At the outset of each episode, he zipped on that trademark sweater, inaugurating a new day on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the Pittsburgh-based children’s TV program that would become the longest-running series in the history of public television. Through 28 sweaters and 33 years, from 1968 until 2001, the perennially genial and gentle Fred Rogers spoke the language of children—"You’ll have things you want to talk about; I will too"—and allayed their fears. Whether it was fending off anxieties about a foray to a barbershop or tackling tough subjects like divorce, Rogers helped preschoolers cope, five days a week.
Rogers, who died of cancer February 27, 2003 at age 74, created a magic potion of whimsy and reassurance, a mix of songs, conversation, storytelling and excursions to the "Neighborhood of Make-Believe," an imaginary province enlivened by puppets and a toy trolley. Rogers had a genius, too, for calling on guests—from cellist Yo-Yo Ma to super chef Julia Child and Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann—who acted as emissaries from the world beyond the flickering screen. When he stopped filming episodes in 2000—the final one aired in August of the following year—Rogers left a legacy of groundbreaking, heartwarming television. (The show’s 900 episodes continue to air as reruns.)
Rogers’ unvarying routine—changing from work attire to a grown-up version of play clothes (a cardigan and blue canvas sneakers) at the beginning of each episode—eased viewers into his imaginary neighborhood. "Mister Rogers’ style of comfort and warmth, of one-on-one conversation, is conveyed in that sweater," says Dwight Bowers, cultural historian at the Smithsonian Museum of American History and chief custodian of the signature cardigan Rogers donated to the museum in 1984. "Can values be taught via mass culture? I think Mister Rogers is proof that they can."
Educational psychologist Jane M. Healy, author of the best-selling Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don’t Think and What We Can Do About It, has been a harsh critic of children’s programming—Mister Rogers excepted. Typically, she says, the frenetic pacing, adult irony and consumerist agenda is, at the very least, inappropriate. "Many cartoons and so-called children’s programs, and also software, actually manipulate children’s brains by a reliance on rapid-fire images, loud noises and neon colors." In contrast, she says, "Fred Rogers spoke gently. If you want to help kids work through emotional issues, it’s a slow process. He moved right into children’s hearts and lives."
In one remarkable instance, Rogers demonstrated that his capacity to connect to an audience superseded even the barrier between species. In 1998, when he was taping a segment on sign language, he traveled to the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California. There he filmed a sequence in the company of Koko, the gorilla famous for her acquisition of sign language, and her primate companion, Michael. (Both were viewers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.) Koko recognized her visitor immediately and signed "Koko love." "It was quite amazing," recalls developmental psychologist Francine Penny Patterson, who is now president of the Gorilla Foundation. "Koko was the most open I’ve ever seen her with a visitor." Although Michael was acutely uncomfortable around strangers, especially males, he calmly gazed at Rogers and signed "Head boy."
Another fan—this one a Homo sapiens—recalls Rogers with no less respect and affection. During the 1970s, Pittsburgh-native Michael Keaton, then in his early 20s, worked as a stagehand at local station WQED—home to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. "I was just this goofball kid," Keaton recalls, "willing to do anything if it was remotely related to being an actor." Fred Rogers, says Keaton, was "surprisingly, a very hip little man in a cardigan. Not afraid to use his power—but always in a democratic way."
On one occasion, Rogers’ wife, Joanne, was asked what he was really like at home. "What you see is what you get," she replied. Rogers himself once said, "I am not a character on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I don’t think of time away from the studio as my 'real' life. The studio is my real life; the person on camera is the real me."
Somehow children knew that: perhaps it was the inner consistency they responded to. In Rogers’ uniquely soulful universe, they understood they had found a happy, comforting refuge.