46 Lessons Learned Making Mister Rogers & Me

Benjamin Wagner
Benjamin Wagner

I only knew three things about Mister Rogers before meeting him: He was the host of one of my favorite childhood shows, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, he was from Pittsburgh, and he seemed like a really nice guy.

Mister Rogers summered in a modest, gray, shake-shingled house on the edge of Nantucket. My mother rented a tiny cottage next door. So Mister Rogers really was my neighbor.

I was a young MTV News producer and sometime singer/songwriter. We met on the weekend of my 30th birthday in September 2001. He gingerly asked about my parents' divorce (taking a cue, apparently, from a song I'd just played him on my acoustic guitar about my childhood fear of flying), then my job at MTV. He mentioned his friend, mystic, author and poet Bo Lozoff, and his book, Deep & Simple.

"I feel so strongly," he said, "that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex."

The phrase stuck with me. And when I told him so the following summer, he replied, "Spread the message, Benjamin."

Ten years later, my brother and I premiered our documentary, Mister Rogers & Me, at the Nantucket Film Festival. The film explores Rogers’s luminous legacy through remembrances from Tim Russert, Susan Stamberg, Linda Ellerbee, Marc Brown, and many more. On March 20, 2012, PBS released it on DVD.

Years later, I can confirm and expand on those three things (he was an inordinately nice guy in person, too), plus these 46 things I learned about this great man and his essential pioneering work.

1. Fred Rogers was named after his grandfather.

Fred Rogers's grandfather, Fred McFeely, often said: "You've made this a special day by just being yourself. There's no one else in the world quite like you."

2. He was homebound as a child.

Little Freddy Rogers was a lonely, chubby, and shy child who was sometimes homebound because of childhood asthma common to industrialized towns like Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

3. He was bullied as a child.

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According to The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers author Amy Hollingsworth, little Freddy Rogers was bullied walking home from school. “We’re going to get you Fat Freddy,” the other boys taunted.

“I used to cry to myself when I was alone,” he said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano.” As he grew up, he decided to always look past the surface of people to the “essential invisible” within them.

4. He took inspiration from Le Petit Prince.

A framed quotation from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince hung in Rogers's WQED office his entire career. It read, “L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux." (“What is essential is invisible to the eye.”)

5. He had an adopted sister.

Rogers was an only child until he was 11, when his parents adopted his sister, Elaine.

6. His explanation of his vegetarianism was simple.

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He told people, "I don't want to eat anything that has a mother."

7. He found his weight symbolic.

He weighed 143 pounds most his adult life, and relished the weight for its numerical equivalent I (1) Love (4) You (3).

8. He met his wife because he transferred schools.

Mister Rogers attended Dartmouth for one year, then transferred to Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, where he met his future wife Sarah Joanne Bird, and graduated Magna Cum Laude with a B.A. in Music Composition.

9. His first TV job was at NBC.

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Rogers landed his first television job on NBC’s Kate Smith Hour in 1951. He worked on numerous shows there, including NBC Opera Hour and Your Lucky Strike Hit Parade.

10. His vacation home is slanted.

The Rogers's famed Crooked House on Nantucket (which is, indeed, akimbo, and requires ducking and leaning to traverse) was a wedding gift from his parents.

11. He had two sons.

The Rogers had two sons, James (born 1959) and John (born 1961). They can be seen romping in the dunes just beyond The Crooked House in the black & white outtakes of the PBS documentary, America’s Favorite Neighbor.

12. He was an avid swimmer.

Mister Rogers swam every day (including in Madaket Bay, where he met my mother in the months prior to our meeting).

13. He first showed King Friday and Daniel Striped Tiger to audiences in 1954.

In 1954, Rogers and cohost Josie Carey premiered The Children’s Corner on the Eastern Education Network, introducing Daniel Striped Tiger and King Friday.

14. We have canada to thank for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

The hour-long program that would become Mister Rogers' Neighborhood began as a 15-minute Canadian Broadcast series called, simply, MisteRogers.

15. He trained as a minister while working in TV.

Rogers worked toward his theology degree while working at WQED, graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and was ordained a minister in the Presbyterian Church in 1963.

16. He did not appreciate pie fights.

"I got into television because I saw people throwing pies in each other's faces," he said. "And that's such demeaning behavior. And if there's anything that bothers me, it's one person demeaning another."

17. He wore sneakers because they were quieter.

His trademark sneakers were born when he found them to be quieter than his dress shoes as he moved about the set.

18. He disliked distractions.

“If we take time," Rogers said, "we can often go much deeper as far as a spiritual life is concerned than we can if there's constant distraction. Often television gives such constant distraction—noise and fast-paced things—which doesn't allow us to take time to explore the deeper levels of who we are, and who we can become."

19. All the music on the show was done live.

Jazz pianist Johnny Costa, who was the Neighborhood's musical director from 1968 until his death in 1996, performed every song live in the studio during tapings.

20. He fiercely advocated for public broadcasting.

In a famous clip from 1969, Rogers appeared before United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications chair John Pastore to advocate for increased support of public broadcasting in the face of then-President Nixon's 50 percent reduction. After six minutes of thoughtful testimony advocating for the value of commercial-free television for children, the typically gruff senator replied, "I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you earned the $20 million."

21. He saved the VCR.

His 1979 testimony in the case Sony v. Universal Studios—in stark contrast to the views of television executives who objected to home recording—was cited by the Supreme Court in its decision that held that the Betamax video recorder did not infringe copyright.

22. He took his job as an educator seriously.

His efforts for children were informed for decades by working with Dr. Margaret McFarland, director of the Arsenal Family and Children’s Center in Pittsburgh, who helped provide depth and rigor to his thinking about children and education.

23. Michael Keaton got his start because of Mister Rogers.

Actor Michael Keaton's first job was as a stagehand on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, manning Picture, Picture, and appearing as Purple Panda.

24. Changing into sneakers was a matter of comfort for everyone.

The ritual of changing from dress shoes to sneakers and sport coat to cardigan while singing “It’s A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood” was intended to establish consistent, comforting routine with his young audience.

25. His mother made his cardigans.

“She knitted a sweater a month," Rogers once said. "And every Christmas she would give this extended family of ours a sweater. She would say, 'What kind do you all want next year? I know what kind you want, Freddy. You want the one with the zipper up the front.'”

26. The Smithsonian has one of those sweaters.

He donated one of his sweaters to the Smithsonian Institution in 1984. The museum calls it a "Treasure of American History."

27. He taught Tim Russert's son how to tell time with a paper plate.

Late NBC Meet The Press host Tim Russert and his journalist wife, Maureen Orth, were the Rogers’s actual Nantucket neighbors. Upon the families’ first meeting, Rogers took immediately to young Luke Russert, teaching him to tell time with a paper plate and fastener.

28. Rogers was also an avid photographer.

Rogers loved to photograph the people he met, and he took thousands of photos. (Somewhere, there are a few of me.)

29. He surprised Eddie Murphy backstage at Saturday night live.

Eddie Murphy parodied Rogers's show by setting it in a tenement and teaching kids bad words of the day, but Rogers didn't have a problem with the send-up. While guesting on an episode of The Late Show with David Letterman in 1982, Rogers dropped by the SNL studio to surprise Murphy. When Murphy saw him, he gave him a big hug.

30. He was a go-to voice for explaining tragic events to children.

NPR correspondent Susan Stamberg often called on Rogers to explain “hideous and horrible” tragedies like the 1986 explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, and the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.

31. Susan Stamberg was convinced to host a Mister Rogers special by one of his characters.

Fred asked Susan to host his 1981 special, Mister Rogers Talks To Parents About Divorce. When Susan got cold feet, Daniel Striped Tiger called to convince her that her fears were valid, but that she could do it.

32. He shared information about divorce with kids and their parents.

“One of the toughest things for children is for their parents not to get along,” Rogers said of divorce. “It feels like it’s ripping a piece of cloth apart.” During the special, Rogers addressed children’s fear of flying unaccompanied between parents.

33. His delivery man was also his PR man.

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Mr. McFeely (David Newell), who joined the Neighborhood via Pittsburgh Playhouse, acted as the director of publicity for the Fred Rogers Company for many years. He retired in 2015.

34. Rogers influenced Linda Ellerbee when she launched Nick News.

Journalist Linda Ellerbee modeled her 1991 Nick News premiere on Rogers’s values. “I wanted to incorporate the things I learned from Mister Rogers,” she said. The first being “Respect your audience.” The second was “Assume they’re just as bright as you are, they’re just younger, and shorter.”

35. He also influenced Blue's Clues.

Blue’s Clues creator Angela Santomero modeled her show after Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. “We used to speak a lot about the pausing and pacing, and how deliberately slow it was. This came from Fred: When you talk to camera, and you pace it adequately, you’re going to talk back to him. That’s what I did. I talked to him. I believed he liked me just the way that I was.”

36. Arthur made an aardvark version of Rogers.

Arthur creator Marc Brown illustrated Mister Rogers into the episode “Arthur Meets Mister Rogers,” which aired on September 27, 1997. “He had the special ability to look within every person he came in contact with and sense what things were inside you, and talk about difficult things. And when he talked to you, he was there 100 percent. He was a great teacher. That was his gift to me.”

37. He told his neighbor how to be a good neighbor for This American Life.

Rogers was featured in a May 2001 segment of This American Life called “Mr. Rothbart’s Neighborhood,” in which he counseled correspondent Davy Rothbart—who met Mister Rogers on Nantucket as a child—on how to be a good neighbor. In settling a noise dispute between neighbors, he says, “I have a feeling you're getting to know [your neighbor]. And once you do know her, then either your music isn't going to bother her so much or you're going to care so much about her that you'll probably turn it down a couple notches anyway.”

38. His show ended a week before 9/11.

The last original Mister Rogers' Neighborhood episode aired on PBS on Friday, August 31, 2001, just five days prior to our first meeting (and one week prior to September 11th).

39. He was awarded the Presidential Medal Of Freedom.

President George W. Bush awarded Rogers the highest civilian award in 2002.

40. You can visit a statue of him in Pittsburgh.

The Fred Rogers Statue created by Robert Berks (whose bust of JFK was admired by Rogers) opened to the public on Pittsburgh's North Shore in November 2009.

41. There's an asteroid named after him.

The asteroid 26858 Misterrogers was named by the International Astronomical Union on May 2, 2003.

42. Rogers's death was sudden.

Rogers's death from stomach cancer was fast and unexpected. He was diagnosed in December 2002, underwent surgery in January 2003, and passed away on the morning of February 27, 2003 at his home with Joanne by his side.

43. He prepared children for his death.

The day he died, Rogers's website posted a link to help children understand. ''Remember," it read, "that feelings are natural and normal, and that happy times and sad times are part of everyone's life."

44. There's a Fred Rogers Center that aims to use media to educate.

St. Vincent College’s Fred Rogers Center opened in 2008. The center’s mission is to “advance the fields of early learning and children’s media by acting as a catalyst for communication, collaboration, and creative change.”

45. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood has a spinoff.

Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, an animated children's television series produced by The Fred Rogers Company and Santomero’s Out of the Blue Enterprises, debuted on PBS in September 2012.

46. His legacy lives on.

Mister Rogers inspires to this day. A documentary about his life, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, came out in 2018, and the Tom Hanks-starring A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood comes out in 2019.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

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Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

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Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

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Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

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The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

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Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

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This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

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Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

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What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

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Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

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Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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Feel Nostalgic With the New Hello Kitty-Themed Tamagotchi

Bandai America/Amazon
Bandai America/Amazon

Back in November 1996, Bandai released the cult favorite Tamagotchi, a tiny virtual pet that users could feed, play with, give medicine to, and more. The name itself is actually a combination of two Japanese words, tamago and tomodachi, meaning egg and friend—and it was the toy's egg shape that was key to its distinct design. They could fit in pockets, on keychains, and inside the backpacks of any kid who wanted a distraction during the school day.

According to NME, more than 82 million of these egg-shaped digital pets have been sold since their initial release in the ‘90s, with 10 million of those coming within the first year alone. Now, the handheld pets are back again in the form of a collaboration with another famous Japanese creation, Hello Kitty.

Hello Kitty first took over hearts starting in 1974 when a Japanese company called Sanrio put the design on a vinyl coin purse. More than 45 years later, Hello Kitty (her real name is actually Kitty White) has been developed into video games, cafes, hospitals, wine, and more. This new Tamagotchi is the perfect mixture of two of Japan’s most famous brands, both of which have reached a global audience.

Bandi America/Amazon

In these new editions, Hello Kitty will help you raise your Tamagotchi. You’ll be able to feed them Hello Kitty’s favorite foods, like apple pie or milk, and play a balloon game and piano game. Based on how well you raise your Tamagotchi from an egg to an adult will determine which of the seven surprise characters you receive.

These new Tamagotchis will be released on December 1, 2020, and are available to pre-order in red and white on Amazon for $20.

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