Magazine article Success

America's Most Beloved Neighbor: TV's Fred Rogers Provided Gentle Guidance for Three Generations of Children

Magazine article Success

America's Most Beloved Neighbor: TV's Fred Rogers Provided Gentle Guidance for Three Generations of Children

Article excerpt

The man in the cardigan sweater, a little past middle age in this particular appearance, turned to the television cameras, flashed his renowned smile and offered his trademark good-bye: "You always make it a special day for me. You know how: By just your being yourself."

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The TV host is, of course, Fred Rogers, and his viewers are any of the millions of Americans raised on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, the children's show produced between 1968 and 2000 and still airing on many of the nation's PBS affiliates. It is public broadcasting's longest-running show--some 900 episodes--and experts on education and the media say it's had a profound effect on the way parents raise their children, the way children see themselves and the way television producers came to understand the tremendous educational potential of their medium.

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Rogers isn't exactly the first person to come to mind when one considers the "legends" of the personal-development field. But if the foundation of success is built in the preschool years--as many educators would argue it is--then Rogers has had more influence on the personal growth of the nation than perhaps anyone else. With his show, he has gently guided the physical, intellectual, social, emotional and creative development of three generations.

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"I first became aware of Mister Rogers when one of my 4-year-old patients quoted him during his entire examination," the famed pediatrician and author Dr. T. Berry Brazelton once said. "By demonstrating what might happen ... and by giving suggestions about how to face up to the anxiety and pain it might bring, he had helped this boy through an ordeal and given him the chance to be proud of himself."

Early Lessons

Fred McFeely Rogers was born in 1928 in Latrobe, Pa., 40 miles east of Pittsburgh. He was shy as a child, overweight and teased, according to biographical accounts. He suffered from asthma, and when it flared, he was kept indoors.

Young Fred took solace in playing the piano and by seeking the company of his maternal grandfather and namesake Fred McFeely (for whom Mr. McFeely on his show was later named). McFeely taught him the enormous power of love and the value of individuality.

"Learning and loving go hand in hand," Rogers wrote in the 1994 book You Are Special: Words of Wisdom from America's Most Beloved Neighbor. "My grandfather was one of those people who loved to live and loved to teach. Every time I was with him, he'd show me something about the world or something about myself that I hadn't even thought of yet. He'd help me find something wonderful in the smallest of things, and ever so carefully, he helped me understand the enormous worth of every human being."

Rogers' loneliness eased as he matured into a more confident and accomplished teenager, though he would tap his childhood experiences later as he wrote scripts dealing with childhood needs, insecurities and frustrations. "We have all been children and have had children's feelings ... but many of us have forgotten. We've forgotten what it's like not to be able to reach a light switch. We've forgotten a lot of the monsters that seemed to live in our room at night. Nevertheless, those memories are still there, somewhere inside us," Rogers once said.

Finding His Purpose

Rogers attended Rollins College in Florida, where he majored in music composition and met his future wife, Joanne Byrd, a concert pianist, with whom he later would have two sons. A chance glimpse at a television one day changed his career path--and with it, the future of children's programming in the United States.

"It was during my senior year at Rollins College, in the early 1950s, that I first saw television," Rogers recalled in You Are Special. "I was appalled by what were labeled 'children's programs'--pies in the face and slapstick! …

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