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Fred Rogers dedicated his life to serving children. He was a pioneer in educational television and a PBS icon. His show “Misters Rogers’ Neighborhood” ran for decades. In December 2002, Diane Rehm spoke with Rogers about his new parenting book, his career and the importance of fostering self-esteem at an early age. A year after this interview, Fred Rogers passed away. This remains one of Diane’s favorite on-air conversations and she wanted to share it with you during this last week of the show as one of our “farewell favorites.”
- Fred Rogers late actor, author
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Most of you know Fred Rogers as the host of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," the children's television program that's been seen for more than three decades on Public Television stations. Fred Rogers is also an ordained minister, a student of child development and a father and grandfather. All these experiences are shared in his new book, "The Mr. Rogers' Parenting Book" and he joins us this hour from the studios of WQED in Pittsburgh.
MS. DIANE REHMWe'll take your calls throughout the hour. Do join us on 1-800-433-8850. Well, Mr. Rogers, what a great pleasure to talk with you.
MR. FRED ROGERSGood morning, Diane Rehm. I pleased to talk with you, too, here from Pittsburgh and the neighborhood of make-believe.
REHMYou know I think you and I may have the two slowest voices in broadcasting.
ROGERSWell, don't you think we need some slowness?
REHMI do, I do.
ROGERSSome deep, deep and simple times.
ROGERSIn this life.
REHMYou know, our 42-year-old son was in town yesterday because we were cooking together. And I mentioned to him that you were going to be on the program this morning and asked whether he remember that I used to save my ironing till the end of the day so that he, his sister and I could all watch your program together and indeed, he did. What a delight your program is.
ROGERSWell, thank you and it's a treat to know that you and your family grew up with us.
REHMAbsolutely. I understand that the very first time you saw television, you were not very impressed.
ROGERSWell, no, I saw it when I was a senior at Rawlins College and I was home for the Easter holiday and I just saw people throwing pies in each other's faces. And I thought, you know, if this medium is going to be in everybody's home, and, of course, at that time, it was in very few people's homes, I thought, this could be used for a lot better than that. And so I was all set to go to seminary as soon as I graduated from college. And I said to my parents, you know, I think I'd like to try television.
ROGERSAnd they said, what?
ROGERSYou've never even seen it. And I said, well, I've seen enough of it to know that I'd really like to put my hand in it.
REHMAnd actually, in college, you also majored in music composition.
ROGERSYes. And so I was able to write all the songs for the neighborhood, you know.
ROGERSI'm sitting by the piano right here at the WQED...
REHMOh, I hope you'll keep playing for us.
ROGERSOh, thanks. Tell me about your son.
REHMOur son is a professor of philosophy at a college in Emmetsburg, Maryland, called Mount Saint Mary's.
REHMAnd our daughter, who is 38, is a physician and she works at the Leahy Clinic outside Boston.
ROGERSWow. You must be mighty proud of them.
REHMYou bet I am. And I believe that one of the reasons they are such good and decent human beings is that they did glean from your programs those values of kindness and caring and gentleness toward other people. For you, that must have been something that was truly elemental in your makeup.
ROGERSI had wonderful parents, Diane, and grandparents. And I even knew my great grandmother. And I think that the fruit doesn't fall terribly far from the tree and my parents always seemed to be thinking about other people. And my grandparents, during the 1918 flu epidemic, they got a group of people together and set up, in the armory of the small town where we all lived, an auxiliary hospital because the main hospital was completely filled with the people who had flu.
ROGERSAnd it was things like that, I mean, my grandfather said, well, you just can't have people -- you just can't have sick people sitting out in the street.
REHMSo they really passed on to you that sense of the obligation that we, as human beings, have for each other. I understand you suffered several illnesses as a young child. Can you tell us about that?
ROGERSOh, just all those childhood diseases. You know, I had practically every one of those. And you were quarantined in those days.
ROGERSYou had to stay in your bed in the house.
REHMAnd you had the curtains drawn for fear, especially with measles, that you might hurt your eyesight.
ROGERSExactly. And it was during those times that I would make up all kinds of stories with the toys that I had, you know, little miniature figures, I'd have them all over the bed. I'm sure that was the beginning of the neighborhood of make-believe, you know. You may remember King Friday XIII. It's was a -- it's with great pleasure that I speak with you today, Ms. Rehm, yes. And I certainly am pleased to be in your neighborhood, Diane Rehm. This is Queen Sarah speaking.
REHMOf course it is. How nice to meet you.
ROGERSThank you. Oh, I see X the owl up in the air. Just a moment. Oh, X, come talk with Diane Rehm. I always wanted to meet you, Diane. This is X the owl.
REHMWell, I'm so pleased to meet you.
ROGERSWell, thanks and my neighbor is Henrietta Pussycat. Just a second, I'll get her. (knocking) Meow. Hey, Hen, come on out here. Meow, meow, meow, meow. Yes, it's Diane Rehm. Meow, meow, Diane Rehm. Meow, meow love meow program.
REHMOh, Meow, you're just marvelous. I'm so pleased to meet you.
ROGERSMeow, too. Meow, meow, meow, visit, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow. Well, that's for sure.
REHMOh, how wonderful. Well, actually, isn't that how you got your start in television? You started with a Public Television station there at WQED and helped to develop The Children's Corner.
ROGERSYes. And Josie Carey was the hostess and Mrs. Dorothy Daniel was the general manager of the station. And the night before we went on the air, and that was in 1953, Mrs. Daniel gave us all favors at a party that she had. And the one favor she gave to me was a little tiger puppet. And I thought, oh, you know, we really should try to use that on the air just to show that we have affection for Mrs. Daniel. And so the next day, I said to Josie, you know, we haven't planned to use puppets at all, but just for today, why don't I poke this little tiger through the back of the set and we can call him Daniel in honor of Mrs. Daniel?
ROGERSAnd she said, oh, that'll be fine. So on that first program, I poked the little tiger through and said, hello, Josie, it's 5:04 and Columbus discovered America in 1493. And she said, well, Daniel, I'm so glad to meet you. And they talked for a little while and I thought that would be the end of it. Well, that was just the beginning. And it's almost 50 years ago, Diane, that we did that.
REHMOh. That's just extraordinary. And...
ROGERSAnd so Daniel...
REHM...it was back in 1960, you see, that my first child was born so I've been with you for many, many of those years. For those of you who joined us a little late, Fred Rogers is with us. And, of course, for all these years, he's been the host of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," which is now going into syndication. Mr. Rogers has also written a new book. It's called "The Mister Rogers' Parenting Book." He joins us from WQED in Pittsburgh and, of course, he has his piano and all of his friends with him.
REHMMay I speak, Mr. Rogers, please, again to Meow, Meow?
ROGERSMeow, meow, meow, meow, Diane Rehm.
REHMI so wanted to talk with you again because I didn't want you to leave without my letting you know how fond I am of kitty cats.
ROGERSMeow, meow, meow, pussy cat, meow?
ROGERSMeow, meow, meow, Henrietta Pussycat, meow, meow name.
REHMExactly, Henrietta Pussycat. You are absolutely wonderful and I...
ROGERSMeow so glad.
REHMOh. And all your friends. You have so many friends around you and friends are so important for little children, aren't they?
ROGERSIsn't that so? I’m just -- was thinking in the -- talking about the parenting book that there are so many different people who parent these days, you know. Not just mothers and fathers. Grandparents parent, aunts and uncles do parenting, childcare workers, babysitters, teachers, neighbors. There are so many people that I feel want to understand young children so that they can be all the more effective in their parenting.
REHMAnd you know, for me, my husband and I have been married now for 43 years, an anniversary we'll celebrate this week, but it seems to me that the two jobs for which we have the greatest obligations and the two hardest jobs in the world for which we have no training whatsoever are marriage and parenting. And for that reason, I'm awfully glad you've written your new book.
ROGERSWell, thank you. I think that the only training that we have for them is that we grew up with parents and so we often take on the role of those who parented us because -- yeah.
REHMAnd if they parented well, that's wonderful.
ROGERSIt's a blessing.
REHMOf course. And then we can pass that on to our own children in that form. If, unfortunately, as we know, many too young people become parents without that kind of role modeling, then indeed it does have a problem. Mr. Rogers, we need to take just a short break here. And when we come back, we have so many callers who'd like to join this conversation. Will you be patient, please?
ROGERSI certainly will and I'll welcome those who want to join with us.
REHMAll right. We'll be right back.
REHMFor those of you who just joined us, Mr. Rogers of television fame, that sweet, wonderful knowing, wise man who, for 50 years, has hosted "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" joins me. He has a brand new book out, one that I know many of you will welcome. It's called "The Mister Rogers Parenting Book." You can join us on 1-800-433-8850. Mr. Rogers, I'm so longing to hear one of your songs. I know that this year you delivered a commencement address at Dartmouth College where you sang one of your songs. I think you know which one I mean.
ROGERSOh, is it the one called, "It's You I Like"?
REHMThat's exactly right.
ROGERSAnd it is you I like. Thank you.
REHMThank you. I would imagine that those Dartmouth students probably gave you a standing ovation for that song. We've had an email from Ruth. She says, "thank you, Mr. Rogers. My daughter, now 17 years old, and I were devoted fans of yours. When she was 4, I left the room momentarily and returned to find her gone and the television running. She was in her room cleaning up. Mr. Rogers says if you want to say I love you to your parents, you could clean your room.
REHMSeveral years later, when she announced she was too old for your show, I intended to write you and thank you because you were part of our family and never did. So years tardy, here's my heartfelt thanks."
ROGERSHow generous of her to say that. But, you know, that comes from another song, Diane.
ROGERS"There are many ways to say I love You." I won't sing it, but there are so many ways to say I love you.
REHMAre you sure you don't want to sing it?
ROGERSWell, the middle part is (singing) cleaning up a room can say I love you before you're asked to do it. Drawing special pictures for the holidays and making plays, you'll find many ways to say I love you, you'll find many ways to understand what love is, many ways, many ways, many ways to say I love you. Isn't that what life's all about, trying to find many different ways to say I love you.
ROGERSIf the world could...
REHMAnd we have another email here from Paul's Church, Virginia, from John who says, "I'm 33 now, but Mr. Rogers was a huge part of my childhood. IN fact, when I sat for the CPA exam a few years ago, mom wrote Mr. Rogers about it. He responded with an autographed picture and a letter wishing me good luck. Mr. Rogers, you are special just because you're you."
ROGERSOh, John. What a marvelous memory. And to think that people can use the work that you've given over the air, I mean, that must give you great satisfaction, Diane, to know that there are those who are listening to your words and being nourished by them.
REHMI so appreciate your saying that. You know, in fact, I've been doing this program now for more than 23 years and we now have a second generation of listeners coming along, the children of those whose parents have listened to the program for years. So yes, you're right. It gives me great satisfaction, but it also makes me feel very humble to have had the opportunity to go into people homes, cars and offices for all these years.
ROGERSYeah, you've been a radio neighbor to many.
REHMIndeed. Let's open the phones now. And, first, we'll go to Plymouth, Ind., and to MaryJo. Good morning to you, MaryJo.
MARYJOGood morning, Diane. Good morning, Mr. Rogers.
ROGERSGood morning, MaryJo.
MARYJOOh, I'm so excited to talk to you. And I just wanted to call and thank you so much for shaping my daughters' lives. I have an 11-year old and a 5-year old. And I just told the 5-year-old, I said, now, Andrea, I need for you to be quiet because I'm going to talk to Mr. Rogers on the radio. And she said, is he really?
MARYJOAnd I said, he sure is. We had the opportunity to visit Pittsburg several years ago and my -- when my husband told me we were going for his work for a short time, I was so excited, because I thought, oh, I want to go see them tape "Mister Rogers." And we were so disappointed when we found out there weren't any, you know, audience viewers for the taping. But we did visit the children's museum and we saw some of the retired puppets and we sure enjoyed that.
MARYJOAnd then I also wanted to tell you that whenever PBS has children's shows on -- because our PBS affiliate doesn't have children's programming the whole day -- but whenever they do, there's no other TV station or video or any computer. They want to do something that's involving electronic screen, it's PBS only.
REHMAw, that's marvelous. Thank you so much for calling, MaryJo.
ROGERSThank you, MaryJo. It's a treat to hear about your family. And I wish you well in all that you do.
REHMYou know, speaking of television, Mr. Rogers, many parents have been so concerned about the violent images on television. For example, the ones that are real, such as 9/11. What do you think parents can do to help their children make sense of those kinds of images?
ROGERSIt's very difficult with them being so pervasive. But I think the best thing we can do is first try to understand what our children are thinking, to try to be good listeners to begin with. I was listening to some children after the 9/11 catastrophe, and I was amazed to discover that many of them thought that that was happening every half hour...
ROGERS... of the day and night, because of the repeats...
ROGERS...on the -- the news was being rebroadcast over and over again, and the children thought this was happening every, every minute. And they also -- some of the very young ones, thought that it was happening in their town, not very far away. And so, I think the best thing we can do for very young children is to, first of all, try to understand what they're understanding of it is. But then, to let them know that we will do everything we can, as the adults in their life, to keep them safe. Even if we're scared, we are the adults and we need to be strong as the children are growing. And let them know that we really will be in charge and we will keep them safe.
REHMIn your book, "The Mister Rogers' Parenting Book," you talk a little about how children confront their fears through play.
ROGERSYes. I did that a lot when I was sick as a child. I made up all sorts of characters that could help me through those times. And I think that play is one of the most essential ingredients of a child's life. And to be able to make up solutions through puppetry or any kind of imagery is an enormous help for a child. I loved being able just to give raw materials for play for children, just to see what they do with it.
REHMYou're talking about simple materials, such as puppets or blocks or that kind of thing.
ROGERSExactly. And things that the children can use to draw and make up the -- do you know, Diane, that we have learned, in studying literacy, that one of the greatest helps in the development of literacy is dining room table conversation.
ROGERSWhen children and adults get together to have dinner -- and this doesn't happen all that often in our society, you know -- they -- there's a give and take. They learn new ideas. They learn new words. But the table conversation is just essential for helping children get ready to learn to read.
REHMThere are so many parents who are introducing computers at earlier and earlier ages, with computer games and teaching that child to use a computer and seeing these images on the screens. What is your reaction to those very young children learning these computer games?
ROGERSWell, there are some games that are quite educational and not scary. But there are many that are quite frightening. And I think that it's important for us to realize that we are the children's parents or grandparents or teachers, and let them know what we feel. You know, children long to belong. They want to know what their family stands for. They want to know what their school stands for. And even if they say, oh, I want to do this instead. When you say, you know, that's not the way our family works. This is who we are. I think they really love to know that they are part of something important.
REHMAt 25 before the hour, you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go back to the telephones to Westminster, Md. Good morning, Rebecca, you're on the air.
REBECCAHi. I am so pleased to speak with you. I admire you so much and listen to you every day.
REHMThank you very much.
REBECCAAnd I am just so thrilled and feel so privileged to get to speak to Mr. Rogers. I wanted to tell him about his affect on our autistic child. Back in the '70s, when he was in his toddler and later childhood ages there, he was so involved with himself and so removed from what was going on in the world around him, that the television could be on and all of his siblings excited and laughing and enjoying a program, and he would be sitting with his back to everyone and just self absorbed. But when "Mister Rogers" came on, he would turn and sit and watch the television. And he listened and he connected with "Mister Rogers." And I think that that was a starting point for him to become less involved with himself...
REBECCA...and more involved with some of the things that were around him. And he learned to listen and to enjoy other people and enjoy activities as the years went by. He is 30 -- let's see -- 32 now.
REHMAnd how is he?
REBECCAHe is married.
REHMOh, I'm so glad.
REBECCAHe has a son of his own who is the most beautiful grandchild in the world.
REHMOh, I'm so glad. That must make you very, very happy, Mr. Rogers, to hear that kind of comment.
ROGERSWell, I must say that Rebecca's call is the greatest gift that I could have today. And I'm speaking in a halting way because I'm practically in tears. I didn't know her son personally. But to think that he grew up in a family that allowed him to become himself at a schedule in which he was able to become himself...
ROGERS...is, to me, such a blessing. And now you see that the -- that he, having his own son, I bet he is a compassionate father.
REBECCAHe did. He learned compassion. Over the years, as he grows, he still learns that when he learned compassion, it was so rewarding and so heartening to us. Because we had been told that most autistics never learn...
REBECCA...to have sympathy and to feel for others. And he does. He is a very tenderhearted boy now and a wonderful father. Oh, he loves that baby.
REHMOh, I'm so glad, Rebecca.
ROGERSI hope you'll give hugs to both him and his little son.
REHMAnd if you joined us a little late, Fred Rogers is with me. You know him as the host of that wonderful daily program, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." He now has a new book out. It's called the "Mister Rogers' Parenting Book: Helping to Understand Your Young Child." We'll take just a short break. And when we come back, we'll talk more to Mr. Rogers, with your questions and comments. Please stay with us.
REHMWell, Mr. Rogers, we're back again. Are you and all of your friends there?
ROGERSYou bet we are.
ROGERSI don't know whether you know that song, but...
ROGERSTo be able to acknowledge that there are people who have needs, and that's everybody.
REHMHow do you feel about the fact, and I must say I regard myself as at times a subject of ridicule because of my voice and because it is slow and has such a wavery tone to it, how do you regard the fact that you have been made fun of, you've been mocked by some perhaps who've done it lovingly but nevertheless have made you a subject of their comedy?
ROGERSWell, you know, at first, I thought I wonder why people do that because each one of us is unique, and that just happens to be who I am. But then one day I was at NBC in New York, and I was walking down the corridor, and the man who played on "Saturday Night Live" came out, and he was one of the people who did Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood, you know, and he came out and said the real Mr. Rogers. This was Eddie Murphy.
ROGERSAnd he said, oh, the real Mr. Rogers, and he put his arms around me and gave me a big hug. And I thought, well, you really have been doing that with a lot of affection. And that happened also when I was with Mr. Carson, Johnny Carson on his program one time, and he said, you know, we've had these takeoffs about you, and I just want you to know that I would've never done it if we hadn't liked you.
ROGERSWe don't want to make somebody famous that we don't like.
REHMExactly. Oh, that's wonderful. All right, go ahead.
ROGERSDo people do that -- I mean, do people, do they do takeoffs on Diane Rehm?
REHMWell, I have a voice problem, Mr. Rogers, it's called spasmodic dysphonia, and I have to have treatments to the vocal chords periodically. But I have to assume that because I'm still on the air after all these years that there is a growing tolerance, that there is an appreciation for the content of what we do rather than focusing so much on a problematic voice.
ROGERSWell Diane, it's -- it seems to me that it's exactly what we talk about on the neighborhood all the time, and that is what's inside is far more important than what's on the outside. You know, Saint-Exupéry, in his book "The Little Prince," said (speaking in foreign language) what is essential is invisible to the eye. And he goes on to say that it's only with the heart that we see clearly.
REHMWell, that moves right into this email from Dennis, who says I am now in my final year of seminary to become a Catholic priest. I am currently a transitional deacon. God willing I will be ordained priest in the spring. I believe growing up as a child knowing that Fred Rogers was a minister was a large influence in making my decision.
ROGERSMy, my, thank you for that, Dennis.
REHMIsn't that lovely?
REHMAnd we have a caller in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Don, who'd like to speak with you. Good morning, sir.
DONGood morning, Diane, good morning, Fred.
ROGERSGood morning, Don.
DONOne of the things, Fred, for which I respect you and for which I don't think you get enough credit is that you did not become a commercial sellout. You didn't endorse a line of clothing or games or toys, and while "Sesame Street" and Barney and the rest delivered generations of kids into the open arms of Kmart and Sears and so on, you did not, and I thank you for that.
ROGERSWell, you're generous to mention that. There -- as you can imagine, there have been opportunities for such things, but I've always felt that whatever we've produced, I would like it simply to be something that would extend the neighborhood and to help people to use our work better, and that's why we've concentrated on recordings and books. And this latest book, I don't know whether you've seen it, Don, but it took us about 50 years to write it. I'm not being too facetious because all of the things that people have given us through the years, through their comments and their anecdotes, I've tried to make this parenting book not only for mothers and fathers but for grandparents and childcare workers and all those who come in contact with very young children.
ROGERSI've wanted to give the legacy that -- that really has been given to me through the years. I've worked with such wonderful people.
DONAgain I thank you for your focus and for the purity of your efforts.
REHMAll right, sir, thanks so much for your call.
ROGERSThank you, Don.
REHMAnd now to Dallas, Texas, and to George, good morning to you.
GEORGEGood morning, Diane, and good morning, Mr. Rogers.
ROGERSGood morning, George.
GEORGEOriginally I called with the thought of why you decided early on to make music such a major part of how you communicate with people, but as I was sitting here listening to the discussion, I began to see a parallel in my life with yours. I, too, was sick early on, and I think a lot of what I am today I credit to that time when I had to be alone and be comfortable with myself and develop a sense of creativity.
GEORGEAnd I wonder if children today lose that with all the commercial games and commercial toys that are available and don't develop into their full potential because their sense of imagination isn't challenged. So basically it's really two questions, the music and the sense of imagination.
ROGERSThe music I think came from my grandfather. He just -- his name was Mr. McFeely incidentally, and that's why we call our speedy deliveryman Mr. McFeely. But my grandfather early on would teach us songs, and he played the fiddle, and I think that one of the most satisfying times of my life was when I was able to accompany him as he played, it was a song called...
ROGERSI'll never forget that time.
REHMOh, it's a wonderful song.
ROGERSAnd he would play the fiddle, and I would play the piano, but just the other night I was feeling a little blue, and I went to the piano, and I could literally laugh and cry through the tips of my fingers.
REHMWhy were you feeling blue?
ROGERSOh, I think it was just because I had a stomach ache. But I'm so used to good health, you know, that I like to be able to be strong and be able to do whatever the assignment is. And there are times when we realize hey, you know, we don't have to be perfect. And that's such a relief.
REHMAbsolutely. At seven minutes before the hour, you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Mr. Rogers, you...
ROGERSYou know, I didn't answer the rest of George's call.
REHMOh forgive me, you're absolutely right, please go ahead.
ROGERSWell, he was talking about these videogames and things taking away the possibility of creativity. And I think that -- I see it with my grandchildren. I think that they find different ways of expressing their creativity, and one of them just takes off and dances whenever he feels he needs to express himself. But he also is exceedingly adept at these little games, these videogames.
ROGERSAnd so I think that we all find our own way, and I hope the children know that it's perfectly fine not to do the same thing that their neighbors are doing all the time. Life is a continuum, and so are the ways of expressing life and creativity. There's -- there's no perfect parent, there's no perfect child, but we all are human. And that's what I dedicate my work to.
REHMYou did not tape that last show with a sense of finality as far as somehow saying goodbye to those children.
REHMI presume that was deliberate?
ROGERSOh yes. This -- this library of tapes that we've developed, you know, we have about 1,000 programs, it's really evergreen, and we deal with most of the major growth tasks of childhood in many different ways, and those programs can be used forever.
REHMSo they will go on. "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" will be with another generation of children, at least. What would you like to play for us as we end our time together?
ROGERSWell, I'd like to ask you. Would you like "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," or would you like the song that we usually sing at the end, which is...
ROGERSAnd I feel that we are, Diane, thank you.
REHMOh, Fred Rogers, I have so looked forward to this hour and so enjoyed talking with you. I'm appreciative for your new book, "The Mr. Roger's Parenting Book." I think it's going to help an awful lot of people, just as your program for all these years has been with and supported so many children. Thank you so much.
ROGERSThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks to all of our listeners. I'm Diane Rehm.
REHMThe interview you've just heard with Fred Rogers was originally broadcast on December 17, 2002. It's one of our farewell favorites. Thanks for listening.
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