For over 30 years and nearly 1,000 shows, Fred Rogers created the friendly world of Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood for children to enjoy across the nation. Thankfully, Mr. Rogers turned out to be the same generous, amicable, neighborly man off camera that he was during his PBS program. Here are 14 things that you didn’t know about Mr. Rogers, the man many people consider to be a hero.
The TV icon stated, “The world is not always a kind place. That’s something all children learn for themselves, whether we want them to or not, but it’s something they really need our help to understand.” Fred Rogers’s show constantly reminded children that they mattered and, most importantly, that the emotions they felt deserved to be embraced rather than ignored. The ordained minister did not talk down to children, but instead treated them the same way he treated adults, helping them to cope with their feelings of anger and sadness.
Fred Rogers’s bio reads like that of a man who was sincerely dedicated to helping children. He wrote hundreds of songs for his show and answered thousands of letters with prayer. These true Mr. Rogers stories will make anyone feel nostalgic for simpler days spent watching the host’s routine of putting on a sweater and changing his shoes.
Just as he opened his show the same way for over three decades, Fred Rogers maintained that same sense of routine in his own life. Here is a collection of some of the most fascinating Fred Rogers facts: What exercise did he do every day in the nude? How did he save PBS? Why was he obsessed with keeping his weight at exactly 143 pounds? Mr. Rogers may not have been perfect, but he was probably as close to perfect as a human being could get.
Fred Rogers Saved PBS In The 1960s And He May Have To Save It Again Today
In the spring of 2017, an old video of Fred Rogers testifying before a US Senate Subcommittee in 1969 went viral. In the video, he successfully fought against incoming president Richard Nixon’s proposal to slash PBS funding from $20 million to $10 million. The video resurfaced in March as a rallying cry in opposition to Trump’s plan to cut federal funding for the arts.
Sitting in front of Senator John O. Pastore, the chairman of the subcommittee, Rogers discussed the things he wanted to accomplish with his PBS television program. His most important goal was to teach children how to deal with their problems in a healthy way and to instill confidence in them. He spoke simply to convey his point:
“This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, ‘You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.’ And I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that it’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger – much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire.”
Senator Pastore had never watched Rogers’s show before, and the speech made a visible impact on the legislator. “I’m supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I’ve had goose bumps for the last two days,” he said. “Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”
Mr. Rogers Became Obsessed With Weighing Exactly 143 Pounds
One day in the 1960s, Rogers stepped on a scale and his weight read 143 pounds. So every day after that he refused to do anything that would alter his weight. He didn’t drink or smoke, or eat any kind of meat; he went to bed at 9:30 pm and woke up at 5:30 am to write and pray for people who had requested his prayers; he always got eight hours of uninterrupted sleep; and he took a nap every day in the late afternoon.
Before his morning swim, Mr. Rogers would always check his weight to make sure that it remained at 143 pounds. So, what was it about that exact number that made him so obsessed? Mr. Rogers saw the number 143 as both a gift and his destiny:
“The number 143 means ‘I love you.’ It takes one letter to say ‘I’ and four letter to say ‘love’ and three letters to say ‘you.’ One hundred and forty-three. ‘I love you.’ Isn’t that wonderful?”
Mr. Rogers Went Swimming Every Morning, Totally Nude
Nearly every morning of his entire life, Fred Rogers went swimming. What made his morning exercise especially interesting, though, was that he preferred to swim laps entirely in the nude. When Esquirewriter Tom Junod penned his November 1998 feature article about Rogers called “Can You Say Hero?” Junod accompanied the TV icon on his morning swim.
Before jumping in the pool, Rogers took off one piece of his clothing after another until he was down to his birthday suit. Then, the ever-witty Mr. Rogers said to the reporter, “Well, Tom, I guess you’ve already gotten a deeper glimpse into my daily routine than most people have.”
Fred Rogers Was An Ordained Minister
Mr. Rogers was an ordained minister at the United Presbyterian Church. For eight years during his afternoon break, he would go to seminary school and was finally ordained in 1963. He didn’t say exactly why he decided to go to seminary, but what he learned there certainly must have helped him discover how to deliver his message of being kind and neighborly to everyone.
Mr. Rogers Saved The VCR
Way before DVR and on-demand streaming services, there was a device called the Betamax, Sony’s videotape recording device. (The Betamax eventually gave way to the VHS tape.) The Betamax allowed users to videotape live television and then watch it whenever they wanted. The public was enamored with the new technology; however, Walt Disney Productions and Universal Pictures felt that the sale of Betamax would cost them millions of dollars in unauthorized duplication of their copyrighted material.
In 1979, Disney and Universal took their case to the US District Court, which ruled in favor of Sony, stating that taping programs to watch later was fair use. Universal was not happy with the verdict and appealed in 1981, and the ruling was subsequently reversed. The argument then went on to the Supreme Court in 1983, where it was referred to as Universal Studios vs. Sony Corporation of America, or the “Betamax Case.” The case was argued for one year, with one of the most convincing testimonies coming from our neighbor Mr. Rogers, who defended the use of the VCR:
“I have always felt that with the advent of all of this new technology that allows people to tape the ‘Neighborhood’ off-the-air…they then become much more active in the programming of their family’s television life. Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others. My whole approach in broadcasting has always been ‘You are an important person just the way you are. You can make healthy decisions…’ I just feel that anything that allows a person to be more active in the control of his or her life, in a healthy way, is important.”
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Sony, making it legal to record a broadcast for later use. The Court gave a nod to Rogers’s testimony: “He testified that he had absolutely no objection to home taping for noncommercial use and expressed the opinion that it is a real service to families to be able to record children’s programs and to show them at appropriate times.”
Mr. Rogers Was Literally A Life-Saver
Perhaps it was his soothing voice or his closeness to God, or even just the way that he kindly treated young children. There are several stories on the Internet that detail the many ways that Mr. Rogers served as a hero and a life saver to others. Could Rogers even have had the power to heal the sick?
A young boy with severe autism who had never spoken one day said, “X the Owl,” the name of one of Mr. Rogers’s most popular puppets. That was enough for the boy’s father to make the trip to meet the TV legend. He told his son, “Let’s go to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.” After that, the boy slowly began speaking and reading, and the father thanks Mr. Rogers for saving his son’s life.
Here’s another story. Lauren Tewes, an actress who appeared on Love Boat, left the popular show in 1984 because of a battle with cocaine addiction. During one particularly tough morning, Tewes looked at her television screen and saw the opening to Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Something stirred inside her and she later described the occurrence as “God speaking to [her] through the instrument of Mister Rogers.” The actress stayed sober for the next several decades.
He Hated Television
Mr. Rogers may have starred on a television program for over 30 years, but that doesn’t mean he liked the medium. Rogers’s first impression of television was that he thought he could use it as a vehicle to do good. However, ironically enough the small-screen icon did not watch TV in his everyday life – in fact, he despised the box. “I got into television because I hated it so,” he told CNN, “and I thought there’s [got to be] some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen.”
His Mother Hand Knit All Of His Sweaters
Mr. Rogers opened his first show on PBS by walking through the front door of the studio house, taking off his jacket, hanging the jacket up in the closest, reaching for and then putting on a sweater – all that while singing the program’s theme song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” Rogers would repeat that same ritual for every show over the next 33 years. His sweaters would ultimately become just as iconic as his famous characters, like the delivery person Mr. McFeely and Queen Sara Saturday.
Rogers had over 20 different sweaters, all of them handmade by his mother, Nancy. He revealed that when he put on a new sweater, it was his way of saying hello to his mother. During one episode of the program, he held up one of the sweaters for the audience to get a good look at the design of and said, “she [his mother] makes sweaters for many different people, but that’s one of the ways she says she loves somebody.” His red sweater even made it into the Smithsonian Institute as an exhibit in 1984.
People Still Seek Comfort In His Words
Mr. Rogers has not been on the air since 2001; however, there must be a reason why his show is still being rerun on many independent PBS stations. In the wake of the terrorist attack in Manchester, England, on May 22, 2017, many users on social media began to share a famous quote from Mr. Rogers offering advice to parents on how to talk to children about tragedy and violence.
A meme of a photo of Mr. Rogers with the following quote spread like wildfire on the Internet during that tragic day in May:
“My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
He Lived Exactly The Way You Would Want A Childhood Icon To Live
How many of our childhood heroes have gone on to disappoint us? Most people do not practice what they preach. However, the kind, simple man we watched sing to us as children lived his off-screen life with the same level of compassion and honesty as he portrayed on his show. To say that Mr. Rogers was saint-like would not be hyperbolic.
Mr. Rogers did not drink or smoke, and was married to the same woman for 47 years, until his death in 2003. He had no publicly known vices or scandals to mar his reputation, and was even a vegetarian because he didn’t want to eat anything that had a mother. He explained how he was the same man on and off camera:
“One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self. I also believe that kids can spot a phony a mile away.”
He Was A Musical Prodigy
At just five years old, Rogers would hear songs on the radio and then play them on the piano by ear. He also began writing original songs that he said described the way he was feeling. His grandmother then bought him a piano and encouraged him to learn Paderewski’s “Minuet in G” in just one week, so that he could audition for a respected piano teacher. The teacher took Fred on as a student when he was only nine years old.
As an adult, he composed and wrote the lyrics for over 200 songs for his television program, composed 9 children’s operas, and released 12 albums of children’s recordings. He was a Grammy Award-winning song writer, pianist, singer, and even won four Emmys for performing. His most popular song was, of course, the show’s catchy theme, “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Overall, his songs were extremely enjoyable with lyrics written to encourage children.
Rogers spoke passionately about his love for music during a 1999 interview with Karen Herman for the Archive of American Television:
“My first love is music. It is a unique way for me to express who I am and what I am feeling. Music was always my way of saying who I was and how I felt. I was always able to cry or laugh or say I was angry through the tips of my fingers on the piano. I would go to the piano even when I was five years old. I started to play how I felt. And so it was very natural for me to become a composer. Having written all of the music for the Neighborhood, I feel as if that’s one of my gifts to children… There is something very mystical and wonderful about how music can touch us. You know it’s elemental. It must be what Heaven is like.”
He Was Color Blind
Surprising to some, Mister Rogers was red-green color blind. It’s odd to reflect on the fact that he never had the opportunity to see the vibrancy of the various colored sweaters that his mother made for him.
He Received More Than 40 Honorary Degrees
Fred Rogers attended an Ivy League university, Dartmouth College, from 1946 to 1948. He then transferred to Rollins College in Winter Park, FL, and went on to earn a BA in Music Composition in 1951. The TV icon would go on to receive more than 40 honorary degrees from colleges and universities throughout his lifetime, including Yale University, Hobart and William Smith, Carnegie Mellon University, Boston University, Saint Vincent College, University of Pittsburgh, North Carolina State University, University of Connecticut, Dartmouth College, Waynesburg College, and Rollins College.
Mr. Rogers Earned The Nation’s Highest Civilian Honor
In 2002, President George W. Bush presented Fred Rogers with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. The medal commemorated his “contribution to the well-being of children and career in public television that demonstrates the importance of kindness, compassion, and learning.”
But that would not be Mr. Rogers’s only lifetime accolade. He also won two George Foster Peabody Awards and Emmy’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Additionally, Rogers earned every major television award for which he was eligible. In 19998, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 1999 was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.