Happy Birthday, Mister Rogers
Fred Rogers would be 85 today. For children everywhere, there were few other voices so reassuring, so warm, and so engaging. Fred Rogers’ approach to children sprang from empathy and experience—he had a difficult start, but a warm and loving family allowed him to grow into a confident teen and compassionate adult.
Born in spring of 1928, about a year before the country was plunged into the Great Depression, Fred suffered from colic and asthma as a young child. His parents took great pains to protect their shy and delicate boy, sometimes keeping him home during the long, hot summers, when the air pollution was at its worst, and later having him chauffeured back and forth to elementary school.
But surrounded by a warm and loving family who gave him the unconditional love he so needed, Fred would grow into a confident young man.
Fred well understood, from his own experience and from his later studies of child development, how critical the support of caring adults can be in the lives of young children, and he devoted his life as an educator and a programmer to demonstrating that and to helping parents, teachers, and children understand and benefit from it.
No one gave Fred more love and support than Nancy Rogers. She coupled this protectiveness with the engaged, thoughtful role of a parent who paid the most careful attention to her son, talked with him constantly and listened carefully to his thoughts and feelings. Nancy treated Fred as a serious, important person with very real feelings, and he knew how seriously she took him and how much care she offered. His father, a more reserved, even Victorian figure, was also gentle and loving with Fred.
But what gave an extra dimension to young Fred’s life was the love and engagement of his maternal grandparents, Fred and Nancy McFeely.
His grandfather welcomed Fred’s visits, listened carefully to his concerns, and stood up for the boy’s interests in the family. When he felt Fred’s parents were being too protective, he urged more freedom for Fred, even chiding his daughter for not allowing Fred to climb and play on the rock walls on the McFeely farm.
And he always made sure young Fred knew, directly and sincerely, how much the elder Fred enjoyed his company. “Freddie, you make my day very special,” he frequently told the young Fred, reminding the shy little boy of his importance to the adults in his life.
Both grandparents, and Fred’s parents, encouraged his early interest in music, which came into focus as he learned to play the piano at age five. When he was eight, Nancy McFeely promised Fred she would buy him a piano, thinking of something relatively small and inexpensive. When Fred rode the trolley downtown from his grandmother’s Pittsburgh apartment and picked out one of the most expensive concert grand pianos in the music store, Nancy McFeely didn’t flinch. She wrote the check and bought Fred his dream piano.
Fred kept the piano his entire life, taking it with him when he moved, and he composed much of the music that helped make him famous on that concert grand. When Fred Rogers died, his widow, Joanne Rogers, sent the piano back to the Steinway factory in New York to be rebuilt, then made a gift of it to the Fred Rogers Center, the institution that was conceived in the last few years of Fred’s life to help carry on his legacy and work.
Fred carried the gift of love from these caring adults for his whole life. As a young man, he studied child development at the University of Pittsburgh under Dr. Benjamin Spock and Dr. Margaret McFarland, both leaders in the field. He learned at an academic level that nothing makes more difference in the life of a young child than the sincere, authentic engagement of a caring adult. And he dedicated a significant part of his work to helping parents, grandparents, and teachers understand this and understand how they could be helpful to the little children in their lives.
“Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life,” Fred later wrote, “is a hero to me.”
In explaining the importance of these relationships to children, he elaborated: “Mutual caring relationships require kindness and patience, tolerance, optimism, joy in the other’s achievements, confidence in oneself, and the ability to give without undue thought of gain.”
Fred also came to value the creative play of children: “When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit. It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.”
The Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College is dedicated to carrying on the legacy, values, and educational work of Fred Rogers. Recognizing that Fred was a great pioneer in using the new technologies of his day for the education of children, the center focuses on the innovative uses of modern communications technology to advance the education of young children.
More: King talks more about Fred Rogers at the 2010 Fred Forward conference.