Take Note: Maxwell King Talks About His Book "The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers"

Jan 31, 2020

Maxwell King talks about his book that tells the story of Fred Rogers.
Credit photo provided

Maxwell King is the best-selling author of "The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers." King talks about why he wrote the book and gives insight into the life of Mister Rogers, the unfailingly kind, compassionate namesake neighbor of the beloved "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

To learn more about Rogers' legacy visit the Fred Rogers Center and Fred Rogers Productions.

TRANSCRIPT:

Carolyn Donaldson: Welcome to Take Note on WPSU, I'm Carolyn Donaldson. Today, we're joined by Maxwell King, recently retired president of the Pittsburgh Foundation, former president of the Heinz Endowment, and former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. But now in today's context, a best selling author. In his book, "The Good Neighbor: The Life and Works of Fred Rogers," King's written a personal and professional biography of Fred Rogers, the unfailingly kind, compassionate namesake neighbor of the beloved Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. 

Thanks for joining us today, Maxwell. 

Maxwell King: Good to be with you, Carolyn. 

Donaldson: I understand it took seven years to write this book. And now on the 50th anniversary of Fred Rogers' Neighborhood, filling our TV screens, the new movie just out. What was it that compelled you to write this comprehensive book about Fred Rogers? 

King: Well, I was at the time working at St. Vincent College at the Fred Rogers Center for Early Childhood and Children's Media. And I had retired as president of the Heinz Endowments and, and took on this job to help get the center going. I am friends with the president of the college and he asked me if I'd spend some time doing that. And it shocked me to learn that there was no biography of Fred Rogers. I later learned from Joanne Rogers, Fred's wife, that numerous people had approached Fred to do a biography. And he had turned them down. And so I argued with Joanne for a while, and finally she said, "Okay, I think you're right. It is time for a biography to be done. Why don't you do it?" She knew I had a background as a journalist. And grossly underestimating how much work it would be, I glibly said yes.

Donaldson: And that amount of work for seven years, a little bit about why it took so long to gather all of it. 

King: Well, it was primarily the research. I had a first draft of the book done after four years. But my agent and my editor in New York wanted it restructured. They thought it was fine. It covered the right ground. They liked the writing. They liked the stories, but they wanted it structured differently. And that was 2014, which is when I went back to work as president of the Pittsburgh Foundation. So I was working full time and trying to get that done. And so it's part of why it took so long, but it's good that it took so long because it came out last year, the 50th anniversary, and it was just the right time for a biography to come out. If I'd finished it on my original schedule, which I think was three years (very naive, I was), it would have been too early, probably.

Donaldson: Let me ask you this before it gets too long into the interview. How did you meet Fred along the years in your, in his life? 

King: Well, I only met Fred twice. The second time was just on the street. And we just stopped and said "hello," and that was about it. But the first time was when I was at the Heinz Endowments which was a major funder of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." And Fred's staff arranged for me to come over and have a meeting with him at his offices at WQED in Pittsburgh. And so I went over there expecting that we'd be talking about money, we'd be talking about the program. Fred would tell me what his plans were and how much they were going to cost and anticipating a pitch for a grant. And we talked for almost an hour and a half about everything from children to grandchildren to Pittsburgh to vacation places. It turns out, his family and my family both have houses up on Nantucket. And he never mentioned program, never said a word about-- 

Donaldson: --Never asked for money? 

King: Never said a word about money. And, of course he got the grant. 

Donaldson: That's wonderful. Well, let's take a little deeper dive into the book that you did write. I was struck by the research that did go into writing about Fred's own childhood and how it shaped, you believe, who he became. So, suppose a little bit about the insight of how he grew up and how that led to the Fred Rogers we knew and loved. 

King: Well, Fred had a difficult childhood. He was he was lonely. He was shy, he didn't have a lot of friends. He was introverted. He came from a very wealthy family in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. And his parents, although they were wonderful to him and very caring, very supportive, were overly protective. I'll give you one example. They had him driven to elementary school in a chauffeur driven limousine every day. Well, you remember elementary school, how could you escape alive showing up in a chauffeur driven limousine? Actually, Fred eventually began to ask the chauffeur to drop him a block away so that the other kids wouldn't see it. But he had a very difficult childhood.

And when he was about, I guess, preteen, maybe 10, 11, 12, he really began to come out of that difficult period of time and come into his own. And there were some very formative experiences that helped him do that. One was he got a piano that his grandmother bought for him, a Steinway concert grand which would cost probably $60,000 in today's dollars, but she had promised him a piano and he went and picked it out. So, she decided she'd promised, she had to go ahead and do it and it was transformative, he kept it with him the rest of his life. He had it in his home. He took it to New York. He took it to Toronto. He wrote 200 songs on it. He wrote 13 operas on it.

Another thing that happened when he was a child that had a big impact on him was that he was bullied. And he was bullied occasionally by other kids, but one day in particular, they chased him down the street yelling, "We're going to get you fat Freddy," and he went to a neighbor's house and the neighbor took him in and he was okay. But when he got home, his parents and his grandparents said, "Oh, Freddie, just pretend you don't care and they'll leave you alone." And Fred went upstairs to his bedroom and said to himself, "No, I do care. I care more than anything. I'm not gonna pretend I don't care." And that was an experience that began to sort of get him to adolescence, get him to sort of begin to think a lot about life and how he wanted to take hold of his life and shape his life, which he did in a very deliberate way. And in high school, he was president of his senior class, editor of the yearbook, National Merit Scholar. So things really sort of turned around for him, but the difficult experiences and what he made of those difficult experiences, gave him a tremendous focus on childhood, that he was both intellectually and emotionally interested in childhood. And I think gave him a lot of the tools to be so empathetic with children, which he of course was. 

Donaldson: You've even titled it what you thought his show was: community expressions of care. The way he could express that goes way back to those early days then. Very interesting. How about the time he spent with puppets as a child? Because that also, of course, impacted the show that we came to know and love. 

King: Well it's so interesting. When he was a very little child he spent a lot of time with puppets. And then he put them away for some years. And when he was very little he had a puppet theater in the attic of his parents house in Latrobe. And he would play with puppets a lot. And actually, his mother, very thoughtfully, would invite one of his classmates, or a couple of his classmates, to come and play with Fred and watch the puppet theater. And one of those classmates interviewed years and years and years later said she always thought Fred was watching her to see what her reaction was, so that he would know how to make the puppets more effective. And I think that's probably very accurate about Fred, but then he put the puppets away. And Joanne who went to college with Fred (Joanne Rogers, Fred's wife) who went to college with Fred, and then of course lived with Fred after they got married right out of college, never even knew he played with puppets until he got to WQED in Pittsburgh. And they were producing a precursor to the Neighborhood called "The Children's Corner." And they needed material to fill dead air time, and the puppets came out. And Joanne said she was amazed. She didn't even know anything about the puppets, but clearly they were both an expression of facets of his own character, and a wonderful device for him to talk with children about social and emotional needs. 

Donaldson: Very interesting. Through your extensive interviews, even the woman who came up to the attic as a child, you gained a real keen insight as to how he was to work with, to play with, to be a part of, can you share a few examples of his work ethic that kind of transpired over time?

King: I think one of the things that he did so effectively was set high standards for everybody who was working on the Neighborhood. And he was very immersed in the department at the University of Pittsburgh that was doing a lot of research on early childhood education. And in fact, his great mentor, Dr. Margaret McFarlane, advised him for almost 30 years on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." So he set high standards, he made sure that those standards were grounded in the best academics about early childhood, and he just insisted on those standards being met. One of the things he did a couple of times was stop production in the middle of filming an episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" so he could go over to the University of Pittsburgh and consult with the academics and make sure that whatever word or phrase that he was worried about was just right. He didn't want to do something that wasn't exactly right. In fact,  once he made a trip to India where he advised some producers of children's television there, and at one of the programs that he was sitting in on the filming, one of the producers said, "Okay, let's wrap it up now that's good enough for children." And Rogers, who didn't often get mad, got furious and let him have it. Because he believed children is the audience for whom you set the highest standards. 

Donaldson: Yeah, right. And webbed throughout this is his value set, his religious base, ordained Presbyterian minister. And I understand through your book that he had a mission when he went into the ministry, when they asked him about what he wanted to go after. 

King: Well, one of his teachers said to him, "Fred, when you graduate from the seminary, what do you think your ministry will be?" Meaning, what church are you going to go to? Because that's all you did. And Rogers told this teacher, "I want to have a ministry to children on television." And the teacher said, "Well, good luck with that. That's not going to happen." But he's the teacher who steered Fred over to Margaret McFarlane and the University of Pittsburgh, which was one of the great centers in the 1950s of research into early childhood education.

Donaldson: If you've heard the terms or read T. Berry Brazelton and Benjamin Spock, I was amazed to learn that Fred worked with them as well as Dr. McFalrlane.

King:Yeah, they were all at Pitt., and Eric Erickson, who's this great thinker about human development, great philosopher and writer, was at Pitt. So all these great academics were doing terrific work at Pitt and Fred had the great good fortune to be dropped right into the middle of them and have his thinking about his educational work for children grounded in this great academic research and thinking that was emerging at Pitt. 

Donaldson: And as his faith was, of course, influenced by his work, he welcomed other religions and other philosophies, right? He was a learned scholar and trying to figure things out that way, too. 

King: He was always a great scholar of other cultures, other philosophies, other religions. When he was at the seminary, he learned Hebrew and he learned Greek, so that he could read in the native language about other philosophies. And the whole rest of his life up until his dying day, he was reading about other religions and philosophies. And I think what's so remarkable about Fred is he was a Presbyterian minister. His values were grounded in the Presbyterian church. I mean, his values were Christian values. But he was a sophisticated and intellectual enough person that he realized that the great values that he prized in Christianity-- respect and integrity and fairness and compassion and kindness-- were also universal human values that show up in other religions and philosophies throughout history. And he was always reading about other religions and philosophies.

Donaldson: And not adverse to tackling all those subjects with his programming. We'll get to that in just a minute. But if you're just joining us, this is take note on WPSU, I'm Carolyn Donaldson. My guest today, Maxwell King, author of the 2018 biography: "The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers." In "The Good Neighbor," King traces Rogers' personal, professional, and artistic life to present, really, the first full length biography of the man who became that public television icon. Thanks again for joining us, Maxwell. Let's talk about those issues that he did tackle with children, just very difficult themes: war, death, assassination, racism. How did he work within those realms and get it to the level where kids could understand? 

King: Well, Fred had a hiatus from producing children's television in the late 70s. He actually tried his hand at adult television, grown up talkshow TV, and it didn't work out that well. But in 1979, he was in Honolulu, Hawaii to make a speech. And David Newell, who's Mr. McFeely and also did public relations for the "Neighborhood" was traveling with him. And they were in a taxi cab and Fred was going over his speech that he was about to make and David Newell was reading the newspaper. And he read a story about a kid who thought he was Superman, put a towel around his neck and jumped out the window and was badly, badly hurt. And David told Fred about that. And they started talking right then and there. And the rest of that trip, they kept talking about how important it was to tackle big subjects and demystify them for very young children.

They talked about superheroes, how do we just demystify superheroes? And they did it by having the superheroes come on TV, and take their costumes off and talk about the costume that they were putting on. But then they began to produce what they called "theme weeks," where they would take an entire week for one topic and explore it from a whole bunch of different angles, which is remarkably sophisticated television for a children's audience. But, they did theme weeks and this is something that he and Margaret McFarlane worked up together on the most difficult topics of life: on violence, on divorce, on loss, on death, a whole week on death. And it's some of the most remarkable programming whether you're a child or grown up, it's extraordinary. And what he wanted to do was, he's doing this for an audience of two and three and four, five year olds, but he wanted to take on their worst fears and make them understandable, make them manageable for those children. And the theme weeks in the 1980s, to me, are the absolute apex of his past work. 

Donaldson: Very interesting. Now, personally, you write Fred was a man of contradictions-- warm and kind-hearted but also known to be a little self-centered and, you write, almost had this zen-like calm but also saw a psychiatrist. So, a little bit about the contradictions that you found as you researched Fred. 

King: What's interesting is that most people who just see his program on TV think, "Oh, this is just this sweet, simple, kindly man." And he's not. He's a very, very complicated person. He was very driven. He was driven to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish. He was intensely focused. He was very deliberate about everything that he did in his life and in his work. And like most people who are driven and super achievers, there were a lot of stresses in his life and I think he was a wonderful husband and a wonderful father-- I know he was because, of course, I interviewed everybody in his family multiple times. But, he could be distant and self-absorbed sometimes, because he was thinking a lot about all the things that he wanted to do. And so, he could also could get angry. His secretary said in an oral history interview that she did for the Fred Rogers Center, she told about coming into his office and he was smashing a tape recorder and saying, she said, the worst swear words you've ever heard in your life. And it was an interview that he had had with Dr. McFarland that he thought he had lost, he thought it had been eaten by the tape recorder. And [the secretary] took it out of his hands and gave it to the technicians who restored the interview for him, but he could get angry. He didn't get angry very often. And usually it was because it had something to do with children, children not being treated properly. 

Donaldson: He turned some of that, though, into lyrics for the musical songs that he wrote and produced.

King: Exactly, exactly. And I think dealing with anger was a very important theme for Fred personally, and in his programming. 

Donaldson: So, music, as you said earlier, a big part of his life. He involved so much live music, you know, with the greats on his program over the years. Little more about the operas that he produced and, you know, that type of programming for kids. This is kind of novel. 

King: I think music was an early love for Fred. When he was very little he had a toy piano (this was before his grandmother bought him the Steinway)--

Donaldson: --Which by the way, is at the Fred Rogers Center in Latrobe, you can go visit that freely and take a look. 

King: Yes, yes it is. It was right outside my office when I was there. But, he had a toy piano when he was very, very little and he played it a lot and his sister told me that he had almost a photographic memory for music. He could hear a tune on the radio, and he could come back and play it on that toy piano almost perfectly right away. So he had an affinity for music. He had skills in music. But music was also, he later said many times, the way through which he worked through a lot of his feelings, both when he was a little boy and later when he was when he was an adult. He would use the power of music to express his feelings, to work through anger, to work through frustration. And then of course, he made music such an important part of the program. He had some of the best musicians of the day on his show: Yo-Yo Ma Wynton Marsalis, Johnny Costa-- these great musicians, and it was a really important part of the program. Almost all children shows today have music. They didn't back before when Fred was starting out, but they learned from his example. And he wrote and produced 13 operas, he wrote 200 songs. In addition to his Christianity and children, I think music was the thing that he cared most about.

Donaldson: And you write in your book that on the Charlie Rose show he had said, "Fame is a four letter word like 'tape,' or 'pain,' or 'zoom,' or 'life,' or 'love.' What matters is what we do with it. People in television are in a service role, to meet the needs of those who watch it. It is one life we have to live and we can choose to demean this life or cherish it in creative, imaginative ways." So he never took any of the television or the icon he became and used it for anything but the purpose of furthering his communities of caring for kids.

King: And I think that's one of the best expressions of his strong values. He was somebody with very strong values, who lived his life according to those values and one of those values-- You know, he grew up in a wealthy family. He had a lot of privilege growing up, his parents sent him to college and paid his whole way through. As he got older, he had the flexibility that comes with having a part of a family fortune. And he always felt a sense of obligation to be in service, to give back, and to do things very, very well.

Donaldson: I find one of the most important parts of the book is at the very end, your epilogue actually, and you talk about the importance of Fred Rogers and I want to touch with the remaining minutes we have left on kind of looking forward and maybe some words of wisdom. What do you think will be the most significant part of his legacy? We look at you know, programs like "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" and "Peg + Cat" and the "Odd Squad," which are part of the Fred Rogers Productions today. So how do you think it best represents the legacy that we hope to continue in public media?

King: Well, certainly Fred Rogers Productions is a critical part of his legacy, thanks to the good work of Bill Isler, who was the president of it. It's come through the difficult period of time right after Fred died, and is now the premier producer of children's media. So, that's a big part of Fred's legacy, and I give Bill Isler huge credit for accomplishing that. I think the Fred Rogers Center at St. Vincent will be another important part of his legacy, that's devoted to helping parents and teachers and other caregivers understand what the best approaches can be with young children--

Donaldson: --and it's reachable, we can access the the wonderful content that's available.

King: Yes, yeah. Simply going on their website, fredrogerscenter.org. So I think that's an important part of his legacy. And certainly his contributions to education are long, long lasting. He is really the person who taught America about early childhood education. But I think his most important lasting legacy will be in the area of values. And I think that's why he's so current today. I think that's why people are turning to him on the web. In all sorts of ways, people are looking for his words, for his images as reassurance about those kind of universal human values that we're worried about today, that we're worried about whether they're becoming fragile in today's fast paced, harsh environment.

Donaldson: And we look at some of the newer material out beyond your book, the documentary that was done, featuring Michael Keaton and Yo-Yo Ma and some of the greats that were there. Joanne's prominently featured in that as well as the Fred Rogers Center. And now the movie that's just out, I have to touch on that with it just being released. Your take on that, and I know it's referenced in your book under the Tom Junod references.

King: Right. Well, I think it's a very good movie. It's a very good story. And it's really more about Tom Junod than it is Fred Rogers. And it's just a slice of Fred Rogers' life, just a few years. But it's a great story. It's a wonderful, compelling story. And of course, Tom Hanks does a fabulous job as Fred Rogers, as does Matthew Rhys as Tom Junod. My favorite, though, is still the documentary because I think the documentary captures the great breadth and depth of Fred's character in such a compelling way, but they're both really good movies.

Donaldson: We're sitting in a public media studio, and radio and TV programs are produced and broadcast right here at WPSU, so what can people in public media who work and then those listening who support us do to learn from Fred and to ensure,  I guess, survival in this changing media landscape? How important is what we're doing today and through these works that Fred left a legacy for the future?

King: One of the characteristics of Fred Rogers was that he ran counter to what a lot of the expectations were of the time, he worked at a time when television was going faster and faster and faster, and incorporating a lot of the techniques of advertising: quick cuts from this to that and the other. While that was happening, Fred was going slower and slower and slower, and was very deliberate in his pacing. And I think that's a really important lesson. And it was very important to Fred, that, as the world speeds up, slow down, take time, and particularly he felt, take time for relationships, take time for people and you have to slow down he felt to have the time to be kind and thoughtful and caring.

Donaldson: We'll end on that note. What a beautiful summary: slow down and be kind. Maxwell King, thank you so much for talking with us. To find out more about the book, the author, the Fred Rogers Center in Latrobe, and, of course, our WPSU and PBS kids programming-- you can find links on our website at wpsu.org/takenote.

For Take Note. I'm Carolyn Donaldson, WPSU.