Tue. Sep 22nd, 2020

The Radical Mister Rogers

10 min read
The Radical Mister Rogers

Collage by A. E. McClure/ Yearbook photo courtesy of the Department of College Archives and Special Collections Olin Library, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida.

Twenty-year-old Fred Rogers did not like Dartmouth College. The Ivy was a “beer-soaked, jockstrap party school,” as Maxwell King, Rogers’s recent biographer, puts it. Dartmouth also didn’t have a music major. But Rollins College, in Winter Park, Florida, did, plus a reputation as “the only New England college not located in New England.” In 1948, after two years at Dartmouth, Rogers transferred to Rollins and minored in French. “Bold move,” King summed on a phone call. Rogers had been a timid and sickly boy, overprotected. The switchover was “an instance of daring.” “And I think Rollins was the first place where Rogers really felt happy,” King told me. He’d once explained: “I just felt so much at home there.”

When I attended Rollins, sixty years after Rogers, his oil portrait hung in the concert hall, and a blue zip-front cardigan and signed canvas sneakers were encased at the library, like relics. We used to joke that a Rogers endowment bankrolled the landscapers—a huge, omnipresent force who cared for our subtropical surroundings—and frat boys boosted the urban legend that the children’s-TV host was an ex-Marine sniper.

Today, I’d shred those boys for wanting to bend the nonsmoking, teetotaling, vegetarian, pacifist mensch into a macho. Of course, Mister Rogers would not favor incivility. Mister Rogers would talk me out of it, slowly and softly. “He had this amazing ability to look into people and see past the adult façade that we present, and take a really direct look at the aching kid that’s within all of us—and to decide what that kid needed,” said the journalist Tom Junod, whose 1998 Esquire profile is the basis of the recently released A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks.

The director Marielle Heller waited almost a full calendar, until Hanks’s schedule opened up, to make it happen. “Tom was my first and only choice,” she told me. Hanks was Rogers’s favorite actor, perhaps because of his roles as the man-child in Big and the gentleman in Forrest Gump. Hanks has also been the playful cowboy in the Toy Story franchise and the boyish boss in Saving Mr. Banks. All these characters are renditions of Fred Rogers’s idée fixe that not only does the kid remain in every grown-up, a grown-up is coming of age in every kid, and that our humanity depends on keeping them conversant.

The last two years have seen a Mister Rogers boom: a documentary (the highest-grossing bio-doc ever), two biographies (Shea Tuttle’s theologically driven Exactly As You Are dropped in October), and this boffo film. But his undergraduate experience, that searching, shaping time between childhood and adulthood, has hardly been considered. In this peak Rogers moment, as a fellow alum, I had to ask: what was Fred Rogers like in college?

“He was different,” Joanne Rogers, his widow, told Jimmy Fallon last year. The couple met at the Rollins conservatory and were popular. “In his young days, he was lively and full of fun, but he talked about his feelings…” Kids who were out of sorts would drop into his dorm room “just to talk,” Fred Rogers once wrote. According to one athlete, “He had feelings for everybody, even the mean football players.” Joanne thought to herself, “‘Jeez, maybe he’ll work at an orphanage!’”

 

Rollins’s theater and chapel circa Rogers’s time there.

 

This was fifteen years before desegregation, in the Deep South, at a pastel-colored liberal-arts college of fewer than 650 students. It was in a pocket of Orlando that is historically where well-heeled Northerners wintered. Thus the town’s name, Winter Park. The long green that runs up to campus is called Central Park. The tony street it parallels, Park Avenue. Rogers’s family would arrive from Pennsylvania in a convertible with their butler-chauffeur and take a big lakefront villa nearby during the coldest months. He was sensitive about being highborn, though many of his classmates were from even greater wealth. Another lasting friend of the Rogerses, Jeannine Morrison, remembers how the driver shuttled Rogers’s adopted little sister around “like a princess.” They’d see the drop-top go by, and “Roge would say, Isn’t that disgusting. He would get so furious,” Morrison told me. He hid a Buick on the edge of campus. “He didn’t want anyone to know he had it.”

Eatonville—Zora Neal Hurston’s majority-black hometown—is a half hour from Rollins, and Rogers sometimes volunteered there. A report he penned for the Interfaith and Race Relations Committee, of which he was chairman, mentions their support of a drive for a nursing home that could function as a surgery and maternity for Winter Park’s African American community. This was Jim Crowism. There was no doctor in Eatonville who accepted black patients. Rogers noted that while there was one in Orlando, it cost $8—a lot then—to see him.

Just before Rogers’s second year started, in the county next door, young black men known as the Groveland Four were accused of raping a white teenager. A sheriff’s posse murdered one of the men. An all-white jury hastily convicted the other three. This January, the four men were posthumously pardoned, but in Rogers’s day, the local NAACP was on their defense. “We can imagine the dissonance,” Michael Long, the author of Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister, said to me when I asked him about how those years in Florida at Rollins informed Rogers’s sensitivity to race relations.

Long observes in his book that the Rollins kids didn’t join any direct action efforts. They screened documentaries and set up lectures and charitably dished resources such as books and lights at the substandard Jim Crow institutions. “Rollins was such a bastion of Southern white privilege,” Long points out, “that the work undertaken by Rogers and his committee must have appeared to some of his fellow students as downright radical.”

In Pennsylvania, Rogers’s parents had employed George Allen, the son of a black maid who’d passed away. Allen lived with them, and taught Fred how to play jazz and pilot a plane. “Rogers is moving from that model where you invited black people into your family as help, to a model where black people are undertaking educational and medical initiatives in their communities and inviting white people to come help out,” Long went on by phone. “It’s beyond paternalism but not so forward as direct action. He’s navigating a middle course that typifies the way he’ll do things after college.”

Long paused. “Rollins really connects to the show’s launch.” The taping began in September 1967, after that summer’s Detroit riot. “Again, Rogers did not march for Civil Rights or preach electoral politics.” Instead, he programmed “super intentionally.” While whites were fleeing cities for enclaves in the suburbs, in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, in the fourth episode, a black teacher stops by with her class of integrated schoolchildren and a smiling Mister Rogers greets them: “I’m glad to see you.”

“Our interest in Rogers is peaking. But you cannot understand him—or the interest in him now—outside the historical frame,” Long stressed. In our current imagination, Mister Rogers becomes an apolitical “Mister Feely-Feely. That, by the way, is how I think the Fred Rogers Center and its minions prefer to depict him.”

*

While at Rollins, Rogers was a member of the International Relations Club, president of the French Club, on the Community Service Committee and the Welcoming Committee, in the Music Guild and the invite-only Key Society (recognizing “all-around efficiency”); he was on the intramural swim team, in the choir, and staff at the chapel. To quote the chapel’s dean: “Activities are the trial run of growing up, when we try parts and roles for size and comfort.”

My involvement as an undergrad was limited to a post on the Parking Ticket Appeal Committee. It meant I was thick with campus security and had some power to get my associates out of fines. Rolly Colly, as we called Rollins, was ranked by Playboy as “the hardest-partying small school in the country” in 2010, the year after I graduated. A best-selling T-shirt adapted our motto Fiat lux (“Let there be light”) into Fiat luxury. The country club temper was out of control. Even so, we late-eighties babies comprised one of the last classes whose childhoods overlapped with Misters Rogers’ Neighborhood, and the school conjured the alumnus like a favorite son and tried to impart his brand of global citizenship on us. (Rollins plans to install a bronze likeness of Rogers in 2020.)

An etched marble plaque, “Life Is For Service,” was bolted onto one of the walls lining an arcade outside my sorority. We were told that Rogers jotted that down on some paper and stored it in his wallet for the rest of his life. He did. But collegiate Rogers was also a funnyman. “Roge liked to cover the ‘Ser,’” Morrison told me, “so that it read “Life Is for vice.” Once, when the senior boys were mandated to come to the evening meal in coats and ties, “He rolled up in a coat and a tie, and no pants!” At Rollins, he wrote satirical lyrics to “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” later sung by him as the grandiose puppet King Friday XIII:

Propel propel propel your craft
Gently down liquid solution
Ecstatically ecstatically ecstatically ecstatically
Existence is but an illusion

Here and there, The Sandspur, the school weekly, reported that Rogers had composed a new fugue or “honored everyone with some of his original songs” at a Halloween bash. When he acted with Anthony Perkins (Alfred Hitchcock’s future Psycho lead) in the play “The Madwoman of Chaillot,” the review said Tony gave a “smooth performance” and Freddy “added a successful comic touch, although he lacked projection.”

 

“The inimitable Fred Rogers” at a Halloween party in 1950. Clipping from the student paper courtesy of the Department of College Archives and Special Collections Olin Library, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida.

 

After Rogers transferred in, Rollins’s long-serving, much-loved president bowed out. Newcomer Paul Wagner had pioneered audio-visuals in the classroom and was “hunky” and “bossy,” according to Joanne. He was the youngest college president in the country—just thirty-one, the New York Times and Newsweek noticed.

The trustees tasked their new “Boy Wonder” with economizing. Because football operated in the hole, it was axed. That probably didn’t phase Rogers. However, when the president cut the housemothers from the men’s dorms, Rogers sent him a five-page letter (referenced here for the first time): “So since college is a little life in our big life and our childhood is such a deciding factor to our adult happiness and the college freshman year corresponds to our childhood—I’m concerned about the freshmen,” he wrote, underlining. Decisions at Rollins were traditionally crowdsourced (even classes were done as round tables) and that MO would stick with Rogers throughout his career.

 

From Rogers’s 1950 letter to President Wagner. Courtesy of Joanne Rogers.

 

Wagner did not respond, and the housemothers issue seems to have compelled Rogers to run for student government. He lost, but Rogers was among the students who formed an emergency steering committee when, not long after, Wagner sacked a third of the faculty in response to declining enrollment. Rogers was “something of a campus activist” and “a leader,” King writes, dispensing quickly (and vaguely) with the phase in his biography. “One of the interesting aspects of Fred’s role on campus in this period—Joanne called him a ‘rabble-rouser’—is that he never repeated it later in life.”

Pro- and anti-Wagner factions poisoned the school and town. “This enormous explosion!” said one of the deans, recalling how much of the student body went full-tilt for the twenty-three canceled profs. The New Yorker punched Wagner in “Talk of the Town,” Time and Life covered the squeeze (“a case history of what lies in store for countless small colleges”). The student weekly foamed. I asked King whether he believed the nasty twelve-week ouster—which concluded when cops walked Wagner off campus—taught Rogers to keep clear of politics. “He didn’t like conflict, contention, strife. He had this brush with that at Rollins and backed away from it,” King said. “From a programming standpoint, you can argue that he was quite radical. On a personal level, I think he became very cautious.”

This goes to the center of it. Until the election of Donald Trump, the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was titled The Radical Mister Rogers. The filmmaker (owing much to Long’s book) realized that billing “would turn off people who needed to see it.” Joanne told me the premiere at Sundance was attended by cross-party politicians; in fact, she’d heard it “pleased both sides.” In the outright sense, she allowed, Rogers did not behave politically. “Many parents wouldn’t have let their kids watch.” (The national broadcast of Neighborhood was sponsored by the Sears-Roebuck Foundation, and “Sears would not have wanted to lose people.”) “But if both sides were pleased with the doc,” held Long, “either one side wasn’t paying close attention or its treatment of Rogers’s leftist politics was insufficient.”

“Rogers sure as hell was political—the Neighborhood messaged countercultural values like diplomacy over militancy—and he himself got vocal when the wellbeing of children was at stake,” Long added. (The housemothers letter I found archived at Rollins is a precocious example of that.) He was close to Senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania, and lobbied for Heinz’s bill to exempt one parent of military couples or single parents from deployment during the Gulf War. “Does the U.S. Congress have little or no understanding of early trauma due to premature separation anxiety?” Rogers asked Heinz, upset when the bill failed.

Whatever differences exist between the rabble-rousing college student, and the more restrained man we all knew on television, certain essential elements of Rogers were there all along.

 

Chantel Tattoli is a freelance journalist. She’s contributed to the New York Times MagazineVanityFair.com, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Orion and is at work on a cultural biography of Copenhagen’s statue of the Little Mermaid.

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