'Mr. Rogers' to speak at Commencement

by Carl Burnett | 5/3/02 5:00am

Fred Rogers, beloved children's television icon, will return to the college where he spent two years of his life to give this year's Commencement address, the College announced yesterday.

Rogers, the force behind the longest-running program in the history of public television, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," attended Dartmouth from 1946 to 1948 before transferring to Rollins College in Florida to complete his undergraduate degree.

College President James Wright said he wrote to Rogers last year when he heard Rogers was retiring from his TV show.

"I received a very warm note back from him, and we resolved that we wanted to bring him back to give him the Dartmouth degree he never received," Wright said.

This spring, the timing was right.

"After 9/11, we believed he would be the ideal speaker," Wright said. "He's done half a century of work trying to assure young people that they're okay, half a century helping us to appreciate better our neighbors."

Chemistry Professor Jane Lipson, who serves on the Council on Honorary Degrees, said she was excited to hear Rogers was chosen as the speaker. "The members of the Council serve as faculty escorts for these individuals. My reaction was, maybe I'll get to spend time talking to Mr. Rogers," she said.

Rogers first developed his interest in children's television in 1950, his senior year at Rollins, and after graduation became an assistant producer at two NBC shows.

In 1953 he helped found a public television station in his native Pittsburgh, where he co-produced a live daily children's program, "The Children's Corner." There he created such memorable future "Neighborhood of Make-Believe" characters as King Friday XIII and Daniel Striped Tiger.

Rogers studied at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Child Development and also became ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1963 after completing a master of divinity degree at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" debuted on PBS nationally in 1968, and has won Rogers nearly every award offered in the realms of both television and education, including over 40 honorary degrees. In recent years, he has been a popular graduation speaker at many colleges and universities.

"'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' makes us, young and old alike, feel safe, cared for and valued," wrote "TV Guide." "Wherever Mister Rogers is, so is sanctuary."

The show ceased production in January 2001, and the last episode aired in June.

Rogers will also receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. The other honorary degree recipients will be Marilyn Hughes Gaston, former U.S. Assistant Surgeon General and the first African-American woman to direct a public health service bureau; Yuan-Tseh Lee, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for chemistry; Gerda Lerner, a pioneer in the field of women's studies; Arthur Mitchell, co-founder and artistic director of the Dance Theater of Harlem; Evelyn Stefansson Nef, writer, polar researcher, psychotherapist and philanthropist; and E. John Rosenwald '52, TU '53, a former Trustee.

The final choices for Commencement speaker and honorary degree recipients are chosen by the President from a list of suggestions made by the Council on Honorary Degrees, the Trustees and President Wright himself. Lipson said the Council also receives suggestions from students and faculty members.

As a chemist, Lipson was especially excited about Lee's award. "Lee is a an extraordinary chemist and an extraordinary person," she said.

"I think the President does a good job of juggling a diverse list of recipients," Lipson said. "I think the diversity of the list is great in a lot of ways ... I think it's going to be a superior Commencement."