I wrote about the mad sculptor Messerschmidt last week, and in the comments one reader mentioned that his work reminded them of an English painter named Louis Wain (1860-1939) -- who I then proceeded to look up, and become totally fascinated by. So here's the story. Louis Wain was a man of some artistic talent, and he adored cats. While his young wife was gradually succumbing to illness over a period of several years, Wain often used the household cat, Peter, to amuse her, dressing him up in glasses and making it seem as if he were reading the paper, just for chuckles. He began to draw Peter, of whom he would later say "To him properly belongs the foundation of my career, the developments of my initial efforts, and the establishing of my work" -- and indeed, many of his early published drawings and paintings are of the family cat. In the beginning, his work was more or less naturalistic, like the above.
After his wife passed away, he became more and more obsessed by cats. His furry subjects were often anthropomorphized in cutesy ways -- in fact, he seemed almost incapable of drawing human beings. He wrote, "I take a sketch-book to a restaurant, or other public place, and draw the people in their different positions as cats, getting as near to their human characteristics as possible." If that's not an indication of early-onset weirdness, I don't know what is. In any case, his cats-doing-people-stuff work got him a lot of attention, and he became something of a national sensation, with his drawings reproduced on cards and posters.
He was a cat activist too, and a card-carrying member of the National Cat Club, the Cat Protection League, and the wonderfully-named Our Dumb Friends League. Meanwhile, see below. Aww!
In the 1910s and 20s, things took a turn for the worse. His behavior became increasingly erratic. In 1924, his sisters committed him to the pauper's ward of a mental asylum. He languished there for a year until a newspaper article was written about the deplorable conditions he was forced to endure, and when big-name fans came out of the woodwork -- H.G. Wells said "English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves" -- he was moved to a much more pleasant asylum, where he lived for another ten years or so before passing away. In that time, he began to paint and draw again, and though his subject was the same as ever, his increasingly bizarre style seemed evidence of some mental disorder, possibly schizophrenia. (One theory, which some still ascribe to, is that he contracted and was driven mad by toxoplasmosis, a parasite that lives in cat poop.) Today, his early and late work are used in psychology textbooks to illustrate the progress and effects of schizophrenia.
Fred Rogers—who was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania on March 20, 1928—remains an icon of kindness for the ages. An innovator of children’s television, his salt-of-the-earth demeanor and genuinely gentle nature taught a generation of kids the value of kindness. In celebration of what would have been his 90th birthday, here are 15 things you might not have known about everyone’s favorite “neighbor.”
1. HE WAS BULLIED AS A CHILD.
According to Benjamin Wagner, who directed the 2010 documentary Mister Rogers & Me—and was, in fact, Rogers’s neighbor on Nantucket—Rogers was overweight and shy as a child, and often taunted by his classmates when he walked home from school. “I used to cry to myself when I was alone,” Rogers said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano.” It was this experience that led Rogers to want to look below the surface of everyone he met to what he called the “essential invisible” within them.
2. HE WAS AN ORDAINED MINISTER.
Rogers was an ordained minister and, as such, a man of tremendous faith who preached tolerance wherever he went. When Amy Melder, a six-year-old Christian viewer, sent Rogers a drawing she made for him with a letter that promised “he was going to heaven,” Rogers wrote back to his young fan:
“You told me that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior. It means a lot to me to know that. And, I appreciated the scripture verse that you sent. I am an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I want you to know that Jesus is important to me, too. I hope that God’s love and peace come through my work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
3. HE RESPONDED TO ALL HIS FAN MAIL.
Responding to fan mail was part of Rogers’s very regimented daily routine, which began at 5 a.m. with a prayer and included time for studying, writing, making phone calls, swimming, weighing himself, and responding to every fan who had taken the time to reach out to him.
“He respected the kids who wrote [those letters],” Heather Arnet, an assistant on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2005. “He never thought about throwing out a drawing or letter. They were sacred."
According to Arnet, the fan mail he received wasn’t just a bunch of young kids gushing to their idol. Kids would tell Rogers about a pet or family member who died, or other issues with which they were grappling. “No child ever received a form letter from Mister Rogers," Arnet said, noting that he received between 50 and 100 letters per day.
4. ANIMALS LOVED HIM AS MUCH AS PEOPLE DID.
It wasn’t just kids and their parents who loved Mister Rogers. Koko, the Stanford-educated gorilla who understands 2000 English words and can also converse in American Sign Language, was an avid Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watcher, too. When Rogers visited her, she immediately gave him a hug—and took his shoes off.
5. HE WAS AN ACCOMPLISHED MUSICIAN.
Though Rogers began his education in the Ivy League, at Dartmouth, he transferred to Rollins College following his freshman year in order to pursue a degree in music (he graduated Magna cum laude). In addition to being a talented piano player, he was also a wonderful songwriter and wrote all the songs for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—plus hundreds more.
6. HIS INTEREST IN TELEVISION WAS BORN OUT OF A DISDAIN FOR THE MEDIUM.
Rogers’s decision to enter into the television world wasn’t out of a passion for the medium—far from it. "When I first saw children's television, I thought it was perfectly horrible," Rogers toldPittsburgh Magazine. "And I thought there was some way of using this fabulous medium to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."
7. KIDS WHO WATCHED MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD RETAINED MORE THAN THOSE WHO WATCHED SESAME STREET.
A Yale study pitted fans of Sesame Street against Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watchers and found that kids who watched Mister Rogers tended to remember more of the story lines, and had a much higher “tolerance of delay,” meaning they were more patient.
8. ROGERS’S MOM KNIT ALL OF HIS SWEATERS.
If watching an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gives you sweater envy, we’ve got bad news: You’d never be able to find his sweaters in a store. All of those comfy-looking cardigans were knitted by Fred’s mom, Nancy. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Rogers explained how his mother would knit sweaters for all of her loved ones every year as Christmas gifts. “And so until she died, those zippered sweaters I wear on the Neighborhood were all made by my mother,” he explained.
9. HE WAS COLORBLIND.
Those brightly colored sweaters were a trademark of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but the colorblind host might not have always noticed. In a 2003 article, just a few days after his passing, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that:
Among the forgotten details about Fred Rogers is that he was so colorblind he could not distinguish between tomato soup and pea soup.
He liked both, but at lunch one day 50 years ago, he asked his television partner Josie Carey to taste it for him and tell him which it was.
Why did he need her to do this, Carey asked him. Rogers liked both, so why not just dip in?
"If it's tomato soup, I'll put sugar in it," he told her.
10. HE WORE SNEAKERS AS A PRODUCTION CONSIDERATION.
According to Wagner, Rogers’s decision to change into sneakers for each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was about production, not comfort. “His trademark sneakers were born when he found them to be quieter than his dress shoes as he moved about the set,” wrote Wagner.
11. MICHAEL KEATON GOT HIS START ON THE SHOW.
Oscar-nominated actor Michael Keaton's first job was as a stagehand on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, manning Picture, Picture, and appearing as Purple Panda.
12. ROGERS GAVE GEORGE ROMERO HIS FIRST PAYING GIG, TOO.
It's hard to imagine a gentle, soft-spoken, children's education advocate like Rogers sitting down to enjoy a gory, violent zombie movie like Dawn of the Dead, but it actually aligns perfectly with Rogers's brand of thoughtfulness. He checked out the horror flick to show his support for then-up-and-coming filmmaker George Romero, whose first paying job was with everyone's favorite neighbor.
“Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film,” Romero said. As a young man just out of college, Romero honed his filmmaking skills making a series of short segments for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, creating a dozen or so titles such as “How Lightbulbs Are Made” and “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy.” The zombie king, who passed away in 2017, considered the latter his first big production, shot in a working hospital: “I still joke that 'Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy' is the scariest film I’ve ever made. What I really mean is that I was scared sh*tless while I was trying to pull it off.”
13. ROGERS HELPED SAVE PUBLIC TELEVISION.
In 1969, Rogers—who was relatively unknown at the time—went before the Senate to plead for a $20 million grant for public broadcasting, which had been proposed by President Johnson but was in danger of being sliced in half by Richard Nixon. His passionate plea about how television had the potential to turn kids into productive citizens worked; instead of cutting the budget, funding for public TV increased from $9 million to $22 million.
14. HE ALSO SAVED THE VCR.
Years later, Rogers also managed to convince the Supreme Court that using VCRs to record TV shows at home shouldn’t be considered a form of copyright infringement (which was the argument of some in this contentious debate). Rogers argued that recording a program like his allowed working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows as a family. Again, he was convincing.
15. ONE OF HIS SWEATERS WAS DONATED TO THE SMITHSONIAN.
Following age-related complications, Sudan the northern white rhinoceros was euthanized by a team of vets in Kenya at 45 years old, CNN reports. He was one of only three northern white rhinos left on Earth and the last male of his subspecies. For years, Sudan had represented the final hope for the survival of his kind, but now scientists have a back-up plan: Using Sudan's sperm, they may be able to continue his genetic line even after his death.
Northern white rhino numbers from dwindled from 2000 in 1960 to only three in recent years. Those last survivors, Sudan, his daughter Najin, and granddaughter Fatu, lived together at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Each animal had physical issues making it difficult for them to breed, and now with Sudan gone, a new generation of northern white rhinos looks even less likely.
But there is one way the story of these animals doesn't end in extinction. Before Sudan died, researchers were able to save some of his genetic material, which means it's still possible for him to father offspring. Scientists may either use the sperm to artificially inseminate one of the surviving females (even though they're related) or, due to their age and ailments, fertilize one of their eggs and implant the embryo into a female of a similar subspecies, like the southern white rhino, using in vitro fertilization.
"We must take advantage of the unique situation in which cellular technologies are utilized for conservation of critically endangered species," Jan Stejskal, an official at the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic where Sudan lived until 2009, told AFP. "It may sound unbelievable, but thanks to the newly developed techniques even Sudan could still have an offspring."
Poaching has been a major contributor to the northern white rhino's decline over the past century. Rhinos are often hunted for their horns, which are believed to have medicinal properties in some Asian cultures. (Other people just view the horn as a sign of wealth and status). Procreating is the biggest issue threatening the northern white rhinoceros at the moment. If such poaching continues, other rhino species in the wild could end up in the same situation.