Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, it was almost a given that young children watched at least a few episodes of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” And I’m pretty sure I watched more than just a few! I remember well the episode where we saw how crayons were made, as well as the episode where Mister Rogers visited a lighthouse. The Land of Make Believe was a familiar place – both on the show, and the ride at Idlewild Park, which my family and I visited several summers in a row. So it was with no small amount of nostalgia that I started the new book by Maxwell King – “The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers.” My nostalgia was only deepened by the fact that I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by none other than LeVar Burton of “Reading Rainbow,” another touchstone from my childhood.
King, formerly the head of The Pittsburgh Foundation, brings us the first full-length biography of Rogers. In so doing, he draws on an abundance of sources, including the recollections of many who worked with the late educator. The result is a well-developed and thoughtful portrait of the man so many of us grew up with. Rogers himself grew up in Latrobe, in what must be described as an often lonely childhood. The awkward and obese only child of the richest family in town, Rogers began to work with puppets early. In fact, he was generally more comfortable acting in a behind-the-scenes role, speaking through the puppets he created. His life took an unlikely turn when he entered the field of education, mentored by University of Pittsburgh child psychologist Margaret McFarland. Both had strong views on the education of children, and this shaped not only the content of his later shows but also the language used to convey the information. Carefully tailored to avoid any potential misunderstanding, the script for every show was vigorously edited by Rogers. This meticulous craft sometimes frustrated other producers, especially on one occasion when filming halted mid-shoot for several hours of script edits.
The relative wealth that had helped isolate Rogers as a child became a strength. Strongly opposed to advertisements aimed at children, Rogers remained in a financial position to successfully resist monetizing the show. It just didn’t fit with his views, and he had enough clout to halt any discussion of it. Anyone looking for shocking details hidden from the public for decades will be largely disappointed. Rogers did struggle at times to relate to his children as they entered their teenage years, but this isn’t exactly a unique frustration.
In the end, King’s biography shows us that Fred Rogers was exactly who we thought he was. Kind and considerate, patient with children and their concerns, his on-screen persona was no act. Driven by noble goals, he devoted his life to a different way of educating. To all of us who were touched by his efforts, he was indeed our good neighbor.
Reviewer Brady Clemens is the district consultant librarian at Schlow Centre Region Library.