pittsburgh and the message was, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” What person could we say that about more than Uncle Fred?

Bornstein: His message is timeless: There’s always something good to believe in. We could all be a little more like him.

Junod: I find myself using his moves all the time. The other day I inadvertently said something that upset my 16-year-old daughter. When I tried to make up for it, she waved me off. So I said calmly, “Oh, you aren’t ready for an apology right now. That’s fine.” A total Fred move.

Crozier: The daily reminders of him are all around. My piano is in the McFeely-Rogers studio at Rollins. I weigh 143 pounds, the same as he weighed, and his clothes fit me. For a while it was too sad to wear them, but now I wear one of his honorary doctoral robes to convocation and graduation.

Cook: We recently went to the mausoleum in Pittsburgh to visit his memorial site. From a distance, I noticed something around it. As we got closer, I saw the site was surrounded with bags of candy and Rice Krispies treats. Not flowers. Sweet things.

Carnahan: We need another Fred Rogers. I think we’re realizing that now.

Hanks: Fred Rogers made direct eye contact with people to understand them, not to get something [from them].

Crozier: A friend told me he saw the trailer for the movie in a theater and two adults in front of him started crying. I think we yearn for the values he lived out.

John Rogers: Dad knew what we all need, whether we admit it or not. We’re all homesick for kindness.

Bornstein: I have a beautiful picture of Fred and me here in my sunroom. It’s in a spot where I can look at it every day and hear his voice. It makes me feel good.

Cook: I have his pictures all over my studio because I never want to say goodbye. When you’re in his neighborhood, you’re in a much better place.

Junod: I keep a profound reminder of Fred on a table next to a picture of him. I’d left my pen in his apartment when I was there interviewing him. The next day this beige envelope shows up. On the envelope is a message in Fred’s perfect calligraphy: “This is Tom’s pen.” The pen is still in there. I’ve never opened the envelope.

Joanne Rogers: My favorite picture is in a nook where I read. Fred took the picture while he was alone in Nantucket and I was playing an event somewhere. It’s a sunset. On it is a Post-it note with a message he wrote in the form of a song: “When the day turns to night, and you are way beyond my sight, I think of you.” Simple and beautiful. I’m glad we’re thinking of him too.

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