Anyone who grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – that is, almost everyone under the age of 50 or so – probably feels like they know Fred Rogers. As the gentle, friendly host of one of television’s longest-running children’s programs, Rogers taught, sang to, and counseled generations of kids. His frequent, reassuring presence in their lives elevated him to the status of a beloved uncle or grandfather. Many of those viewers already know that Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, or that he wrote all the songs he sang on his TV show.
But even those who gazed lovingly at their TV screen whenever Rogers was on it may not know everything about the PBS icon. In honor of what would have been Fred Rogers’ 83rd birthday – and to mark 8 years since his 2003 death – we bring you eight facts about Mister Rogers.
1. He got into television because he was appalled by the first TV program he ever saw. When his parents first got a TV and Rogers sat in front of it for the first time, he was treated to the then-popular shtick of people throwing pies at each other. Unimpressed, he decided he wanted to transform television from mindless entertainment into a nurturing and educational tool.
2. Many of his famous sweaters were knitted by his mother, Nancy. Over the course of his television career, he wore dozens of sweaters, and until her death, his mother knitted all of them. She gave sweaters as yearly Christmas gifts, and she knew he loved the zip-up cardigan style: “She would say, ‘What kind do you all want next year?’” Rogers once reflected. “She said, ‘I know what kind you want, Freddy. You want the one with the zipper up the front.’” Today, one of Nancy’s handcrafted sweaters is displayed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (along with Seinfeld’s puffy shirt and the Lone Ranger’s mask).
3. Contrary to popular rumor, Fred Rogers was not a Navy Seal, and his arms weren’t covered with tattoos commemorating his kills. Urban legend has Mister Rogers and Captain Kangaroo fighting in Vietnam or World War II – often alongside Lee Marvin, who really did serve. But no matter how adamant believers may be, it’s just not true, as confirmed by urban legend debunkers Snopes.com. Rogers never served in the military, and his bare arms have been shown on TV at least once, revealing no tattoos.
4. Mister Rogers was – maybe predictably – notable for his clean living. He neither drank nor smoked, he kept a vegetarian diet, and he swam every morning.
5. He had an adopted brother, George, a black teenager who came to live with the Rogers family as a teen when his mother died. George and Fred became close, and when George became an instructor for the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, he taught Fred how to fly. The Rogers family also adopted a girl, Elaine, who lent her name to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood puppet Lady Elaine Fairchild.
6. Rogers was an early advocate for the VCR. When VCRs became easily obtainable for households in the 1970s, film companies were concerned about legality. Allowing people to record and replay content for free, any time, would violate copyright law, they said – and destroy their profits. Fred Rogers testified before the Supreme Court, stating that as a television personality, he didn’t object to people recording his show for later viewing. In fact, he argued, it would be beneficial to his show and its viewers if they could watch at a convenient time for the whole family. Rogers’ testimony helped convince the Supreme Court that the VCR should not be outlawed… and the film companies eventually discovered that home video sales actually helped their bottom lines.
7. Lest anyone think that Fred Rogers was a humorless do-gooder, his sense of humor extended to an appreciation of parody – even parodies of his own work. The most notable of these was Eddie Murphy’s “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood.” Popular on Saturday Night Live in the 1980s, Murphy’s Mister Robinson taught children about considerably different subjects than Mister Rogers – eviction, racism, theft. Rather than being offended, Rogers enjoyed the sketch and found it funny and affectionate. In fact, when he once visited the NBC studios, he made a point of stopping by Murphy’s dressing room to give the sketch his blessing.
8. Fred Rogers was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S., by President George W. Bush in 2002. In awarding him the honor for his lifetime of work, Bush noted, "Fred Rogers has proven that television can soothe the soul and nurture the spirit and teach the very young."