Fred Rogers, the man behind the long-running “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” children’s show, died 10 years ago, but his influence is still felt deeply here, the city he called home.
This past week, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary devoted its summer leadership conference to insights from his life and work.
The conference drew an eclectic mix of participants, including psychologists and social workers, educators, clergy and laity.
It also functioned as a reunion of various cast members and staffers from the show, which ran on the Public Broadcasting Station from 1968 to 2001.
Two films about Rogers were screened, alongside panels on Rogers’ ability to handle life transitions creatively.
Rogers’ widow, Joanne, wearing a Neighborhood Trolley pin, spoke briefly as well.
Rogers earned a degree in children’s ministry from the seminary and later was ordained a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He never led a church, but saw his career in broadcasting, including 33 years as writer and star of the Pittsburgh-based children’s program, as a ministry.
His show taught children how to respond to challenges, fears, and life transitions. And while it was never overtly religious, it cultivated the virtues: neighborliness, hospitality and respect for others.
Children’s spirituality “is not an add-on to children’s lives but part and parcel of who they are,” said Patricia Crawford, associate professor of education at the University of Pittsburgh. She said the conference helped her understand that children’s sense of “caring and kindness” needs to be nurtured.
Retired Pittsburgh pediatrician Dr. Jane Breck came to the conference to pay tribute to Rogers, who earlier in her career had asked for her help in explaining physical check-ups to children.
She remembered the show’s producers visiting her practice in 1993. They wanted to replicate the feel of a real pediatrician’s office to demonstrate the experience of having a physical exam. Breck recalled the producers took with them tongue depressors and otoscopes to inspect ears. Then she was asked to find two children who might be comfortable having a full physical exam on camera.
Now a part-time student at the seminary, Breck recalled how Rogers was attuned to what made children anxious.
She’ll never forget the question he asked her: “When you look in my ears, can you see through to my brain?”
“He really was the way he played himself on TV,” she said. “Spending time with Fred Rogers left an indelible mark on everyone’s soul and psyche.”
Judith A. Rubin, the “art lady” on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for three seasons, screened a documentary on Rogers. She recalled the freedom he gave her on the set to help children and parents explore their creativity.
Her movie examined Rogers’ early days on the “The Children’s Corner” a live puppet show produced by WQED from 1953 to 1961. It also looked at some of the experts Rogers came in contact with — psychologists Erik Erikson, Anna Freud and Margaret McFarland, as well as pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock.
Adult audience members sang along as the movie played clips from the children’s television show.
James Davison, director of Continuing Education at the seminary, spoke of the Christian principles he glimpsed in the show, suggesting that the parable of the Good Samaritan formed the basis for the show’s central question, “Who is my neighbor?”
Davison believes what was unique about Rogers was his “ideas of how to treat others from his biblical religious background,” deepened by Rogers’ studies of psychology.
That neighborliness was never just a TV construct. Margaret Eisen Fischer, a Pittsburgh resident, recalled that her son’s preschool was out walking one morning on a Pittsburgh street when Fred Rogers saw the group and told them: “I’m glad to know you’re my neighbors.”