Early Years in Television
In college, Fred concentrated on music. His wife, Joanne, who attended Rollins College with him, remembers his exceptional talent:
He sat right down and started playing some pop stuff. And we were so impressed, because none of us could do that … we couldn’t just sit down and play jazz. And he could. He could do it all. So we were very impressed, and … he was fun.
During college, Rogers thought he was headed to the Presbyterian seminary and a life of service in the church. But Fred’s interests were so eclectic, and his excitement about—and his engagement with—life so great, that he was drawn away from the ministry for a while. He still loved music and was interested in that work. But he became captivated with television when, home on vacation from Rollins, he saw television programming for children that appalled him with its simple-minded approach. Fred immediately saw the great potential of this new technology for education and for helping children—this at a time when almost everyone else just saw TV as a gimmicky source of big profits.
When Fred graduated from college in 1951, he managed to parlay his degree in music into a job in television in New York, where he soon gained strong experience and began to build a reputation. Not long after, he learned that his hometown region, Pittsburgh, was about to launch the first community-owned, public television station, WQED. Fred made the unexpected decision—to the surprise of his New York friends who foresaw an important big-city career for him—to go back home and join this fledgling public television effort.
Working off-camera with Josie Carey on a program called The Children’s Corner, Fred instinctively began to develop ideas, music, puppet characters, and narratives that were powerfully and thoughtfully engaging to children. The program was originally intended as a simple introduction of a daily film for children, but it soon became much more, with “Daniel” and “King Friday,” and “X the Owl” and “Henrietta” and “Lady Elaine”—all those figures made familiar and famous later on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred was also attending Pittsburgh Theological Seminary while working full-time at WQED and traveling to New York with Josie Carey to do a weekly live show there.
Importantly, he started to study child development so that his work would always be grounded in the best practices and meet the very highest standards—standards that he fiercely protected and steadfastly championed in the world of television. Fred began working with Dr. Margaret McFarland, director of the Arsenal Family and Children’s Center in Pittsburgh. This work brought Fred into professional contact with Dr. Benjamin Spock, Professor Erik Erikson, and others who helped provide depth and rigor to his thinking about children and education. Dr. McFarland’s association with Fred in particular—as his confidante and as a consultant on his television work— continued for decades.