Fred Rogers’ lasting legacy, continuing ties to his Latrobe home

March 13, 2018 GMT

A slender, soft-spoken, color-blind vegetarian from Latrobe changed the world.

Fred Rogers didn’t try to cure cancer or harness the power of the sun. But nearly 15 years after his death and 50 years after the first airing of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” lessons of his classic PBS childrens’ show that debuted nationally on Feb. 19, 1968, continue to resonate around the world and in the neighborhood he called home.

The quiet man who looked at the camera, told children, “It’s you I like,” and introduced them to the finer points of puppetry, music and feelings said his work was a rebellion against the frenzied rock, bop, wham, slam nature of early children’s television.

He wanted to tame the new technology for good. He drew from his life in Latrobe to craft a neighborhood peopled with jazz and classical musicians, astronauts, firefighters, doctors and puppets, among others — a neighborhood where every child was welcome and no one talked down to them.

“His mission, as he saw it, was to talk to one child at a time,” said Bill Isler, a friend and colleague who led Rogers’ production company for more than three decades.

Rogers died on Feb. 27, 2003, just shy of his 75th birthday. He filmed 895 episodes of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” earned a degree from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and was ordained a Presbyterian minister, picked up more than 40 honorary degrees, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civil honor for his work in children’s television.

Actor Michael Keaton, who was a “Neighborhood” stagehand in the 1970s, will host a 50th anniversary documentary on PBS on March 6.

The accolades continue this anniversary year.

The Postal Service will begin selling a Mister Rogers stamp March 23.

An authorized biography, due to hit bookstores this year, is underway.

A movie, based on Rogers’ relationship with a cynical journalist who became a close friend, is to be released next year. Tom Hanks will play Rogers.

‘Magic’ touch

Jim Rogers, 59, still lives near the Pittsburgh neighborhood where Fred and his wife, Joanne, a concert pianist, raised him and his younger brother, John. He said he grew up thinking everyone’s father did the kind of work Rogers did at WQED studios, near their Squirrel Hill home.

“Just to go to the studio and see how the magic was made was wonderful,” said Jim Rogers, recalling trips to the studio as a child. “It’s funny. Today, everybody seems to have some memory that is very personal to them. It’s a real honor to hear those stories.”

But he said he didn’t always realize the impact his father had on other children.

“Dad was very protective of the family. We lived 10 minutes away from the studio. It was a very normal existence. He went off to work, and we went off to school,” he said. “Whenever he had to go to New York, he’d leave very early in the morning to make it home at night.”

Now, he knows his dad became both a father figure and a friend to millions of children.

“So many people have told me as parents that it was the one half-hour a day when their children would not be running around,” he said.

Rick Okonak, 39, barely blinked when he heard the story of a woman who credits Rogers with aiding her recovery following brain surgery that left her in a coma. Her pictures of Rogers working his magic with puppets at her bedside in Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital where she lay comatose, and his promise of prayers, are part of the story Beth Usher has told again and again.

Okonak wasn’t surprised. He knew Rogers all his life and now serves as assistant director of the McFeely Rogers Foundation in Latrobe, where he grew up.

When he was 18, Okonak had knee surgery at what is now UPMC Presbyterian in Pittsburgh. While he recovered in the hospital, Rogers visited.

“I remember all the nurses were whispering, ‘It’s Mister Rogers.’ He asked me how I was and I told him fine, but my feet were cold. We talked a while. He left and then he came back. He’d walked the streets of Pittsburgh, bought a pair of socks, came back and put them on my feet.

“He didn’t have to do that. That was just the way he was,” Okonak said, smiling at the memory.

His neighborhood

It all began in a big brick house on Weldon Street, where the only son of James and Nancy McFeely Rogers grew up in the comfortable home of a small-town industrialist and attended Latrobe public schools.

Unlike many small towns that hollowed out as industry died, Latrobe still has a vital library and park system. Its public schools maintain an arts program that is the envy of many wealthier communities.

Much of that reflects the influence of Rogers’ family, lifelong Latrobe resident Kathryn Elder said.

The 80-year-old served on the school board for 35 years. She still heads the Adams Memorial Library Board and volunteers for Meals on Wheels. Elder recalled how Rogers’ parents underwrote the construction of a municipal swimming pool and continued to fund it because Latrobe children didn’t have a safe place to swim.

“They were concerned because children were drowning swimming in the creek. My sons were lifeguards at the pool. Today, my grandchildren swim there,” Elder said.

“It’s impossible to overestimate what his family did for the community. And they never wanted thanks or credit or wanted to change anyone. They just wanted to make things better,” she said. “If you go to any estate sale around here and listen carefully, you will hear older people telling stories about things the family did quietly, things they never wanted any credit for. Everyone has a story. He learned from that.”

Rogers left home to attend Rollins College in Florida, where he met his future wife, and later to try his hand at television in Toronto and Pittsburgh.

But he would take what he learned in Latrobe and add it to what he learned as a musician, a television producer and performer. He would take it all and minister to a flock of young children who gathered around TV sets every afternoon.

Later, he would offer the gift of his learning to adults, sometimes with stunning results.

“During the time I was with him, one of the things Fred began to do at talks was ask people to pause for a moment of silence and think of the people who meant a lot to their lives,” Isler said.

“Think of the people who loved you into being,” a video clip records Rogers softly imploring a crowd.

“Invariably afterwards, people would come up to him and thank him and tell him about someone. Everybody did have someone in their lives,” Isler said. “This was incredibly central to Fred’s work because he believed very much in the power of relationships.”

Public TV savior

In 1969, Rogers appeared before the Senate subcommittee on communications to oppose President Nixon’s proposal to halve funding for public broadcasting to $10 million. His brief testimony about serving children through public television prompted Chairman John Pastore to remark, “I think it’s wonderful. ... Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”

Jo Holz, a former head researcher for the company that produces Sesame Street and the author of “Kids TV Grows Up,” marvels at Rogers’ power.

“He single-handedly saved public television,” Holz said.

And he pioneered a new approach to reaching out to preschoolers, many of whom came to see him as a friend.

“The show was pretty revolutionary in a lot of ways,” Holz said. “It dealt with difficult issues like divorce, illness, death and war. It was very different from most of the shows that came before it. His whole impact was in helping preschoolers deal with feelings even if they included fear or anger or jealousy,” Holz said. “It also focused on self acceptance — that you’re fine just the way you are. It was all about acceptance and not about how people should change.”

The show also made sharp distinctions between the reality of those tough topics and fantasy, Holz said. Rogers always announced when he and his young listeners were going to Land of Make Believe, where his puppets and real-life actors interacted in skits.

Although his puppets and sets were colorful, and many might conclude he saw the world through rose-colored glasses, Rogers himself suffered from red-green color blindness.

Forever Latrobe

While Rogers lived and worked in Pittsburgh throughout his adult life, he and his sister, Elaine, 11 years his junior, continued their parents’ work in and around Latrobe through the McFeely-Rogers Foundation.

Surviving family members, including his sister and sons, meet with the foundation board twice a year in Latrobe to weigh requests.

In 2016, grants totaling $708,000 went to support the swimming pool, the fine arts program in Latrobe public schools, the Presbyterian church, the local hospital foundation, one of the region’s oldest cemeteries and a host of small college scholarships, among other endeavors.

“Fred used to always talk about Latrobe and what it meant to him,” Isler said.

At Greater Latrobe High School, students such as seniors Madison Kornides and Marianna Schrack thrived under guidance provided by stained-glass artist Mandy Sirofcheck, who was this year’s artist in residence under a McFeely-Rogers Foundation grant.

Neither student was aware she was watching a Latrobe native when she sat glued to his show as a child.

“He was just so calming. He never talked down to you,” Kornides said.

“I liked it when he fed his fish,” Schrack added.

The foundation underwrites an artist in residence every year. It also funds a host of field trips in the belief that children should be exposed to art, architecture and live music.

The high school maintains a display case highlighting the life of the most famous graduate of its class of 1946. It features an original pair of Rogers’ puppets, his high school yearbook, one of the famous sweaters he donned at the beginning of his show (which were knitted by his mother), a minister’s robe and stole, and family mementos.

Two miles away, just across the other edge of Latrobe in Unity, the Fred Rogers Center for Early Childhood Development and Children’s Media on the campus of Saint Vincent College houses his archives.

The center also sponsors research in early childhood development. It has taken Rogers’ concept of nurturing through small, beautiful interactions with caregivers to remote childcare centers in rural China, inner city schools and childcare centers as well as small public schools in rural communities.

It may be the only research center dedicated to the work of a Presbyterian minister located on the grounds of a Catholic college.

But Isler said Rogers wanted it that way. He had befriended former Saint Vincent Archabbot Douglas Nowicki, a clinical psychologist, when the two worked on research in child development. It was another relationship, another friendship that led to something.

“And it was Latrobe. He, his father and Joanne all had honorary degrees from Saint Vincent,” Isler said.

The center opened in 2003, shortly after Rogers died.

In death, Rogers would make one more trip back to his neighborhood. He is interred in the family mausoleum high on a hill in the Unity Cemetery overlooking the community that gave birth to a neighborhood that changed the world.

He is back with those who first inspired him to envision a world in which relationships and kindness trumped all else.

Rogers practiced that in his daily life. He repeatedly explained that he became a vegetarian years before it was popular, because “I just don’t like to eat anything that had a mother.”

His speech reflected how much others meant to him.

“He never used an ‘I’; it was always ‘we,‘” Isler said. “He never used a ‘me’; it was always ‘us.’ ”

Debra Erdley is a tribune-Review staff writer.