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

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.

11. This story wrecks me:

Once upon a time, Mister Rogers went to New York City and got caught in the rain. He didn’t have an umbrella, and he couldn’t find a taxi, either, so he ducked with a friend into the subway and got on one of the trains. It was late in the day, and the train was crowded with children who were going home from school. Though of all races, the schoolchildren were mostly black and Latino, and they didn’t even approach Mister Rogers and ask him for his autograph. They just sang. They sang, all at once, all together, the song he sings at the start of his program, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and turned the clattering train into a single soft, runaway choir.

Wow. That account comes from this piece, which is where much of the knowledge of Mr. Rogers on the Internet derives. It’s a powerful piece.

12. Mr. Rogers always tried to mention out loud when he was feeding his fish because a blind girl once wrote to him, worried about the fish, and asked if he would talk about it out loud because she couldn’t otherwise tell the fish were being fed.

13. Here is an amazing letter Mr. Rogers wrote to a 6 year old.

14. The reason the trolley’s controls were visible to the children was because Mr. Rogers wanted the children to understand that they were controlled by people. He thought it was important that children be able to separate what was real and what was make believe. He wanted to demystify television. In fact, he once invited Carol Spinney — the voice of Sesame Street’s Big Bird — onto the show to discuss the inner workings of the puppeteer. Spinney declined, however, because he didn’t want to ruin the illusion that Big Bird was real.

15. In 1997, after Tim Robbins presented Mr. Rogers with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Daytime Emmys, Mr. Rogers — as he always did in speeches to politicians, presidents, dignitaries, and celebrities — asked the audience to take 10 seconds of silence to “to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Those who have cared about you, and wanted what was best for you in life.”

Don’t watch the video unless you want to be seen sniffling in your cubicles.

16. Mr. Rogers was instrumental in saving the VCR and, thus, paving the way for DVRs. He went against most of the rest of the television industry in testimony for the Supreme Court in noting that he thought it would be beneficial for children to be able to record his program and time shift viewing. The Supreme Court, quoting Mr. Rogers’ testimony in a footnote in their decision, was swayed, ruling that the VCR did not infringe on the network’s copyright.

17. Mr. Rogers had an adopted sister, as well. Her name was Elaine (Lady Elaine, the mischief maker in Make Believe Land was named after her). Hearing Mr. Rogers talk about his sister is adorable. “I am so grateful to my family for having adopted her,” he says. “Because mother and dad and all our grandparents are in heaven now. And, she has … first of all, she’s a very fine water color artist. And she’s a wonderful mother … what a delight it is to be associated with her family.” (8:30 in the video below)

18. Mr. Rogers once received an email from a woman who had a 16-month old baby. The baby was in the backseat of the woman’s car. The woman was in such a terrible state of depression that she had completely forgotten that her baby was in the car. At some point while she was driving, the woman decided she wanted to “end it all.” An 18-wheeler came up alongside her, and just as this desperate woman was about to veer into the truck and take her own life, “All of a sudden, I heard this little voice singing ‘It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood'” from the backseat and she quickly corrected the path of her car and she thought, “of life and love, and I got some help, psychologically, and now it’s 14 years later, and I just need to thank you for saving my life,” she wrote to Mr. Rogers.

19. Most of you are probably familiar with “It’s such a good feeling,” the song that Mr. Rogers ended each show with. Before 1972, however, he ended each show with “Tomorrow.”

20. This is very relevant to the tragedy that struck Boston yesterday. In an interview (at 7:20 below). Mr. Rogers noted that, during tragedy, he thought it was important that the media specifically focus on rescue teams, medical people, or anyone else coming in to assist in a tragedy. “Because,” he said. “If you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”