Ten years ago today, an icon of children's television died Feb. 27, 2003. Fred Rogers was a calm and reassuring friend to generations of children, and he left a legacy of quality educational television. (AP Photo / Gene J. Puskar)
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 show.
But even those who gazed lovingly at their TV screen whenever Rogers was on it may not know everything about the PBS icon. On the 10th anniversary of this gentle man's death, we bring you 10 facts about Mister Rogers.
1. He got into television because he was appalled by the first TV program he ever saw. When Rogers first watched his parents' new television set, 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.'" 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, 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 either Vietnam or World War II – often alongside Lee Marvin (who really did serve in the Marines during WWII). 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. Rogers was – maybe predictably – a believer in 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 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. 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. Rogers had a great sense of humor. Lest anyone think that 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, once when he visited the NBC studios, he made a point of stopping by Murphy's dressing room to give the sketch his blessing.
8. Mister Rogers was friends with Mr. Dressup. When Rogers moved to Toronto in 1963 to develop his own television program for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, he brought friend and understudy Ernie Coombs. After Rogers returned to the U.S., Maine-native Coombs remained in Canada, starring as Mr. Dressup from 1967 to 1996.
9. A full 8 percent of U.S. households tuned in to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood at its peak in 1985. That's roughly 7 million families.
10. Rogers was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S., in 2002. In honoring Rogers for his lifetime of work, President George W. Bush noted, "Fred Rogers has proven that television can soothe the soul and nurture the spirit and teach the very young."