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A Comforting Face In Difficult Times: 20 Things You Might Not Know About Mr. Rogers

By / 04.16.13

In a 1998 interview with Esquire, Mr.Rogers has talked about a prayer circle shooting that had taken place in Kentucky. The kid who had pulled the trigger had boasted beforehand about planning “something really big.”

“Oh, wouldn’t the world be a different place,” Mr. Rogers stated, “if he had said, ‘I’m going to do something really little tomorrow’?

That’s probably how many people feel about the person or people responsible for the tragedy that took place in Boston yesterday that ended the lives of three people, including an eight year-old boy, and injured over 100 more. If only that person had vowed to do something really small, the city of Boston would’ve been spared a great deal of terror.

But Mr. Rogers would also instill a message of caring and safety, as he did after the Columbine High School massacre. “Those children need to know that the adults in their lives will do everything they can do to keep them safe. It doesn’t mean we’re always going to be successful, but it does mean we’re going to try.”

In times of tragedy, we often seek comfort, and there’s nothing more comforting in the world than the late Mr. Rogers. As authorities continue to investigate, and as we seek to find answers of our own, I thought it’d be useful to look back at the life, the stories, and the messages of Mr. Rogers for a few minutes. Obviously, if you’re a huge follower of Mr. Rogers, many of these things will not come as a surprise. This is not the first post on the Internet to mine Fred Rogers biography. But unless you watched his four-hour Emmy TV Legends interview, there’s probably something in here you don’t know about Mr. Rogers.

Either way, Mr. Rogers — who we’ve already established our deep appreciation for around here — and his good deeds will provide some comfort this morning. If you want to skip ahead to feel-good entries, please do read 11, 12, 18, and 20.

1. Every sweater worn by Mr. Rogers in “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” was hand-knitted by his mother, and Mr. Rogers wore them to honor her.

2. In his 1969 testimony in front of the Senate to support public funding of PBS, Fred Rogers noted that the budget for “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” was $6,000 per episode, or — at the time — what would pay for two minutes of cartoons. His testimony is mindblowing. He schooled Congress in kindness. After he gave it, Congress raised funding for PBS from $9 million to $21 million.

Watch 1969 Senate Hearings on PBS. See more from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

3. Fred Rogers did all the puppets, wrote all the music, and wrote all the scripts for Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.. He wrote over 200 songs for the program.

4. This account about Mr. Roger’s ability to have Burger King pull a commercial parodying Mr. Rogers is amazing, for Mr. Rogers’ ability to kindly coerce a massive corporation to bend to his will.

In the spring of 1984, a commercial campaign was launched by fast-food chain Burger King which featured a very familiar character. Dressed in a sweater and sneakers, soft-spoken “Mister Rodney” displayed a flashcard to viewers showing the word “McFrying.” Going on to explain that this is what McDonalds does to their burgers, Mister Rodney was clearly more in favor of Burger King’s flame-broiled option.

Taking issue with the parody, Fred Rogers contacted the Senior Vice President of Burger King, Don Dempsey, who agreed to pull the advertisement. “To have someone who looks like me doing a commercial is very confusing for children.” Fred Rogers said at the time.

Mr. Dempsey pulled the commercial without question: “Mister Rogers is one guy you don’t want to mess with, as beloved as he is.”

5. Fred Rogers middle name was McFeely, which was his grandfather’s name: Fred Brooks McFeely. The name of the postman on his show, played by David Newell, was Mr. McFeely. (Newell, at 75 years old, apparently continues to tour the country as Mr. McFeely, espousing the messages of Mr. Rogers). Twelve days after he passed away, his son John gave birth to Mr. Rogers’ grandson, Ian McFeely Rogers.

6. Fred Rogers married his college sweetheart, Sara Joanne Byrd, and named Queen Sara of Make-Believe Land after her.

7. In December 1998, in a rare display of anger, Mr. Rogers filed suit against a Texas store for using his likeness on T-shirts, which contained a handgun and the slogan, “Welcome to my ‘hood.” Mr. Rogers didn’t simply want the T-shirts discontinued; he wanted them destroyed.

8. During the 1980s, Michael Keaton — as in, the guy who played Beetlejuice — operated the trolly in make-believe land. (The trolley, by the way, traveled around 5,000 miles each season.) In 2004, Keaton would host a PBS memorial to Mr. Rogers.

9. Mr. Rogers went swimming nearly every morning of his life. Naked. He was also a vegetarian, never drank, never smoked, went to bed early, woke up early, took a nap every day, and still died of stomach cancer, because fate is a son of a bitch.

10. Mr. Rogers once visited a 280 pound gorilla, Koko, who knew sign language, and who watched Mr. Rogers on television every day. When Mr. Rogers met the gorilla, who was nearly twice Rogers’ weight, Koko “immediately folded him in her long, black arms, as though he were a child, and then … ‘She took my shoes off,’” as the gorilla had seen Mr. Rogers do every day.


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