The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, Maxwell King. New York: Abrams Press, 2018.
Summary: The biography of this pioneer in children’s television, the good neighbor in life as well as on screen.
I grew up before Mr. Rogers. My son grew up with him, and I remember coming in when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was on and I could feel the tensions of the day drain away, and my racing thoughts slow down as I listened to him talk calmly and slowly, feeding his fish, and telling me that “I like you just the way you are.” The only thing I found myself wondering sometimes was “is this guy for real.”
Maxwell King, who knew Rogers for many years through his leadership in several philanthropic organizations in Pittsburgh, makes the point that the Rogers we saw on screen was the Rogers everyone who worked with him or met him encountered. In this first full-length biography on Roger’s life, King traces the course of his life from his privileged childhood in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to the generous way he ended his life, dying of stomach cancer.
We meet a boy who was overly protected by loving parents until grandparents helped him to begin to spread his wings. His love of music is encouraged, and when he is allowed to choose a piano, he selects a Steinway concert grand that his grandmother purchases, and that followed him through life. The gift of a puppet leads to setting up a puppet theater in the attic of his home. He doesn’t fit in with the athletic culture of his school, but his kindness to the star athlete, who he helps with studies while the athlete was hospitalized, won the attention of his classmates. The morally serious student just doesn’t fit in at Dartmouth, and transfers to the music school at Rollins in Florida. He meets Joanne, the love of his life.
While Joanne completes her studies, Rogers goes to New York, getting a job as an apprentice on NBC, eventually becoming a floor manager under Pat Weaver, working with some of the landmark productions of the early era of television, including the live broadcast of Amahl and the Night Visitors. Along the way, Fred and Joanne marry and buy “The Crooked House” on Nantucket.
What looked like an east coast life was interrupted by an invitation to return to Pittsburgh to work with an educational television station being launched, WQED, to work on a children’s television program. Teaming up with vivacious Josie Carey, The Children’s Corner launches in 1954. King describes the growing distance between spontaneous Carey, the entertainer, and Rogers, already thinking about the development of children and the care needed with every word. They part, the show ends, and Rogers life takes another startling turn.
Fred Rogers enrolls as a student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and as a candidate for Presbyterian ministry. His vision just didn’t fit the mold. He wanted to be a minister to children, on television. Dr. Bill Orr, who claimed that his most important theological word was forgiveness, was Roger’s most significant mentor. It was at this time that he also met child development psychologist, Margaret McFarland, a consultant to Rogers who shaped much of the philosophy of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
After working for a time with the CBC in Toronto, creating Misterogers, where The Neighbor of Make Believe was created, he returned to Pittsburgh in 1968, to launch a half hour version that got Rogers in front of the camera for the first time, and not simply doing puppet segments. The remainder of the book traces the show’s development, it’s path-breaking work dealing with issues like divorce. There is the memorable episode on racial differences with Francois Clemons, where the two of them, a black man and a white man, cool their feet on a hot summer afternoon, with Rogers drying Clemons feet at the end. Clemons was not only black but also gay, and the two of them reprised this episode in 1993. Clemons describes Rogers standard closing: “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are.” As he says this he looks at Francois Clemons, who asks, “Fred were you talking to me?” Rogers replied, “Yes, I have been talking to you for years. But you heard me today.”
There were moments like this throughout the book that caught me up, encountering the power of Rogers’ kindness and care for those he encountered. While he did not talk about his faith on the show, his daily practices of reading scripture and other religious books and praying were a wellspring of his life–along with his daily swims. These reflected the disciplined life he led, maintaining his weight at 143 pounds. King helps us see the perfectionist side of Rogers, who was always so concerned to get it just right for the children. It seems he was blessed with people who accepted that and rose to it, talented musicians, singers like Clemons, and so many more.
Yet we also see how the show centered around Rogers, who wrote nearly all the scripts and all the songs, as well as composing thirteen operas for children. King contrasts the approach of Rogers measured speech with the pace and cognitive focus of Sesame Street, begun about the same time. Rogers clearly differed, but never criticized them publicly.
This is not all hagiography. Rogers struggled with his own sons, particular the younger John, who rebelled, and estranged himself for a time from the family. As the show took off, Rogers found it difficult to be always present with them. Yet both sons also spoke of the fun they had as a family, of a father who was just a normal guy, who perhaps could have been tougher on them. Jim, the elder son concludes, “I think all Dad really ever wanted for John or me was to be happy and pleased with who we are.”
One of the gifts of this book is that King interviewed most of the people still living, who interacted with Rogers. Perhaps one of the most striking was Tom Junod’s account of meeting Rogers. Junod, a hard-hitting writer for Esquire wanted to write a piece on Rogers and contacted him. It turns out, Rogers was in Manhattan, and without vetting, invites Junod to his apartment, meeting him in a flimsy old bathrobe. Rogers was wealthy, through his family, but utterly unpretentious.
Most of all we see how children loved him. He totally sidetracked an Oprah show talking to children. A letter from one wheelchair-bound Wisconsin boy from Madison, Jeff Erlanger, whose “make a wish” was to meet Rogers, led to a breakfast in Milwaukee, continuing correspondence and an eventual appearance on the show. But not only children loved him.
“One of Fred Rogers’s most loyal fans was Koko, a famously communicative gorilla who appeared on the Neighborhood in 1998. Since Koko had been a faithful viewer of Rogers’s program for years, Fred visited her at the Gorilla Foundation in Redwood City, California, in his sweater and sneakers. When she saw him, Koko immediately folded him in her long, black arms, as though he were a child, and took off his shoes. Then they conversed in American Sign Language, shared a hug, and took pictures of each other.”
King’s book, and this story in particular, suggests to me that Rogers was a modern St. Francis. He came from wealth, and yet lived simply. He pursued a calling, a ministry with a singleness of vision that seemed strange to some at times, and yet had its own peculiar power to form the character and self-worth of children. He sang and spoke through puppets, fed fish, and met us on screen in homely cardigans. To read about him is to be elevated, and to ask oneself, “am I a good neighbor?”