For David Newell, Fred Rogers was nothing less than “the interpreter of childhood” for a whole generation of impressionable television watchers.
He got to know the late Rogers about as well as anyone over the many years he spent playing peppy deliveryman Mr. McFeely on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Newell got to see Mister Rogers in action as he over and over again broke down big concepts for kids without devolving into condescension. That took the form of everything from showing that a trip to the pediatrician’s office isn’t so scary to bringing on “The Wizard of Oz” star Margaret Hamilton so kids could learn the Wicked Witch of the West isn’t actually real.
Rogers died in his Pittsburgh home on Feb. 27, 2003, at the age of 74. Although he’s no longer around to make sure children know they are capable of love and being loved, there are still plenty of folks and organizations dedicated to spreading his teachings far and wide.
“Every day, I come across another reference to Fred and the program,” Newell told the Union Progress. “I think the success of the program is Fred and his understanding of child development. … It still works today, because those child development principles still exist.”
Building on a legacy
The Mister Rogers legacy is still thriving, at least partially thanks to one Pittsburgh-based nonprofit bearing the man’s name.
Fred Rogers Productions was founded in 1971 as Family Communications Inc. Its original claim to fame was producing “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” during its heyday on WQED. The show ended in 2001, and the company began churning out original children’s programming in 2012, starting with “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.” It rebranded to The Fred Rogers Co. in 2010 and Fred Rogers Productions in 2018.
Its lineup of original content has expanded to include other PBS Kids shows such as “Peg + Cat,” “Odd Squad,” “Through the Woods,” “Donkey Hodie” and “Alma’s Way.” The second seasons of “Donkey Hodie” and “Alma’s Way” are both expected to premiere later this year. Season six of “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” will continue to roll out in 2023, and select episodes of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” can be streamed via Fred Rogers Productions’ website.
Paul Siefken, Fred Rogers Productions’ president and CEO, said in a statement to the Union Progress that all his organization’s shows are “rooted in [Mister Rogers’] philosophy and approach” and are designed to “build on his legacy with millions of today’s children.”
“The world has become a much more complicated place since Fred’s passing,” Siefken continued, “but the child development principles he championed remain both timely and timeless.”
Raising children to be good neighbors
The values and ideas “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” first began introducing in the late 1960s have become pillars of how at least two schools with strong ties to Rogers himself approach research into early childhood development.
Rogers grew up in Latrobe, a town that continues to take great pride in one of its favorite sons. One of the ways his hometown pays tribute to the Mister Rogers legacy is through the Fred Rogers Institute at Saint Vincent College. Its mission: “to help the helpers,” Executive Director Dana Winters said in reference to the famous Rogers axiom, “Look for the helpers.”
Winters acknowledged that part of why Mister Rogers remains so relevant 20 years after his death involves “a sense of nostalgia” for him, his puppet pals and even the iconic sweater-and-sneaker combos he always sported. But as an academic, she has also found that dipping back into the Mister Rogers well also tends to make adults want to help kids recapture the “curiosity and wonder” that he helped inspire in them at that age.
“Even as grown-ups, the messages that everyone is loved and is capable of loving, that matters,” Winters said. “It doesn’t matter where I go around the country or around the world. People are yearning to go back to that simple message and see that that simple message is still possible.”
She underscored her point about Mister Rogers’ global reach by mentioning that she recently played a part in introducing students at the National University of Ireland to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” when a professor there reached out to her after watching the 2018 Rogers documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Winters also said that the Fred Rogers Institute has been partnering with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to help “make his messages grow far beyond the United States.”
Then there’s Rollins College, a private higher-learning institution in Winter Park, Fla., that also happens to be the alma mater of both Rogers and his late wife, Joanne. Rollins recently immortalized Rogers and his neighborhood in statue form on campus. Even more pertinently, Rollins’ Hume House Child Development & Student Research Center continues to “teach the basic principles of love, care and reciprocity” popularized by Rogers to young children, executive director Sharon Carnahan said in an emailed statement.
Carnahan, who also teaches psychology at Rollins, talked up yesterday’s Hume House Good Neighbor Workshop Series, an annual two-day conference that focused this year on “raising our children to be good neighbors.” She said that Hume House practices much of what Rogers preached in his show, as well as using his songs in their curriculum.
“Like Fred, we know that all thinking skills are embedded inside relationships between children and each other, children and parents, and teachers and children,” Carnahan said. “We emphasize ‘we like you as you are’ and ‘behavior can be caught as well as taught,’ as well as respect for each child as an individual.”
As a Pittsburgh pop culture reporter for almost three years now, I’ve found that Mister Rogers has a tendency to pop up in both quite obvious and wholly unexpected places.
In addition to the aforementioned Morgan Neville documentary, Tom Hanks earned an Oscar nomination for playing Fred Rogers in the Pittsburgh-shot 2019 film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” I couldn’t get Mister Rogers off my mind while watching Hanks put on an even more impressive master class on being a good neighbor in the locally filmed dramedy “A Man Called Otto.”
A storyline in a 2021 episode of the NBC drama “This Is Us” involved the Pearson family patriarch taking his two young sons to a taping of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Later that year, I had the privilege of reporting on the heartwarming coincidence that Newell’s son Alex happens to be a real-life mail carrier in Pittsburgh.
The neighborhood gave a few prominent Pittsburghers with Hollywood dreams their big breaks. Oscar-winning set decorator Jan Pascale worked in the show’s art department in the early 1980s, and the first acting credits on Michael Keaton’s IMDB page are 1970s episodes of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
When I interviewed Keaton prior to the release of his 2021 Hulu series “Dopesick,” I asked him which local luminaries would make his “Mount Rushmore of ’Burgh people.” The first name he listed was legendary Steelers running back Franco Harris. After thinking about it for a few more seconds, he declared: “Probably Fred.”
That just goes to show how revered Rogers remains 20 years after leaving us. Newell believes that everyone who has ever encountered Rogers or watched the show can “see that he respects childhood” in a profound way.
“I think they relate to Fred on his love for what he’s doing and respect for children, childhood and his audience,” he said. “I think all of that is what makes it resonate still today. Every child is still going through the same developmental process.”
Beyond celebrities, colleagues and those expanding upon his lessons, there are plenty of children and parents still learning valuable information from Mister Rogers-inspired art. Just last week, I came across a Twitter thread from a mother who believes “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” is teaching her “how to be a more conscious parent.”
“Watching the cartoon we get a model of what to say to our kids when they’re displaying big emotions,” she wrote, “and that’s a big deal for parents like me who didn’t grow up in a conscious household and don’t have a real life model for conscious parenting.”
It doesn’t get much more relevant than that.
Joshua covers pop culture, media and more at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.