Early Life

Growing Up in Latrobe

Fred with childhood dogFred Rogers grew up in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a small town tucked between the western-most ridge of the Allegheny Mountains and the Pittsburgh region. It is a community heavily influenced by the Rogers family, which exemplified the strong, hard-working, and faith-driven culture of Western Pennsylvania. Fred always loved Latrobe, which became the basis for the television neighborhood he later created. His father, James Hillis Rogers, was a very successful businessman who was respected and relied upon by many of the local residents.

 

Fred’s beloved mother, Nancy McFeely Rogers, was the daughter of a similarly successful businessman. The whole family was steeped in a strong sense of service and strong ties to community, friends, and relatives. These values remained with Fred throughout his life and became a part of the motivation for his selection of Saint Vincent College in Latrobe as the base for the Fred Rogers Center.

 

For a time, Fred Rogers’ childhood was difficult. He was overweight, somewhat shy, and introverted. Although respiratory ailments were not uncommon among children in the heavy-industry environment of Western Pennsylvania, Fred was sometimes homebound because of his childhood asthma, even kept inside in air-conditioning during the worst air congestion of the summer months. He felt his childhood isolation—physical and emotional—acutely in ways that build the depth of sensitivity and empathy that characterized his life and work as an adult. Grown-ups who noticed his sensitivity as a child advised him: “Just don’t let on you care, then nobody will bother you.” But young Fred did care—enormously—and he ended up taking great solace, and guidance, from his maternal grandfather.

 

That first Mr. McFeely—the namesake for the character later made famous on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—patiently taught Fred to have a sense of self-esteem:

Freddie, you make my day very special.

Fred’s own sense of loneliness and self-doubt taught him to be aware of the insecurities and needs of small children. What he learned about himself and life as a child—much of it from his loving grandfather—prepared him to help millions of young children later. By the time Fred got to high school, he had become more confident and capable. He had developed into an accomplished student and musician, and his popularity grew. He was elected president of the student council in his senior year.