Fred Rogers remains an icon of kindness for the ages. An innovator of children’s television, his salt-of-the-earth demeanor and genuinely gentle nature taught a generation of kids the value of kindness. Here are 41 things you might not have known about everyone’s favorite “neighbor.”
According to Benjamin Wagner, who directed the 2010 documentary Mister Rogers & Me—and was, in fact, Rogers’s neighbor on Massachusetts’s Nantucket island—Rogers was overweight and shy as a child, and was regularly taunted by his classmates.
“I used to cry to myself when I was alone,” Rogers said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano.”
Rogers was an Ivy League dropout. He spent his freshman year at Dartmouth College, then transferred to Rollins College, where he pursued a degree in music.
Rogers transferred to Rollins College in order to pursue a degree in music and graduated Magna cum laude. In addition to his talent for playing the piano, Rogers was also an incredible songwriter.
Need proof of Rogers’s songwriting prowess? He wrote all the songs for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—plus hundreds more.
Whenever Rogers began to feel anxious or overwhelmed, he would play the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood theme song on the piano as a way to calm his nerves.
Rogers was a stickler when it came to his daily routine: He started his day at 5 a.m. and made time for a prayer as well as some studying, writing, phone calls, swimming, and responding to his fan mail.
Another part of Rogers’s daily routine included a daily weigh-in. He liked to maintain a weight of exactly 143 pounds.
Rogers’s regular weight of 143 had special meaning to him. “It takes one letter to say I and four letters to say love and three letters to say you,” Rogers once said. “One hundred and forty-three.”
In 2019, Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf declared May 23 to be 143 Day in the state. Rogers was born near Pittsburgh and lived his whole life in the area. By honoring Rogers with his own holiday, the individuals behind the 143 Day campaign wanted to encourage people to be kind to their neighbors on May 23—and every other day of the year.
Rogers took time out of each day to respond to his fan mail, and he responded to each and every letter he received—approximately 50 to 100 letters per day. “He respected the kids who wrote,” Heather Arnet, an assistant on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He never thought about throwing out a drawing or letter. They were sacred.”
Over the many years he worked with children, Rogers spoke very openly about his and their feelings on every sort of topic, from why kids shouldn’t be afraid of haircuts to divorce and war.
Since its inception on Pittsburgh’s WQED in 1968, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood had informed its young audience about topical issues in subversive and disarming ways. When civil rights were discussed, host Fred Rogers didn’t deliver a lecture about tolerance. Instead, he invited a black friend, Officer Clemmons, to cool off in his inflatable pool, a subtle nod to desegregation.
Rogers conceived and taped a five-episode storyline on the subject in the summer of 1983, which wound up being prescient. In November 1983, president Ronald Reagan ordered the invasion of Grenada to topple a Marxist regime.
“Little did I know we would be involved in a worldwide conflict now,” Rogers told the Associated Press. “But that’s all the better because our shows give families an opportunity for communication. If children should hear the news of war, at least they have a handle here, to assist in family communications.”
Mr. Rogers knew children well. He knew how they thought, what they liked, what they feared, and what they struggled to understand—and he went to great lengths to ensure he never upset or confused his devoted viewers.Mr. Rogers knew children well. He knew how they thought, what they liked, what they feared, and what they struggled to understand—and he went to great lengths to ensure he never upset or confused his devoted viewers.
Maxwell King, author of the forthcoming book The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, wrote in The Atlantic that Mr. Rogers carefully chose his words while filming Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. He understood that children think in a literal way, and a phrase that might sound perfectly fine to adult ears could be misinterpreted by younger audiences.
Rogers was “extraordinarily good at imagining where children’s minds might go,” King said, adding that Mr. Rogers wrote a song called “You Can Never Go Down the Drain” because he knew this might be a fear shared by many children.
King Friday XIII, son of King Charming Thursday XII and Queen Cinderella Monday, is an avid arts lover, a talented whistler, and a former pole vaulter. He reigns over Calendarland with lots of pomp and poise, and he’s usually correct.
Fans of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood may also remember that King Friday XIII, who reigned over Calendarland, was born on Friday the 13th, because his birthday was celebrated on the program every Friday the 13th. Though the math isn’t perfect—according to Timeanddate.com , Friday the 13th sometimes happens two or three times a year—the reason behind it absolutely is.
Rogers explained that he wanted to give children a reason to look forward to Friday the 13th, instead of buying into the negative superstitions that surround the dreaded date. “We thought, ‘Let’s start children out thinking that Friday the 13th was a fun day,’” he said in a 1999 interview. “So we would celebrate his birthday every time a Friday the 13th came.”
Rogers was an ordained minister who preached tolerance wherever he went. When Amy Melder, a 6-year-old Christian viewer, sent Rogers a drawing she made for him with a letter that promised “he was going to heaven,” Rogers wrote back to his young fan:
“You told me that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior. It means a lot to me to know that. And, I appreciated the scripture verse that you sent. I am an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I want you to know that Jesus is important to me, too. I hope that God’s love and peace come through my work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
If Rogers used the word mercy, it probably meant that he was feeling overwhelmed. He was typically heard saying it when he sat down at his desk in the morning and saw the mountain of fan mail awaiting him. But mercy was about the strongest word in his vocabulary.
Rogers’s decision to work in television wasn’t out of a love for the medium. “When I first saw children’s television, I thought it was perfectly horrible,” Rogers told Pittsburgh Magazine. “And I thought there was some way of using this fabulous medium to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen.”
In the opening sequence of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the stoplight is always on yellow as a reminder to kids—and their parents—to slow down a little.
Rogers wasn’t afraid of dead air: He once invited a marine biologist onto the show and put a microphone into his fish tank, because he wanted the kids at home to see (and hear) that fish make sounds when they eat. While taping the segment, however, the fish weren’t hungry so the marine biologist started trying to egg the fish on. But Rogers just sat there, waiting quietly. The crew figured they’d need to re-tape it, but Rogers didn’t want to. He thought it was a great lesson in teaching kids the importance of being patient.
Rogers always mentioned out loud that he was feeding his fish because a young blind viewer once asked him to do so. She wanted to know the fish were OK.
Rogers was a perfectionist, and very much disliked ad-libbing. He felt that he owed it to the kids who watched his show to make sure that every word on his show was thought out.
A Yale study pitted fans of Sesame Street against Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watchers and found that kids who watched Mister Rogers tended to remember more of the story lines, and had a much higher “tolerance of delay,” meaning they were more patient.
It wasn’t just kids and their parents who loved Mister Rogers. Koko, the Stanford-educated gorilla who understood 2000 English words, was an avid
fan, too. When Rogers visited once her, she immediately gave him a hug—and took his shoes off.
If watching an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gives you sweater envy, we’ve got bad news: You’d never be able to find his sweaters in a store. All of those comfy-looking cardigans were knitted by Fred’s mom, Nancy. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Rogers explained how his mother would knit sweaters for all of her loved ones every year as Christmas gifts. “And so until she died, those zippered sweaters I wear on the Neighborhood were all made by my mother,” he said.
In 1984, Rogers donated one of his iconic sweaters to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Fred’s mother, Nancy Rogers, died in 1981. Rogers continued wearing the sweaters she had made for years … until it became obvious that they wouldn’t endure many more tapings of the show. Replacements were sought, but art director Kathy Borland quickly discovered that the search was not unlike trying to replace Superman’s cape. A Fred Rogers sweater needed a zipper with a smooth operation so it wouldn’t snag on camera. It also needed to be vibrant.
Nothing fit the bill until Borland saw a United States Postal Service employee walking down the street in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—where the show taped—and took note of his cardigan. Borland phoned postal supply distributors and was able to secure a fresh inventory of sweaters (which she bought white, and then dyed) that kept Rogers looking like himself through the show’s final episode in 2001.
According to Wagner, Rogers’s decision to change into sneakers for each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a production-related consideration. “His trademark sneakers were born when he found them to be quieter than his dress shoes as he moved about the set,” wrote Wagner.
While being transported to a PBS executive’s house, Rogers heard his limo driver say that he was going to have to wait outside for two hours while the party dined—so Rogers insisted that the driver join them for dinner.
On the ride back home, Rogers sat in the front of the car with the driver, who mentioned that they were passing his house on their way back to Rogers’s home. So Rogers asked if they could stop in to meet the family. According to the driver, it was one of the best nights of his life: Rogers played piano for the family and chatted with them until late into the night.
The internet has stirred up all sorts of bizarre rumors about Rogers, including one that he served in the army and was a sniper in Vietnam and another that he served in the army and was a sniper in Korea. As exciting as that might make an upcoming biopics, these are both untrue.
In 1969, Rogers—who was relatively unknown at the time—went before the Senate to plead for a $20 million grant for public broadcasting, which had been proposed by President Johnson but was in danger of being sliced in half by Richard Nixon. His passionate plea about how television had the potential to turn kids into productive citizens worked; instead of cutting the budget, funding for public TV increased from $9 million to $22 million.
Years after he appeared before the Senate, Rogers also managed to convince the Supreme Court that using VCRs to record TV shows at home shouldn’t be considered a form of copyright infringement. Rogers argued that recording a program like his allowed working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows as a family. Again, he was convincing.
LSU professor Don Chance is one of the few people who isn’t 100 positive about Rogers’s legacy: He believes that Rogers created a, “culture of excessive doting” which resulted in generations of lazy, entitled college students.
Rogers was regularly parodied, and he loved it. The first time Eddie Murphy met Mr. Rogers, he couldn’t stop himself from giving the guy a big hug.
Those brightly colored sweaters were a trademark of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but the colorblind host might not have always noticed. In a 2003 article, just a few days after his passing, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that:
“Among the forgotten details about Fred Rogers is that he was so colorblind he could not distinguish between tomato soup and pea soup.”
Oscar-nominated actor Michael Keaton’s first job was as a stagehand on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, manning Picture, Picture, and appearing as Purple Panda.
It’s hard to imagine a gentle, soft-spoken, children’s education advocate like Rogers sitting down to enjoy a gory, violent zombie movie like Night of the Living Dead, but it actually aligns perfectly with Rogers’s brand of thoughtfulness. He checked out the horror flick to show his support for then-up-and-coming filmmaker George Romero, whose first paying job was with everyone’s favorite neighbor.
“Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film,” Romero said. As a young man just out of college, Romero honed his filmmaking skills making a series of short segments for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, creating a dozen or so titles such as “How Lightbulbs Are Made” and “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy.” The zombie king, who passed away in 2017, considered the latter his first big production, shot in a working hospital: “I still joke that ‘Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy’ is the scariest film I’ve ever made.”
Though Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street were both PBS shows, they were technically competitors—though the show’s producers didn’t exactly act like it. As a result, Rogers made an appearance on Sesame Street in May 1981.
The video opens with Rogers wearing a suit and tie instead of his usual cardigan sweater. He’s standing outside of a storefront when Big Bird approaches and asks if he’ll judge a race between him and Snuffy. (The theme of the segment was competition and, more importantly, maintaining friendships whether you win or lose.)
Rogers once played a pastor’s mentor on Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman.
McFeely, for example, was Rogers’s grandfather’s name; Queen Sara was named for Rogers’s wife.
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp with Rogers’s image on it. On it, Rogers—decked out in one of his trademark colorful cardigans—smiles for the camera alongside King Friday XIII, ruler of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
Also in honor of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood 50th anniversary, the kindest soul to ever grace a television screen was honored with a series of Funko toys, including a Funko Pop! figure.
Ready to learn more about Fred Rogers? Watch the video below, where John Green brings you a whole pile of things you should know about everybody’s favorite neighbor.