A television icon was born on Feb. 19, 1968, when PBS began distributing Mister Rogers' Neighborhood nationally. Host Fred Rogers would gain acclaim and worldwide fame during the next 33 years by imparting a simple message to children - he liked them just the way they were.
The man the world came to know as Mr. Rogers was born Fred McFeely Rogers in Latrobe, Pa., on March 20, 1928. After a year at Dartmouth College, Rogers transferred to Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., and graduated with a degree in music in 1951. He had planned to attend seminary school but found himself working a variety of jobs in the fledgling medium known as television (he would graduate from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and be ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1963). Rogers came to Pittsburgh to work on The Children's Corner, which debuted on WQED, the city's PBS affiliate, in April 1954. His jobs included producer, puppeteer and musician.
Rogers created a 15-minute children's show while living in Canada, and upon returning to WQED began developing a local half-hour program. The inaugural episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood saw Rogers walk through his television house's front door, take off his raincoat and suit jacket and put on a sweater. Unlike the red one he later donated to the Smithsonian Institution, Rogers' sweater that day was button down rather than zippered. To Rogers, his show was a method of ministering to children. The show became so popular it attracted celebrity guests including David Copperfield, Tony Bennett, Lynn Swann, Stomp and Julia Child.
In 1969, Rogers testified before the U.S. Senate about the importance of public broadcasting. Advocacy was needed. Earlier that year, President Richard Nixon had expressed his desire to cut the proposed funding for public television, which he vocally opposed, to $10 million, a 50 percent decrease. During his testimony he noted that his show at the time had a budget of $6,000, which could buy less than two minutes of cartoons. He expressed concern about the content being delivered to America's children and noted that his show dealt with such topics as the "inner drama of childhood." Subcommittee of Communications Chairman John O. Pastore initially seemed somewhat hostile to Rogers but soon admitted that the testimony gave him goose bumps. When Rogers finished, Pastore told him that he had earned the $20 million. Rogers' testimony was credited with playing a pivotal role in Congress' increasing funding to approximately $22 million in 1971. Video of his testimony circulated again after Gov. Mitt Romney threatened to cut funding for PBS during the 2012 presidential campaign.
Rogers' many awards included the Presidential Medal of Freedom, two Peabodys, four Emmys and a National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences lifetime achievement award. TV Guide named him one of the "50 greatest TV stars of all time" in 1996. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1998 and was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame the following year. The Religious Communications Council gave Rogers the Lifetime Wilbur Award in 2000 for supporting religious values in the public media.
Production of the show ended in December 2000, and the final original episodes aired eight months later. Rogers used his newfound free time to work on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood Web site, write books and fulfill long-planned speaking engagements. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer in December 2002 and underwent surgery early the following month. On Feb. 27, 2003, he died at home in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood with his wife of 50 years, Joanne, by his side.