Fred Rogers Biography – A Life of Service


Over 31 seasons he proved to be the reliable, compassionate and all-wise friendly neighbor who guided millions of youngsters through their childhood. Fred single handedly introduced children’s educational television, in the process elevating a medium that was heading downhill fast. His radical kindness, typified by a gentle and personal manner, helped bring sanity to a world beset by problems. Having Mr. Rogers as our neighbor made the world a safer place.


Transcript Provided by YouTube:

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Fred Rogers was a legitimate American national treasure.
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Over 31 seasons he proved to be the reliable, compassionate and all-wise friendly neighbor
00:09
who guided millions of youngsters through their childhood.
00:13
Fred single handedly introduced children’s educational television, in the process elevating
00:18
a medium that was heading downhill fast.
00:21
His radical kindness, typified by a gentle and personal manner, helped bring sanity to
00:26
a world beset by problems.
00:27
Having Mr. Rogers as our neighbor made the world a safer place.
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Early Years Frederick McFeely Rogers entered the world
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on march 28th, 1928 at his grandparents house in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
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His parents, James and Nancy, were extremely pious people, so young Fred grew up in a very
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religious household.
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James worked at the McFeely brick company, which was owned by his father.
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He was a hard working, industrious man who taught these traits to his son.
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Nancy volunteered at the local hospital as a nurses’ aid.
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She had a deep love for helping others, which also was also a huge influence on Fred.
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In later years, Fred would fondly remember how his mother required everyone in the family
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to hand knit sweaters every Christmas for the troops during the war years.
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This family ritual instilled in Fred a love for sweaters, and they became his trademark
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during his TV show, Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, in years to come.
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Every one of the hundreds of sweaters he wore on the show was hand knitted by Nancy.
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The extended Rogers family was very close, with Fred developing a special bond with his
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grandfather.
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The two spent many hours together, where the old man would encourage Fred to be himself,
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expressing all of his feeling and emotions freely.
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This had a great impact upon Fred, who fondly recalled how his grandpa had told him that
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he made his day special by simply being himself.
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Those words made Fred feel special, and he made it his mission in life to help other
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people feel the same way.
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Tough Times When he was eleven, Fred’s parents adopted
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a baby girl named Elaine.
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Fred loved being an older brother, even though Elaine proved to be quite a handful.
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Away from the love and security of his family, however, Fred struggled.
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He found it difficult to make friends, often finding himself isolated and alone.
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The other children made fun of the fact that he was overweight and that he didn’t join
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in with their rough and tumble play.
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As a result he became quiet and shy.
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His parents told him to ignore the negative feelings that were welling up inside him and
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focus on positive things.
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This only made Fred feel more hurt and confused.
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In his later years one of his key messages to parents was that children’s feelings need
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to be acknowledged rather than ignored.
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The outlet that Fred finally stumbled upon to release his pent up emotions was the piano.
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When he was just a few years old, Nancy would play the piano to soothe Fred.
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By five, he was playing it himself.
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He was a natural and, within a few years was so proficient that he would play for guests
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and family members.
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His act would also include a puppet show.
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Fred found that these outlets allowed him to express his feelings in a way that wouldn’t
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upset other people.
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When he was ten, Fred’s grandmother bought him a piano of his own – a twenty five dollar
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pump organ.
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He spent hours each day practicing, with his time at the keys being the only periods that
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he felt like he was being his true self.
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In his early teens , Fred also became obsessed with photography, developing his own prints
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in a basement darkroom.
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His favorite thing to capture on film were the expressions on other people’s faces.
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The Rogers family attended the Presbyterian Church in LaTrobe.
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From the very start, Fred was eager and engaged.
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He was entranced by every sermon, finding a personal connection to the message of Christianity
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and the personality of Jesus Christ.
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It inspired in him the deep felt desire to serve and help other people.
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An Unlikely Friendship When Fred entered high school, he was just
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as shy and uncertain around his peers than ever.
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He did, however,develop a very unlikely friendship.
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Fred could never have imagined that he would become close friends with someone like Jim
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Stambaugh.
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Stambaugh was a popular and talented athlete and football player.
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When Jim suffered a football injury, however, he was confined to a hospital bed for a period
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of weeks.
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The school assigned Fred to deliver Jim’s homework to him in hospital, as well as making
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notes for him in class.
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Jim and Fred spent time together and come to appreciate each other.
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Fred could see through Jim’s exterior image as the sports hunk and Jim could appreciate
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Fred’s quiet, thoughtful nature.
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When Jim was released from hospital, the friendship continued.
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Through Jim’s influence, the other students came to realize that Fred wasn’t so bad
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after all.
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Fred hadn’t changed but now the other students let him be himself without harassing him.
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From this he learned a powerful lesson that he strived to impart to millions of children
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through his TV show decades later – be yourself without shame!
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As a result of his new found acceptance by his peers, Fred’s confidence grew in leaps
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and bounds.
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He became involved in school activities, becoming editor of the school yearbook and the school
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newspaper.
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By the end of his senior year, he was president of the student council.
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He came to be respected, rather than mocked, for his quiet, thoughtful nature.
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During his highschool years, Fred developed another relationship that was pivotal in his
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life.
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George Allen was an African-American friend of the family.
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As well as sharing Fred’s passion for music, George was also a passionate pilot.
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He shared his enthusiasm with Fred, teaching him to fly.
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While Fred never developed George’s passion for flying, he was entranced by Fred’s love
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of imparting his aeronautical knowledge.
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It was then that he learned what it was to be a true teacher.
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College Upon graduation from high school, it was Fred’s
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intention to go to a seminary and become a minister.
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This seemed to be his natural calling, allowing him to serve others just as his parents had
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groomed him.
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Still, he felt a need to achieve a college degree and his love of learning inspired him
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to enrol at Dartmouth College for his freshman year.
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He decided to study the romance languages.
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After a year, however, he decided that what he really wanted to study was music.
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Dartmouth had no program that was worthy of Fred’s talents, so he transferred to Rollins
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College.
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It was during an initial tour of Rollins College that Fred ran into his future wife, Sara Joanne
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Byrd.
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Sara became hugely impressed with Fred’s piano playing ability and he quickly became
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a part of her circle of friends.
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Fred majored in music composition and minored in French language.
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Prior to graduation in the summer of 1951, Fred returned home on vacation.
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He still fully intended to attend a theological seminary after graduation.
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But everything changed when Fred saw his first television show.
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On the small screen Fred watched as two men threw pies into each other’s faces.
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In an instant he saw the potential in this new medium to educate millions of people at
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once.
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At the same time, he was appalled at the lowbrow way that it was currently being used.
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Fred was so passionate about his desire to change the way that television was being used
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that he decided on the spot to give up on his ideas to join the seminary and pursue
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a career in television.
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Getting Into TV Upon graduating from Rollins, and with his
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music degree in hand, Fred applied to NBC Television in New York and asked if they had
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any positions available.
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He was hired by a producer named Charles Polacheck.
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Fred moved to New York, full of enthusiasm, only to find that his days were spent running
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minor errands.
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He experienced the worst in his colleagues, especially those in positions of power.
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In later years, Fred remembered how one of his bosses severely chastised him in public
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for forgetting to put sweetener in his coffee.
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He tried, mostly in vain, to bring a positive vibe to the office.
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Fred’s favorite NBC show was Opera Theater.
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The show collaborated with famous composers to put on operas that were shown across the
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nation via the tube.
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Fred worked his way up to becoming a floor manager on the show.
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He was in charge of timing the programs, making sure the cameras were ready, and letting the
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actors know when to stop and start.
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His attentive personality allowed him to shine in the role.
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Fred also became floor manager on a handful of other shows.
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He came to appreciate the wide variety of uses that television could be put to.
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One of the shows he worked on was The Gabby Hayes show.
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He watched and absorbed the lesson as Hayes spoke into the camera as if there was only
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one person on the other side of the screen.
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Ultimately though, Fred became frustrated.
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NBC wasn’t showing any interest in moving into the use of television as a medium of
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education.
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He decided to leave and pursue his passion to bring music and education to the masses,
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especially the children.
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In 1953, Fred and Sara, who he had married the previous June, heard of a new television
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station that was opening up in Pennsylvania.
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It was to be called WQED.
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They decided that should apply and Fred was offered a job as program manager.
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WQED was the first community television station in the United States.
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Fred saw it as the ideal opportunity to shape educational content.
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A month before WQED was scheduled to go live, the owners decided that a children’s program
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would be a valuable addition to the line-up.
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Fred and a young woman named Josie Carey, the station secretary, were tasked with coming
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up with something.
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The show they come up with was called The Children’s Corner.
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The Children’s Corner started out very simply.
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While Fred worked behind the scenes, Josie introduced free children’s educational films.
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On the night before the show aired, station director Dorothy Daniel gave Fred a small
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tiger puppet as a good luck charm.
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Fred quickly dubbed the puppet ‘Daniel’.
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Without telling anybody, Fred positioned himself behind the set backdrop, which was simply
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a painted sheet.
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As Josie began introducing the first episode live on air, he cut a slit in the sheet and
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‘Daniel’ appeared on screen and began conversing with Josie.
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The puppet proved to be a hit with audiences and and puppets became a regular feature of
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the show.
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Fred was the puppeteer as well as organ player.
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In order to rush between the set and the organ he took to wearing his trademark white tennis
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shoes.
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The Children’s Corner became so successful that Fred and Josie became local personalities.
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The show even came to the attention of NBC, Fred’s former employer.
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When their head of religious programming went on a four week vacation, NBC invited Fred
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and Josie to fly to New York to appear live every saturday morning.
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They returned to Pittsburgh for the Monday morning show.
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The NBC Saturday show now exposed Fred to a national audience.
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He began receiving hundreds of thousands of fan letters.
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The NBC executives quickly secured Fred and Josie as regulars.
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They also had larger more professional puppets made.
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NBC put pressure on Fred and Josie to quit WQED and go daily on their channel.
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But the pair would not relinquish their loyalty to the original channel and they continued
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to travel back and forth.
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Despite his gruelling TV schedule, Fred continued to pursue his dream of achieving a theological
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degree.
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He attended the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and studied in the late hours, finally achieving
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his Masters in Divinity.
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The most influential course he took was a masters counselling course, during which he
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worked with children to see how they reacted to puppet interactions.
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He found that children reacted very differently with puppets than they would with realm people
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and would more easily open up and communicate to a puppet.
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Fred was ordained in 1962.
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His vocation was to work with children and families through the mass media, specifically
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television.
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Plans were put in action for a Fred hosted show for the Presbyterian church.
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But before it got off the ground, Fred received the call that would change his life.
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Moving to Canada The call came from Fred Rainsbury, who was
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in charge of children’s programming in Canada.
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He wanted Fred to come to Canada and put on a 15 minute daily show specifically aimed
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at children and using puppets and his musical talent.
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In was a huge risk for Fred and Sara, who now had two young children.
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But it was everything that Fred had been working towards and so they bit the bullet and moved
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to Toronto.
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But, when he arrived, Fred was shocked to realize that Rainsbury wanted him to appear
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in front of the camera, rather than behind the scenes.
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Rainsbury had seen Fred work one on one with children and knew that he had a special gift
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to connect with them.
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Over the next 12 months, the two Freds developed the program’s concept, with Rogers finally
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agreeing to appear on screen.
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The show was to be called Misterrogers as one word.
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Rainsbury felt that this would make it less formal to children.
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The show was set up in a neighborhood with whimsical sets and puppets for Fred to interact
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with.
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A man named Ernie was brought in as the puppeteer.
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The show was a huge success in Canada.
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However, after the initial twelve month contract was up, Fred decided to move his family back
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to the United States to be closer to family.
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Mr Roger’s Neighborhood
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Moving back to Pittsburgh, Fred waited patiently until WQED had room in their schedule for
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another children’s educational program.
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After two years, during which he held an education job with the church, the funding came through
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for Fred to host his own show on WQED, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
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The show premiered in October, 1966.
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For the first year it was essentially a rehashing of the Canadian version of Misterrogers.
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Within twelve months, however, the format had expanded and the show had been picked
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up by the Sears Company as a major sponsor, enabling it to go to a national audience.
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Fred wrote the theme song that was to become famous – Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
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The revamped show also added more characters, puppets and places to visit.
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Each episode Fred would go out of the studio and visit a new place.
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The second national series, in 1969, rolled out in full color.
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In the third season, the show, which had become hugely popular, was taken over by the Public
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Broadcasting Service or PBS.
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The first run of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood continued production for a total of eight
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seasons and four hundred and fifty five episodes.
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By then Fred was ready to take a break, and so the show transitioned to re-runs.
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But Fred was still busy.
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Ever the perfectionist he took the opportunity to fix up things that he didn’t like from
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older episodes.
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New original seasons of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood began in 1979.
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Between then and 1993, fifteen new episodes were produced per season, with shows linking
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together and carrying through one overall theme for the season.
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The huge popularity of the show was due to Fred’s casual, inviting, empathetic nature.
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He never acted, always striving to be genuine and honest.
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His main method of teaching was through his own example, as many of his audience members
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grew up with him.
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The show would start with Fred talking directly to his child audience about a subject.
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Then it would transition to a field trip, which had been filmed earlier.
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Then it would be back live where Fred would move into the Neighborhood of Make Believe.
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This was a whimsical place where the characters could learn, explore and act out specific
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scenarios.
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Then Fred would move out of the Neighborhood of Make Believe and discuss what had happened
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in the neighborhood that day.
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From start to finish the emphasis of the show was on communication, opening up to others
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and exploring feelings.
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Fred was not afraid to discuss any topic that was relevant to children, including divorce
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and death.
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In addition to these ‘heavy topics’, Fred also encouraged children to have fun, exploring
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the world around them and keeping their curiosity alive.
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In 2001, Fred retired at the age of 71, after thirty one seasons eight hundred and sixty
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five episodes of Mister Rogers Neighborhood.
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The show was officially over, but Mr Rogers was still a familiar TV personality through
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reruns.
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A Life Beyond TV
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Although best known for his landmark TV show, Fred Rogers he invested his time and energy
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into other work as well.
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He was involved in the children’s book business, held seminars for parents and produced many
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documentary style features.
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The most well known of these was series called Mr Rogers Heroes and Old Friends, New Friends.
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For the show, Fred travelled all over the United States talking to admirable people.
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Fred authored a total of thirty six children’s books dealing with issues ranging from fear
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of going to the hospital to potty training.
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Fred’s passion for children’s education led to his involvement in advocacy work.
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In 1971 he founded a non-profit organization called Family Communications, Inc.
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He also made his voice heard on a national level when he became involved in government
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issues.
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In 1969 he appealed to a group of senators in an effort to stop the Federal government
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cutting funding to PBS.
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Largely as a result of his efforts, the funding was actually increased by ten million dollars.
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In 1984, he was called as an expert witness in a case between Sony and the Universal City
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Studio.
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The case was about the new Sony technology called Betamax, which was the forerunner of
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the video recorder.
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This new technology threatened Hollywood and Universal brought the case to stop Sony on
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the grounds of copyright.
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Fred testified on behalf of Sony, stating the importance of parents and children being
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able to tape his show for later watching together.
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Sony won the case.
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Death and Legacy
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A year after his official retirement from television, Fred was diagnosed with stomach
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cancer.
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His last public appearance was when he tossed the coin at the 2003 Rose Bowl.
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A few weeks later he underwent surgery to get rid of the cancer.
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It was unsuccessful and Fred went home to spend his last weeks with his family.
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He died on February 27th, 2003, surrounded by his family and his devoted wife, Sara.
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Fred’s passing was mourned around the world.
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But it was felt the hardest in his native Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
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His memorial was held there and was attended by thousands of people,including many celebrities.
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PBS took steps to help children to come to terms with the loss of Mister Rogers.
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They continued to air reruns and a special entitled Fred Rogers: America’s favorite
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Neighbor was hosted by Michael Keaton.
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During his lifetime, Fred had received many awards, including the Presidential Medal of
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Freedom.
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In 1999, he was inaugurated into the Television Hall of Fame and one of his sweaters was featured
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in the Smithsonian Institute as a ‘treasure of American history.’
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The greatest legacy of Fred Rogers is the show that made him a national treasure.
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The lessons he imparted – of tolerance, compassion, love and empathy – are just as relevant today
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as they were when Mister Rogers Neighborhood first went
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to air in the 1960’s.


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Photo credit: Screenshot from video