Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

“The greatest gift that you can give anybody,” says Fred McFeely Rogers, “is the gift of your honest self. And that’s what I try to do with the Neighborhood.” Television personality, writer, composer, and beloved neighbor worldwide, Rogers speaks of his vision for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the longest running program on Public Broadcasting System (PBS). But his gift of giving his honest self extends far beyond the set of his internationally acclaimed children’s television program.

It doesn’t take much time with Rogers­ – or a keen eye – to discern what is important to him. People. On a damp and dreary Monday, July 15, 1996, as Rogers surveys his modest office at WQED in Pittsburgh, it becomes clear that the people who are a meaningful part of his life are present. Theirs are the sto­ries behind the objects with which he surrounds himself. Facing him as he sits on a sofa is a pair of small, short­legged chairs, at least fifty years old, sent to his parents from a friend in Kobe, Japan. “[The chairs] used to sit on either side of their fireplace in Latrobe,” he remembers. He points to a large chair from his father’s office at the McFeely Brick Company, a silica brick company founded by his grandfather, Fred McFeely, of which Rogers’s father James became president. Near the door, a collection of tapes preserves the many sessions Rogers spent review­ing songs and programs with the late Margaret B. McFarland, a noted child psychologist and director of the Arsenal Family and Children’s Center of the University of Pittsburgh, who was his mentor and friend.

Like Margaret McFarland’s tapes, another object bears an important lesson of the past and is used by Rogers today. Handsomely matted and framed, the placard bears Rogers’s trademark “I like you just the way you are.” First spoken by his Grandfather McFeely, these words of acceptance are heard by more than eight million households which watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The tabletop sign is a gift from Charles P. LaVallee, executive director of The Western Pennsylvania Caring Foundation. The foun­dation, of which Rogers serves as honorary chairman, was begun in 1985 to provide health care coverage to western Pennsylvania children who might otherwise fall through the cracks of the health care system.

Not only are the people of Fred McFeely Rogers’s life present in his office, but they are literally in his back pocket. Rogers pulls out his wallet. “I carry lots of friends,” he says. Surprisingly, they are standard-size prints. People and relationships play such a large part in his life that Rogers evidently finds it too difficult to squeeze them into the smaller wallet-size photo holders. People emerging from his wallet include his wife Joanne, a talented concert pianist whom he met at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida; his sons Jamie and John with their families; and the children of friend Yo Yo Ma, the world renowned cellist.

Asked if he considers himself a Pennsylvanian, Rogers responds enthusiastically, “Absolutely.” He tallies the number of years he has lived in the Keystone State since his birth in Latrobe, Westmoreland County, on March 20, 1928. Except for college, several years in New York, and one year in Canada, he has lived most of his sixty-nine years in Pennsylvania. Today, Pittsburgh is his home. When asked about memories of places, he mentions several buildings and houses, but returns to what he finds most essential. “What’s most important about places is people. That’s what nourishes you.” And so, Pennsylvania Heritage talks with the individual responsible for nourishing millions of children – and, in many cases, their families – throughout the world during the last three decades.

What are your childhood memories of Latrobe and your earliest days in chil­dren’s television?

In 1940, I remember the census [for Latrobe] was 11,111 – but it’s a lot more now. It’s not a huge town. The banana split started in Latrobe. And, of course, Arnie Palmer. His dad taught both of us to play golf and I always say “one of us did a lot more with it than the other.”

I went to the public schools, all the way through high school. And I have such fond memories of so many of my teachers as well as friends. The only time I went away from Pennsylvania, really, was to go to college. I went to Dartmouth College for a couple of years and then to Rollins College in Florida, where I gradu­ated with a degree in music composition. I worked in New York at NBC at the beginning of television. And when I heard that what was called “educational television” was starting in Pittsburgh, I applied and was hired before this station [WQED] was ever on the air. I came here in 1953, and we went on the air April Fools’ Day of 1954. I helped develop and produce a children’s program called The Children’s Corner with Josie Carey, and I did all of the puppets and the music behind the set. We did that for eight years.

During the time l was doing that pro­gram I went to the seminary on my lunch hour. I would rush over to the north side of Pittsburgh to the Western [now Pittsburgh] Theological Seminary and take classes and then come back and we’d do The Children’s Corner live every after­noon. When I graduated from the semi­nary I thought I was going to do a program for the Presbyterian Church, but the day before graduation, I got a call saying that they didn’t have enough money to mount a children’s television program. The day after graduation, I got a call from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC] in Toronto saying “Would you come up here and do a program for us?” I said yes. It was up there that they said to me, “We’ve seen you talk with kids. We want you to be on camera.” Those early years, those eight years with The Children’s Corner, I wasn’t seen at all. So it was at the CBC that I first looked at the camera and said, “Would you like to meet a tiger who lives there in the clock? And see an Eiffel Tower and hear a Frenchman talk?” The man [Fred Rainsberry] who put me in front of the camera died just a few months ago, and so I was up there for the weekend and was able to spend some time with his widow. But aside from Dartmouth, Rollins, New York, and Toronto, I’ve always lived in Pennsylvania. Many, many years. This is where the Neighborhood’s really been.

I can walk through Latrobe this day, and point out many houses and who the people were who lived there …. You know the Neighborhood model at the beginning of our program when the cam­era goes around to the little houses? Latrobe looked like that. I remember the Second Ward School, where I went for eight years, and the Latrobe High School, where I went for four years. I can think of buckeye trees and things like that, but what’s most important about places is people. That’s what nourishes you. I had mother and dad and grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. McFeely. That’s how we named our Speedy Delivery man Mr. McFeely. And Grandmother and Grandfather Rogers lived until I was about six or seven years old. Then my dad had two sisters and a brother, and they all lived in Latrobe. So the whole family was there.

Do you think the diminished sense of place – of strong community and neigh­borhood – affects the way today’s chil­dren experience your program?

Yes, I think that it’s important for that [community and neighborhood] to be reflected somewhere in their lives. Even if it’s only on television. I think that the children need to feel confi­dent that they’ve got some continuity. You know, we have people writing to us saying, “We had to move from one city to another, and you have no idea how our children lit up when they saw that you were in the new place too.” I thought that was wonderful. [Our program] was one sta­ple that the children had. Even if they went from Pennsylvania clear to Califor­nia, they were able to turn on the television and find that the Neighborhood was there, too. Our Neighborhood was right there.

How does sense of place­ – your hometown experience­ – influence your television pro­gramming?

I think it has to. I think any­thing that – unless it’s a completely scripted thing, which my parts on the Neighborhood aren’t – [are influenced by sense of place.] And, as I sit down and write the Neighborhood, I bring all of my story with me. But isn’t that so? You bring your childhood to your work. All the association. In fact, I think that’s a very important thing to remember about tele­vision. Each person brings his or her own story to what they happen to be watching at the moment. And children will bring concerns that adults have worked through, hopefully. I remember one time seeing a cartoon in which a diver goes down to the bottom of a lake and pulls a plug and the water of the lake goes down this supposed drain. Well, it also pulls down a boat with somebody in it, and it starts to suck down the walls of the lake as well. I thought to myself, “That had to have been created by somebody who had­n’t worked out this fear of going down the bathtub drain.” There are a lot of people in the media – I don’t think they’re mali­cious – who are just spewing out unre­solved childhood fantasies on the audi­ences of today … their unresolved child­hood fantasies. You see it on the screen.

So, the place – and how you grew up in the place – that’s all what you [use]. I had a wonderful relationship with my Grand­father McFeely. Well look, I created a char­acter called Mr. McFeely on the program.

In 1994, you received the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania’s pres­tigious History Maker Award. How do you see yourself as “History Maker”?

Oh my. Just being here and doing my job.

Millions of people go to work and do their job. There must have been some­thing to distinguish your work.

Well, maybe because I was here at the beginning. I really was here before this station even went on the air. And, if you work at something long enough and you do a decent job, I think you’re making history. We have worked at children’s programming for a long time. Since the end of 1953 until right now, I’ve been involved with children’s programming. That’s a long time. And the focus has been children. We’ve used the medium of television, and I’ve used my interest in drama and music. My first degree was in music composition, and I write all the music for the Neighborhood. I was able to take those two interests, my interest in theology, my interest in children, and [my] wide interest in the kinds of things that people love to do and find a focus to that in serving children. I don’t know whether I would have ever been able to use everything that had been given to me in this life if I hadn’t come upon this realization that it can all be used in the service of children and their families.

How did you come to that realization?

When I was at the seminary I took a course in counseling, and the professor said we were to work with one person at least once a week for the whole semester. I asked if I could work with a child instead of an adult, and he said, “So long as you have your supervision with Dr. Margaret McFarland.” Well, Margaret sat in that chair [gestures to a large chair by the door], I sat here [sofa] for at least three times a month for all those years until she died.

Dr. McFarland said she believed you were so successful because you were able to keep in touch with the child inside you.

I think that’s essential. Some people have very fancy machinery for their work. People like you and me have our­selves. That is our tool. You bring yourself to your work. I bring myself to the children. I think the greatest gift that you can give anybody is the gift of your hon­est self. That’s what I try to do with the Neighborhood. I find as many people as I can who have something that they love to do and have them love it in front of children. There’s an old Quaker saying that attitudes are caught, not taught. And I believe that. I know a little boy in Chicago. He was four when he saw Yo Yo Ma first on our program, and he ran to his parents and said, “I want to play one of those.” Well, they thought that it was a passing whim. He was insistent, so they got him a quarter-sized cello – ­rented it – and some lessons. He’s now twelve. He’s still taking lessons and so is his mother because she used to have to practice with him and she got interested in it. But Yo Yo loves what he does. I remember when I worked at the center where Margaret was the director, Margaret said to me, “You know, all you have to do is have somebody love some­thing in front of children and they’ll get the idea that that might be something they might like to do.”

Children need to see enthusiasm?


Do you have any favorite children’s books?

When I was a kid I always loved The Secret Garden. There is another book that some people think is for children. Of course it really isn’t. It’s called The Little Prince by [Antoine de] Saint-Exupéry, and I’ve always liked that book.

Why is The Little Prince so special to you?

There’s part of it, right there. [He points to a long, narrow pillow bearing a quotation from The Little Prince] “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” I find that very important. The older I get and the more people I meet, the more I real­ize that it’s the spirit, it’s what’s inside of us that counts. It’s not the shell that real­ly makes the difference. I’d love to be able to communicate that better and bet­ter to children. I try to and have all these years … saying, “It’s you I like. It’s not the things you wear. It’s not the way you do your hair, but it’s you I like. The way you are right now. The way down deep inside you. Not the things that hide you. Not your toys – they’re just beside you. But it’s you I like. Every part of you. Your skin, your eyes, your feelings, whether old or new. [Starts to sing] I hope that you’ll remember even when
you’re feeling blue, that it’s you I like. It’s you yourself. It’s you.”

You believe television is a personal medium. Why?

Early on, Leland Hazard, one of the people who started this station, said, “You put a television screen in a schoolroom and everybody in that room thinks that that one person on the screen is looking at him or her. It’s not the same way with a live person.” I thought a lot about that. I think that’s fascinating. You look at the television; I look at the television; and we’re at a different angle. Yet, if some­body’s looking right at the camera, it looks as if he or she is looking at you. It is very curious. It’s a very personal medium. I think it’s a lot more personal than radio, even though I like radio a lot better.

Why radio?

I like radio better than television because most of television doesn’t allow you to use your imagination. It’s already packaged for you. But really good radio can let you use your imagination.

I’m getting to like quiet the best of all. More and more, I find that the quiet is becoming a luxury for many people, and I find that really sad. Most people use things like the media to fend [off the] quiet. We need to be quiet with our­selves. I go to a gas station that has a radio station playing right beside the pumps in speakers. But doesn’t that say something about us? That, as a society, we can’t stand silence.

Do you hear from your viewers often?

Yes. I had a card this morning. It’s a post card, and it looked like it was from an elderly man. It just said, “How People Make Flashlights.” I thought, “That’s a really good idea.” We do a lot of factory films, as we call them – how people make different things – for the Neighborhood. We answer every letter that comes here. That’s why we some­times get behind. We want to be as per­sonal in our communications as we pos­sibly can be. I could not answer the kinds of letters that we get with some for letter – “Thank you for your letter. I wish you well. Good-bye.” – because some people just pour out their hearts to us through the mail. For some reason they trust us.

I had a letter this morning from a man who said that he was from a very abusive home, and he told me what the Neighborhood had meant to him. That he would go in a room all by himself and he remembers every time hearing us say, “People can like you exactly as you are.” And now he’s watching that program with his son. I was very touched by that letter. We have wonderful letters. Do you know about our new book [Dear Mister Rogers, Does It Ever Rain in Your Neighborhood?]? It’s letters from the chil­dren and some of our replies.

What changes have you seen take place during your long career in television?

I think that the advent of Laugh-in did the country a real disservice. The televi­sion could have been one of the greatest teaching tools that ever landed in any nation. But it’s been used as a selling tool … the fast pace through sophisticat­ed editing. In fact, I had a vision of ask­ing every producer if each year they would make every scene that they do just five seconds longer, and do that every year. Maybe we’d get back to some sanity as far as flow. But the quick pace is everywhere. You hear me talk about quiet. It’s reflected in everything that I try to do.

Does children’s television have more “quiet”?

I hope so. We need to respect the child. When we talk about children’s television, anybody who is a producer or a purveyor of children’s television needs to say those two words [“children’s” and “television”], and remember which word comes first. We need to do our level best in understanding children. We can be artists in television, but we need first to be understanding of children and what they bring to the television set. What kinds of concerns they bring … There are general concerns, general growth tasks that everybody has to go through.

Is there anything that you haven’t done that you’d like to do?

Oh my. I always thought it would be fun to write a Broadway musical because I love to write music. Last year I took a refresher course in New Testament Greek, and that was very helpful. I had forgotten so much Greek from the semi­nary. If I had the time I think I’d like to have a refresher course in Hebrew.

For what would you most like to be remembered?

Do you know what would be a perfect quote? I’d want to be remembered as a Pennsylvanian. [Laughter]

But is it true?

I’d really like to think that in some way I’ve nourished children and that I’ve helped in their becomings.


For Further Reading

Burnett, Frances H. The Secret Garden. New York: Harper Collins, 1985.

Collins, Mark, and Margaret Mary Kimmel. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: Children, Television, and Fred Rogers. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996.

DiFranco, JoAnn, and Anthony DiFranco. Mister Rogers: Good Neighbor to America’s Children. Minneapolis: Dillon Press, 1983.

Rogers, Fred. Dear Mister Rogers: Does It Ever Rain in Your Neighborhood? New York: Penguin, 1996.

____. You Are Special: Words of Wisdom from America’s Most Beloved Neighbor. New York: Viking, 1994.

Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de. The Little Prince. San Diego: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1983.


The editor gratefully acknowledges Pennsylvania’s First Lady Michele M. Ridge for arranging this interview with Fred McFeely Rogers.


The author and editor wish to thank David Newell, director of public relations for Family Communications, Inc., Pittsburgh, producer of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, for his assistance in scheduling this interview.


Carrie L. Curtis, a devoted “neighbor” of Mister Rogers through childhood, resides in Lemoyne, Cumberland County. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in American studies from Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts. An editorial assistant for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, she has served on the staff of Pennsylvania Heritage since 1994.