Fred McFeely Rogers (March 20, 1928 – February 27, 2003), also known as Mister Rogers, was an American television host, author, producer, and Presbyterian minister. He was the creator, showrunner, and host of the preschool television series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which ran from 1968 to 2001.
Born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, Rogers earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Rollins College in 1951. He began his television career at NBC in New York, returning to Pittsburgh in 1953 to work for children’s programming at NET (later PBS) television station WQED. He graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary with a bachelor’s degree in divinity in 1962 and became a Presbyterian minister in 1963. He attended the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Child Development, where he began his 30-year collaboration with child psychologist Margaret McFarland. He also helped develop the children’s shows The Children’s Corner (1955) for WQED in Pittsburgh and Misterogers (1963) in Canada for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In 1968, he returned to Pittsburgh and adapted the format of his Canadian series to create Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It ran for 33 years, and was critically acclaimed for focusing on children’s emotional and physical concerns, such as death, sibling rivalry, school enrollment, and divorce.
Rogers died of stomach cancer on February 27, 2003, at age 74. His work in children’s television has been widely lauded, and he received more than 40 honorary degrees and several awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002 and a Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 1997. He was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1999. Rogers influenced many writers and producers of children’s television shows, and his broadcasts have served as a source of comfort during tragic events, even after his death.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood emphasized young children’s social and emotional needs, and unlike another PBS show, Sesame Street, which premiered in 1969, did not focus on cognitive learning. Writer Kathy Merlock Jackson said, “While both shows target the same preschool audience and prepare children for kindergarten, Sesame Street concentrates on school-readiness skills while Mister Rogers Neighborhood focuses on the child’s developing psyche and feelings and sense of moral and ethical reasoning”. The Neighborhood also spent fewer resources on research than Sesame Street, but Rogers used early childhood education concepts taught by his mentor Margaret McFarland, Benjamin Spock, Erik Erikson, and T. Berry Brazelton in his lessons. As the Washington Post noted, Rogers taught young children about civility, tolerance, sharing, and self-worth “in a reassuring tone and leisurely cadence”. He tackled difficult topics such as the death of a family pet, sibling rivalry, the addition of a newborn into a family, moving and enrolling in a new school, and divorce. For example, he wrote a special segment that dealt with the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy that aired on June 7, 1968, days after the assassination occurred.
According to King, the process of putting each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood together was “painstaking” and Rogers’s contribution to the program was “astounding”. Rogers wrote and edited all the episodes, played the piano and sang for most of the songs, wrote 200 songs and 13 operas, created all the characters (both puppet and human), played most of the major puppet roles, hosted every episode, and produced and approved every detail of the program. The puppets created for the Neighborhood of Make-Believe “included an extraordinary variety of personalities”. They were simple puppets but “complex, complicated, and utterly honest beings”. In 1971, Rogers formed Family Communications, Inc. (FCI, now The Fred Rogers Company), to produce the Neighborhood, other programs, and non-broadcast materials.
In 1975, Rogers stopped producing Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to focus on adult programming. Reruns of the Neighborhood continued to air on PBS. King reports that the decision caught many of his coworkers and supporters “off guard”. Rogers continued to confer with McFarland about child development and early childhood education, however. In 1979, after an almost five-year hiatus, Rogers returned to producing the Neighborhood; King calls the new version “stronger and more sophisticated than ever”. King writes that by the program’s second run in the 1980s, it was “such a cultural touchstone that it had inspired numerous parodies”, most notably Eddie Murphy’s parody on Saturday Night Live in the early 1980s.