Life is a curious journey. Certainly when Fred and I married, neither he nor I expected to find ourselves on the road that was ahead of us…. [But] Fred knew what kind of journey he wanted…. Somehow, from what he saw on television in 1951, he knew in his heart that there could be a connection between television, the real needs of human beings (particularly children), and spirituality. All through his life, he focused on learning all he could about each of those three elements—and that’s why he was able to weave them so skillfully together in the magnificent tapestry of his lifework.joanne rogers
Life is for service
In 1946, Fred enrolled at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire to study French, but his passion for music was even stronger than his love of languages. Because of its highly respected music department, Fred soon transferred to Rollins College in Florida. At Rollins, he became friends with a lively group of music students, one of whom was his wife-to-be, Joanne Byrd. Joanne earned a Master’s degree in performance and became a concert pianist and teacher.
At Rollins, Fred delved deeply into the study of musical composition. He dazzled his classmates with his ability to improvise melodies and play popular songs of the day by ear. Fred considered becoming a professional songwriter, and he dreamed of breaking into Tin Pan Alley.
His interest in working with children emerged while he was in college. He wrote a children’s story for a French class; years later, he would incorporate elements of that story into several episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. During a break in his studies, Fred visited family friends in a small town in France, where he met children from the town orphanage; there was one child with whom he remained in touch throughout his entire life. The visit was both memorable and formative; Joanne later said that she thought Fred might one day run an orphanage.
Along with his interests in music and in children, Fred was also drawn to the life of the spirit. He considered a career in the ministry. But in 1951, while home on spring break during his senior year of college, Fred happened to watch some televised children’s programs. He was appalled. “When I first saw [children’s] television,” Fred remembered later, “it was perfectly horrible. It was people throwing pies at each other, and I thought it was so demeaning. This was a medium that could do wonderful things. I went into it because I thought children deserved better.”
After receiving his Bachelor’s degree in music composition, Fred headed to New York City, starting as an apprentice on NBC’s music programs. Right from the start, his work was inspired by the words he had seen inscribed in a breezeway on the Rollins campus—“Life Is for Service.” Television offered Fred a way to embrace this motto. But even he did not know how powerful—and how pervasive—the brand-new medium would become, nor how pivotal his own role in it would prove to be.
WHAT WE MOST DEEPLY HOPE FOR IS REAL
After two years in New York, Fred and Joanne returned to Pittsburgh. He had decided to work with WQED, the first community-sponsored public television station in the nation. At the suggestion of family friend Dr. Jarvis Cotton, Fred also decided at that time to pursue his earlier interest in the ministry by enrolling part-time at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
Attending seminary classes during his lunch hours, he applied his gift for languages to reading the Old Testament in Greek and Hebrew; he took courses in pastoral counseling, systematic theology, and homiletics, the study of crafting a sermon, for which he won a senior prize. One of Fred’s seminary professors urged him to meet Dr. Margaret McFarland, child psychologist and professor of child development at the University of Pittsburgh, and to take graduate-level courses in child development. Those courses, and the opportunities for direct work with children, helped deepen his understanding of the needs and concerns of the young.
Fred’s seminary studies reaffirmed his own natural inclinations: kindness, compassion, goodness, reflection, and love for one’s neighbor. His growing spirituality complemented his already gentle, caring temperament and strengthened his commitment to affirming the dignity of individuals, participating in a community, and protecting the environment.
The values that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood encouraged in children—to be receptive, feeling, and hopeful people—were in close alignment with Fred’s spiritual principles. “Whether we talk about it or not, we human beings long to know that we are lovable, that we have value, that what we most deeply hope for is real,” Fred stated in his April 1995 address at the sesquicentennial celebration of the founding of the Saint Vincent community in Latrobe. “We want to be sure that the madness of violence, greed, hatred, even death itself is not the final word of our existence.”
In 1962, after eight years of part-time studies, Fred received his Master of Divinity degree; he was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1963. Rather than being assigned to a particular congregation, Fred was given the unique charge to serve children and families through the medium of television.