College to enter Mister Rogers' neighborhood today

by Charles Gardner | 6/9/02 5:00am

"It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine? Could you be mine?" are lines now familiar to two generations of American children.

Although more than 30 years have passed since he taped the first episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," Fred McFeely Rogers has kept his underlying message of neighborly love and appreciation unchanged.

And while the last show was taped over a year ago, Rogers -- who will speak at Commencement today -- has remained active, writing books and working on a new website, among other activities.

For Rogers, who attended Dartmouth for two years in the late 1940s before transferring to Rollins College in Florida, going away to college was a entirely new experience.

"I was really just a kid at the time," he said. "I had never been away from home before."

He explained that he had chosen to attend the College partly because he expected a good friend from his home near Pittsburgh, Pa., to join him the following year.

Though his friend's plans did not work out, Rogers soon settled into life at Dartmouth, living in a two-room triple in Massachusetts Hall as a freshman. The following year, Rogers pursued an increasing interest in music, shifting his focus away from foreign languages and practicing eight hours a day on the piano.

An eventual decision to switch to a music major -- at a time when Dartmouth's own music department was still under development -- prompted one of Rogers' teachers to suggest a move to Rollins, where he transferred in 1948.

"I was able to major in music composition at Rollins," he said, "but I really got some good grounding in music while at Dartmouth to get into the conservatory there."

After graduating from Rollins in 1951, Rogers married fellow pianist Joanne Byrd, with whom he has had two children, and headed to New York City to work in the new medium of television.

Rogers said he was attracted to TV because of its powerful potential for good, a potential he thought was being wasted at the time.

Television "is neither good nor bad, it's what we do with it that makes it that way," he said. I think once you've established a bond of trust, it's just endless what you can impart in a positive way."

This philosophy led Rogers to help with the production of the show "The Children's Corner" at WQED in Pittsburgh, where he worked as a puppeteer, musician and producer for seven years starting in 1953.

At the same time, Rogers attended both the Graduate School of Child Development at the University of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1963.

In 1969, his own show "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" began to appear on PBS stations. Rogers attributed the show's immense popularity -- which has continued undiminished up to the present -- to its honest, respectful approach and focus on the individual.

"I think children can spot a phony a mile away," he said, stressing the importance of respecting children and their feelings.

Rogers -- who composed all the songs and scripts for each show -- explained that he always imagined "one human being" as his audience. "It was never a whole roomful of children," he said. "I think it was a kind of conglomerate of children whom I knew ... and yet it was always one."

Part of that conglomerate, he said, was undoubtedly himself.

"Since I was an only child for a long time," said Rogers, whose sister was born 11 years after him, "I think it was only natural that I would have wanted to say, 'Won't you be my neighbor?'"

With a single television camera seamlessly following Rogers around his home, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was free of jarring camera angles and rapid-fire images, allowing for a slow-paced and intimate show that connected deeply with viewers.

"There's an inordinate amount of violence to catch people's attention now," he said. "It's easy it is to make evil attractive, but how absolutely important and essential it is to make goodness attractive."

The question is "whether you really care about your audience," he said. "Do you really care, or do you care about the ratings?"

His approach to the show could be summarized as simultaneously deep and simple, he added.

"Just remember those two words," he said, "And I think you will find that they are truly companions in this life."

Although no new episodes will be filmed, the more than 900 already in existence will continue to run in syndication, allowing viewers to continue to watch Rogers and the familiar cast of characters -- from Mr. McFeely to "X" the Owl -- that populate the show.

Meanwhile, Rogers has hardly gone into retirement, instead directing his efforts into new areas, including web design and writing various books.

Among these, Rogers said, is a new book, as yet untitled, that will be about "special times in children's and parents' lives." Another book, published just this month and titled "You Are Special," contains quotations "that mean a lot to me, and that I have collected all through the years."

For now, Rogers said he is excited about returning to Dartmouth to address graduating students.

"I am really looking forward to it," he said, adding that he hopes to convey "an overriding message about how important it is to look for what there is to appreciate in your neighbor. Each one of us wants to know that we are lovable and capable of loving."