Annie Murphy Paul is a social-science journalist at work on a book about re-thinking intelligence.
In a recent interview on NPR, journalist Beth Macy was asked about the personal toll taken by her work reporting on the ravages of the opioid crisis — work that entailed spending hour upon hour with desperate addicts and grieving families. Macy replied that the words of a friend helped buoy her spirits and guide her approach to the story, which also involved interviewing “the people fighting back” against the scourge of addiction: doctors, social workers, first responders, health activists. Recalled Macy of her friend: “He quoted Mister Rogers — he said, ‘Look for the helpers.’ ”
“Look for the helpers”: a small gift, one of many, for which we can thank the children’s television personality Mister Rogers. The life of Fred Rogers — yes, he had one outside the confines of the living room where each day he changed into a cardigan and sneakers on camera — is recounted in “The Good Neighbor,” a new biography by Maxwell King. King, a former journalist who now leads the nonprofit Pittsburgh Foundation, offers the full complement of heartwarming, feel-good stories we would expect from a book about Mister Rogers. But, as King is at pains to demonstrate, Rogers wasn’t just about feeling good. He was no superficial cartoon of niceness. The man was deep — a quality that distinguished him from the characters featured in other children’s shows, from Soupy Sales and Captain Kangaroo to, later, Barney the Dinosaur and Elmo the helium-voiced Muppet. Rogers treated with sober seriousness notions that the rest of us regard as platitudes — “Love thy neighbor” — and devotedly lived them out. He made niceness radical.
King is a skilled storyteller who captures the essence of not only Rogers the person but also the very particular American scene that produced him. The future television icon was born in 1928 in Latrobe, Pa., an industrial city 40 miles outside Pittsburgh. Viewers who regard him as the epitome of middle-class bourgeois habits may be surprised to learn that Rogers grew up very, very rich, in a mansion with a cook and a chauffeur. His mother, known around town for her extraordinary kindness and generosity, was a model for Fred and the source of the advice Macy found so inspiring: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” Rogers once related on his show, “my mother would say to me: ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”
Rogers himself was a “sickly, chubby boy” whose classmates called him “Fat Freddy” and chased him home from school. Despite such treatment, he formed a loving attachment to his home town, which he would later re-create on his show as “The Neighborhood of Make-Believe,” complete with trolleys and factories. Many of the factories in real-life Latrobe were owned by Rogers’s family, but unlike the super-rich of today, the Rogerses lived and worked and socialized among their less-affluent neighbors instead of other people of wealth. Reading King’s account of this close-knit and community-minded city, one gains new insight into the affection and nostalgia so many feel for “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”: Its host was dramatizing a world that was already, at that moment, slipping away.
“The Good Neighbor” guides us smoothly from Rogers’s childhood though his early adulthood and the start of his professional career. After studying music composition at Rollins College in Florida (where he met his future wife, a pianist named Joanne Byrd), he was hired by NBC Television in New York, working as an assistant producer and floor director for shows like “The Kate Smith Evening Hour” and the “NBC Opera Theatre.” In 1953, Rogers moved back to Pennsylvania to work at WQED Pittsburgh, the nation’s first community-sponsored educational television station. There he produced a program called “The Children’s Corner,” in which he introduced many of the characters that would later become familiar to generations of young viewers: Daniel Striped Tiger, X the Owl, King Friday XIII, Henrietta Pussycat, Lady Elaine Fairchilde. That show led to the creation of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” featuring Rogers himself as host, which was distributed nationally starting in 1968.
Rogers’s show was earnest, quirky, amateurish in the best sense of the word; it was also groundbreaking. Into the lily-white world of midcentury children’s programming, Rogers invited actors of diverse backgrounds like Francois Clemmons, an African American singer and actor who played a police officer; Maggie Stewart, the African American “mayor” of Westwood, adjoining the Neighborhood of Make-Believe; and Tony Chiroldes, the owner of a shop that sold toys, books and computers in the Neighborhood, and who sometimes taught Mister Rogers words in Spanish. In the 1970s, Rogers became a vegetarian, offering as his reason another understated gem: “I don’t want to eat anything that has a mother,” he said. As King notes, “In many ways, he was ahead of his time.”
And yet, as we’ve noted, Rogers was also a creature of an earlier era. Even as the world around him ratcheted up its speed, Rogers maintained his slow, steady tempo. King tells us that his friends and co-workers called it “Fred-time”: “Whenever one sat down to talk with him, urgency seemed to dissipate, discussion proceeded at a measured, almost otherworldly pace, and the deepest feelings and thoughts were given patient attention.”
Rogers was also deeply religious, committed to his mother’s Presbyterian faith. For eight years, he slipped away from his duties at the television station three or four times a week to attend classes at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary; he was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1963. Many who knew Rogers seem to have regarded him as almost saintly. King quotes William Hirsch, a friend of Rogers’s from his church: “So what would Christ be like? He would be like Fred. He would encourage you to do things that were right and would help other people.”
King seems to recognize the dangers of regarding Rogers as too good — so impossibly virtuous as to seem not quite mortal — and does his best to excavate Rogers’s dark side. He could be stubborn and rigid, the biographer reveals; to hear former producer Margy Whitmer tell it, Mister Rogers was a bit of a control freak. “Our show wasn’t a director’s dream,” Whitmer confesses to King. “Fred had a lot of rules about showing the whole body, not just the hands. When actors or puppets were reading something, Fred wanted the kids to see the words, even if viewers couldn’t literally read them. The camera moves left to right, because you read left to right. All those little tiny details were really important to Fred.”
It does no damage to Rogers’s reputation to gain this humanizing perspective. One of the most affecting stories in the book, in fact, highlights both his rigidity and his goodness. Before appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show in 1985, Rogers issued strict instructions: No children were to be present during the taping. King explains: “He knew that if there were children in the studio audience, he wouldn’t focus on Winfrey’s questions, he wouldn’t pay heed to her legion of viewers, and he wouldn’t convey the great importance of his work. The children and their needs would come first. He couldn’t help it.” Winfrey and her producers ignored his request and filled her studio with young children and their mothers.
King describes what happened next: “As soon as the children started to ask him questions directly, he seemed to get lost in their world, slowing his responses to their pace, and even hunching in his chair as if to insinuate himself down to their level. This wasn’t good television — at least, good adult television. Everything was going into a kind of slow motion as Fred Rogers became Mister Rogers, connecting powerfully with the smallest children present. He seemed to forget the camera as he focused on them one by one.” Winfrey, King relates, began to look worried. “Then it got worse. In the audience, Winfrey leaned down with her microphone to ask a little blond girl if she had a question for Mister Rogers. Instead of answering, the child broke away from her mother, pushed past Winfrey, and ran down to the stage to hug him. As the only adult present not stunned by this, apparently, Fred Rogers knelt to accept her embrace.”
In today’s ugly climate, full of bitterness and rage on all sides, Rogers’s example feels more necessary than ever. Indeed, 15 years after his death, we’re still passing on his words to each other like something warm to hold. When we look for the helpers, he’s there.
By Maxwell King
Abrams. 405 pp. $30