The first one to see a problem often gets to fix it.
Maxwell King found that out one day when he said, "Why is there no biography of Fred Rogers? He's such an iconic figure." Iconic is right: Rogers (1928-2003) was the creator and star of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, the celebrated children's show that ran from 1968 to 2001.
King has done a lot of prominent work. From 1990-1998 he was editor of the Inquirer. (Full disclosure: King hired me to the Inquirer's Editorial Board in 1997.) Then he was president and CEO of the Heinz Endowments in Pittsburgh from 1999 to 2008. He then became director of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa.
At the Rogers Center, he was surprised to find there was as yet no Mr. Rogers bio. Modest and private, Rogers had refused to have anything to do with such a project. King remembers saying, "With all due respect, Fred is gone, and we have to have a biography." Eventually, Rogers' widow, Joanne, said: "Well, why don't you do it?"
This is a year for renewed interest in Rogers in light of the hit documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, which has already made $22 million at the box office and is still playing at the Ritz at the Bourse. King is interviewed in the documentary.
What surprised you most in your research on Fred Rogers?
Perhaps most significant was what a complicated person he was. Nothing about him was accidental. His cultural power, and he really has it, comes from the very focused, intentional way he led his life.
He very carefully built up his knowledge of children.
In the 1950s, when he was going to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, on his way to becoming a minister for the United Presbyterian Church, they asked him what ministry he wanted to go into. He said: "I want to minister to children through TV." So they assigned him to work with Margaret McFarland, an expert in child psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. He studied with her, and for more than 30 years they had weekly meetings. That was an amazing time at Pitt for the study of children. Benjamin Spock was at Pitt, and Rogers also was able to work with Erik Erikson. That shows you how serious he was.
Can you give us some examples of intentionality at work in Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood?
When he was taping his show, if something happened that wasn't quite right, he'd stop the cameras and walk over to McFarland's office to consult with her, and then he'd come come back, make whatever changes, and resume the taping!
On one occasion, a puppeteer on the show was speaking to a child-puppet, and the puppeteer said, "Well, don't cry." Rogers stopped the cameras and, very patiently and quietly, told the cast and crew, "We do not tell children not to cry on this show," and he explained why. He was focused on very high standards, extremely specific about what he wanted to do and say – not controlling, I don't think, but he knew the standard he wanted to meet, and he was relentless about meeting it.
You speak of his cultural power. In what ways has Fred Rogers intervened in our culture?
People don't think about him as a leader. But stories like the one I just told you show that he really was. And in a larger sense, when you consider Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, he took the cutting-edge technology of the day, television, in a direction completely different from the one it was taking. Children's TV was fast and loud; he slowed it down, made it thoughtful. When I spoke to him, which I did only a few times, everything slowed down, calmed down, and he had this very Zen, completely in-the-moment nature that transmitted itself to you. I do see him as an example of a different direction we could take in a modern, fast-paced, tech-infused world. He has many valuable things to say about the way we treat people, about responsibility, about dealing with the pace of life.
He had this remarkable way of speaking directly to children, considered, unhurried, as if he were putting his arm around the whole world.
He could talk to children about anything. He did a theme week on death! Remember that famous episode, "Death of a Goldfish"?
He did a theme week on divorce, theme shows on violence, war, the sense of feeling personally lost, which people think of as an adult feeling, but children certainly know it. No one is better at spotting a phony than a kid. But Fred was very authentically being himself, and children responded to that.
What, if any, effect did writing about Fred Rogers have on you?
Spending seven years marinating myself in Fred Rogers had a salubrious effect. All my life, I have been running around, trying to do far more than a wise person should try to do, and I have been trying to slow down. It's a hard world to slow down in, and it was a struggle to get into that meditative zone, but I found that when I could get there, it was a joyful experience. I really do think being with Fred's legacy really helped me slow down and be a little nicer. It feels nice to be nice.