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Benjamin Wagner
Benjamin Wagner

46 Things I Learned Making Mister Rogers & Me

Benjamin Wagner
Benjamin Wagner

I only knew three things about Mister Rogers before meeting him: He was the host of one of my favorite childhood shows, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, he was from Pittsburgh, and he seemed like a really nice guy.

Mister Rogers summered in a modest, gray, shake-shingled house on the edge of Nantucket. My mother rented a tiny cottage next door. So Mister Rogers really was my neighbor.

I was a young MTV News producer and sometime singer/songwriter. We met on the weekend of my 30th birthday in September 2001. He gingerly asked about my parents' divorce (taking a cue, apparently, from a song I'd just played him on my acoustic guitar about my childhood fear of flying), then my job at MTV. He mentioned his friend, mystic, author and poet Bo Lozoff, and his book, Deep & Simple.

"I feel so strongly," he said, "that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex."

The phrase stuck with me. And when I told him so the following summer, he replied, "Spread the message, Benjamin."

Ten years later, my brother and I premiered our documentary, Mister Rogers & Me, at the Nantucket Film Festival. The film explores Mister Rogers’ luminous legacy through remembrances from Tim Russert, Susan Stamberg, Linda Ellerbee, Marc Brown, and many more. On March 20, 2012, PBS released it on DVD.

Years later, I can confirm and expand on those three things (he was an inordinately nice guy in person, too), plus these 46 things I learned about this great man and his essential pioneering work.

1. He was named after his grandfather, Fred McFeely, who often said, "You've made this a special day by just being yourself. There's no one else in the world quite like you."

2. Little Freddy Rogers was a lonely, chubby, and shy child who was sometimes homebound because of childhood asthma common to industrialized towns like Latrobe.

3. According to The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers author Amy Hollingsworth, little Freddy Rogers was bullied walking home from school. “We’re going to get you Fat Freddy,” the other boys taunted.

“I used to cry to myself when I was alone,” he said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano.” As he grew up, he decided to always look past the surface of people to the “essential invisible” within them.

4. A framed quotation from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince hung in Mister Rogers WQED office his entire career. It read, “L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux." (“What is essential is invisible to the eye.”)

5. He was an only child until he was 11, when his parents adopted his sister, Elaine.

6. He was a vegetarian who told people, "I don't want to eat anything that has a mother."

7. He weighed 143 pounds most his adult life, and relished the weight for its numerical equivalent I (1) Love (4) You (3).


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8. Mister Rogers attended Dartmouth for one year, then transferred to Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, where he met his future wife Sarah Joanne Bird, and graduated Magna Cum Laude with a BA in Music Composition.

9. He landed his first television job on NBC’s Kate Smith Hour in 1951. He worked on numerous shows there, including NBC Opera Hour and Your Lucky Strike Hit Parade.

10. The Rogers' famed Crooked House on Nantucket (which is, indeed, akimbo, and requires ducking and leaning to traverse) was a wedding gift from his parents.

11. The Rogers have two sons, James (born 1959) and John (born 1961). They can be seen romping in the dunes just beyond The Crooked House in the black & white outtakes of the PBS documentary, America’s Favorite Neighbor.

12. Mister Rogers swam every day (including in Madaket Bay, where he met my mother in the months prior to our meeting).

13. In 1954, he and cohost Josie Carey premiered The Children’s Corner on the Eastern Education Network, introducing Daniel Striped Tiger and King Friday.

14. The hour-long program that would become Mister Rogers' Neighborhood began as a 15-minute Canadian Broadcast series called, simply, Misterogers.

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15. "I got into television because I saw people throwing pies in each other's faces," he said. "And that's such demeaning behavior. And if there's anything that bothers me, it's one person demeaning another."

16. His trademark sneakers were born when he found them to be quieter than his dress shoes as he moved about the set.

17. He worked towards his theology degree while working at WQED, graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and was ordained a minister in the Presbyterian Church in 1963.

18. Mr. McFeely, who joined the Neighborhood via Pittsburgh Playhouse, also acts as Fred Rogers Company Director of Publicity.

19. Jazz pianist Johnny Costa, who was the Neighborhood's Musical Director from 1968 til his death in 1996, performed every song live in the studio during tapings.

20. Actor Michael Keaton's first job was as a stagehand on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, manning Picture, Picture, and appearing as Purple Panda.

21. In a now-famous clip from 1969, Rogers appeared before United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications chair John Pastore to advocate for increased support of public broadcasting in the face of then-President Nixon's 50 percent reduction. After six minutes of thoughtful testimony advocating for the value of commercial-free television for children, the typically gruff senator replied, "I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you earned the $20 million."

22. “If we take time," he said, "we can often go much deeper as far as a spiritual life is concerned than we can if there's constant distraction. Often television gives such constant distraction—noise and fast-paced things—which doesn't allow us to take time to explore the deeper levels of who we are, and who we can become."

23. His efforts for children were informed for decades by working with Dr. Margaret McFarland, director of the Arsenal Family and Children’s Center in Pittsburgh, who helped provide depth and rigor to his thinking about children and education.

24. His mother made his trademark cardigans. “She knitted a sweater a month for as many years as I knew her. And every Christmas she would give this extended family of ours a sweater. She would say, 'What kind do you all want next year? I know what kind you want, Freddy. You want the one with the zipper up the front.'”

25. The ritual of changing from dress shoes to sneakers and sport coat to cardigan while singing “It’s A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood” was intended to establish consistent, comforting routine with his young audience.

26. He donated one of his sweaters to the Smithsonian Institution in 1984. The museum calls it a "Treasure of American History."

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27. His 1979 testimony in the case Sony v. Universal Studios—in stark contrast to the views of television executives who objected to home recording—was cited by the Supreme Court in its decision that held that the Betamax video recorder did not infringe copyright.

28. Mister Rogers surprised his most-famous impersonator, Eddie Murphy, backstage at Saturday Night Live in 1981. Here's a clip of Murphy's Mister Rogers-inspired sketch, "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood":

29. NBC Meet The Press host Tim Russert and his journalist wife, Maureen Orth, were the Rogers’ actual Nantucket neighbors. Upon the families’ first meeting, Mister Rogers took immediately to young Luke Russert, teaching him to tell time with a paper plate and fastener.

30. Mister Rogers loved to photograph the people he met. He took thousands. (Somewhere, there are a few of me.)

31. NPR Correspondent Susan Stamberg often called on Mister Rogers to explain “hideous and horrible” tragedies like the 1986 explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, and the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.

32. Fred asked Susan to host his 1981 special, Mister Rogers Talks To Parents About Divorce. When Susan got cold feet, Daniel Striped Tiger called to convince her that her fears were valid, but that she could do it.

33. “One of the toughest things for children is for their parents not to get along,” he said of divorce. “It feels like it’s ripping a piece of cloth apart.” During the special, Mister Rogers addressed children’s fear of flying unaccompanied between parents.

34. Journalist Linda Ellerbee modeled her 1991 Nick News premiere on Mister Rogers’ values. “I wanted to incorporate the things I learned from Mister Rogers,” she said. The first being “Respect your audience.” The second was “Assume they’re just as bright as you are, they’re just younger, and shorter.”

35. Blue’s Clues creator Angela Santomero modeled the show after the Neighborhood. “We used to speak a lot about the pausing and pacing, and how deliberately slow it was. This came from Fred: When you talk to camera, and you pace it adequately, you’re going to talk back to him. That’s what I did. I talked to him. I believed he liked me just the way that I was.”

36. Arthur creator Marc Brown illustrated Mister Rogers into the episode “Arthur Meets Mister Rogers,” which aired September 27th, 1997. “He had the special ability to look within every person he came in contact with and sense what things were inside you, and talk about difficult things. And when he talked to you, he was there 100 percent. He was a great teacher. That was his gift to me.”

37. He was featured in a May 2001 segment of This American Life called “Mr. Rothbart’s Neighborhood,” in which he counseled correspondent Davy Rothbart—who met Mister Rogers on Nantucket as a child—on how to be a good neighbor. In settling a noise dispute between neighbors, he says, “I have a feeling you're getting to know [your neighbor]. And once you do know her, then either your music isn't going to bother her so much or you're going to care so much about her that you'll probably turn it down a couple notches anyway.”

See Also: 20 Gentle Quotations from Mister Rogers

38. The last original Mister Rogers' Neighborhood episode aired on PBS on Friday, August 31, 2001, just five days prior to our first meeting (and one week prior to September 11th).

39. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002.

40. The asteroid 26858 Misterrogers was named by the International Astronomical Union on May 2, 2003, by Henry Buhl Jr., Director of the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh.

41. His death from stomach cancer was sudden, and unexpected. He was diagnosed in December 2002, underwent surgery in January 2003, and passed away on the morning of February 27 at his home with Joanne by his side.

42. But Mister Rogers prepared children for his death. The day he died, his website posted a link to help children understand. ''Remember," it read, "that feelings are natural and normal, and that happy times and sad times are part of everyone's life."

43. The Fred Rogers Statue created by Robert Berks (whose bust of JFK Mister Rogers admired) opened to the public on Pittsburgh's North Shore in November 2009.

Wikimedia Commons

44. St. Vincent College’s Fred Rogers Center opened in 2008. The center’s mission is to “advance the fields of early learning and children’s media by acting as a catalyst for communication, collaboration, and creative change.”

45. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, an animated children's television series produced by The Fred Rogers Company and Santomero’s Out of the Blue Enterprises, debuted on PBS in September 2012.

46. Mister Rogers inspires to this day. There are currently at least two Hollywood screenplays and one biography in the works.

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Flurry Road: 5 Tips for Safe Driving on Winter Roads
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For drivers in the Upper Midwest, traveling during the winter can range from slightly unsettling to deadly. Between 2011 and 2015, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Auto Insurance Center, an average of 800 fatalities occurred annually as a result of weather-related accidents. Icy roads, poor visibility, and other factors can make cold-weather commuting a dicey proposition.

While we can’t control the weather (yet), we can increase our odds of navigating slush-filled roadways successfully. Mental Floss spoke with American Automobile Association (AAA) driving education expert William Van Tassel, Ph.D., for some key tips on how to get your winter driving in gear.

1. GATHER SUPPLIES.

Before you even start your car up for a trip through inclement weather, Van Tassel recommends you pack a worst-case scenario trunk full of supplies. “In case of emergency, you want things on board like water, a blanket, a flashlight, gloves, and kitty litter,” he says. (That last one is for traction in case you get stuck in a snowbank.) You should also have road flares, a shovel, an ice scraper, and a fully-charged cell phone to call for assistance if needed.

2. SLOW DOWN.

Posted speed limit signs assume you’re driving on clear and clean roadways. If snow or ice has accumulated, you need to adjust your speed accordingly. “In slick conditions, tires lose a lot of traction,” Van Tassel says. “You should be cutting your speed down by half or more.” Unfortunately, a lot of people learn this the hard way. “After a snowstorm, we’ll see more crashes on day one than days two or three.”

Van Tassel also cautions to avoid becoming overconfident on snow tires. While they provide better traction in bad weather, it’s not license to speed up.

3. MAINTAIN A SAFE DISTANCE FROM OTHER CARS.

You should be doing this regardless, but bad weather makes it even more crucial. Keep your vehicle at a safe distance from cars behind, in front, and off to the sides, as well as away from pedestrians or cyclists. If you need to brake suddenly, you need time—and space—to avoid a collision. “You really want more space in front,” Van Tassel says. Try to stay between seven and 10 seconds behind the vehicle ahead. That means seeing a landmark and then counting down until you pass the same marker. If you’re only a few seconds behind, you’re too close.

4. DON’T STEER INTO SKIDS.

“That was an old rule of thumb,” Van Tassel says. “The problem is, by the time I remember to steer into a skid, I’m already in a ditch.” If you feel your vehicle sliding, it’s better to steer in the direction you want to go. “You’ll drive where you look, so don’t look at a telephone pole.”

To help maintain control of the car, you want to focus on doing one thing at a time. “If you’re going through a turn, brake, finish braking, then turn. Don’t brake and turn at the same time.”

5. KEEP YOUR HEADLIGHTS ON.

Yep, even in broad daylight. Bad weather limits visibility, and headlights allow both you and your fellow drivers to orient a vehicle. “You’re twice as visible to other drivers that way,” Van Tassel says. “When people can see you, they can avoid you.”

Van Tassel also recommends that drivers avoid relying on fancy car technology to keep them safe. While blind spot monitoring and lane changing sensors are useful, they’re not there so you can zone out. “The tech is there to back you up if you need it. Drive the car, but don’t rely on those things,” he says.

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25 Polite Compliments You Can Pay a Coworker
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January 24 is National Compliment Day, and a great way to celebrate is by making a concerted effort to praise the people you work with. Be sure to consider when an appropriate time and place for a compliment would be (for instance, shy people would rather be commended on their stellar presentation in private rather than in front of a crowd), but know that whether a coworker is a longtime friend or more of an acquaintance, lauding their work performance and letting them know you appreciate their skills could really make their day.

1. "YOU HAVE A GREAT SENSE OF HUMOR."

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Every office has one person who knows how to ease tensions at work by cracking a quick joke or sharing a funny link. If this person's sense of humor makes your job a little more enjoyable, make sure to let them know.

2. "NICE JOB ON THAT PRESENTATION."

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Public speaking is intimidating, especially to someone who's new to their job and not used to giving presentations. Notice your coworker is nervous before a big meeting? Seek them out afterwards. Letting them know you enjoyed and learned from what they said will hopefully make them feel more confident next time.

3. "YOU ALWAYS KNOW WHEN TO LEND A HAND."

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You probably know someone who's always willing to help out with a project when you need it most, and odds are they rarely receive the recognition they deserve. Next time a coworker offers some relief when you're feeling overwhelmed, don't let it go unnoticed. Set aside time to tell them you see the great work they're doing and you appreciate it.

4. "YOU'RE A SAVVY PROBLEM-SOLVER."

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Being able to see problems differently is a valuable skill in the workplace. It can open up a team to new ideas and save precious time and resources. Sometimes you may be the person to spot the way out of a problem, and other times it's a coworker who points out the solution that was right in front of your face. If you're grateful for their point of view, they deserve to hear it.

5. "YOU'RE A GREAT COMMUNICATOR."

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Without communication, collaborating with the people in your workplace would be impossible. A great communicator knows how to understand other people's perspectives, explain their own, and make sure they're never keeping anyone in the dark. They're also not above receiving a compliment every now and then.

6. "I LOVE YOUR ENTHUSIASM."

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For some people, getting up and going to work each day is easy: They're personally invested in the company they work for and enjoy helping it succeed. Maybe you're not there yet, but you might see this level of passion and enthusiasm in at least one person you work with. Don't let that inspiring attitude go unrecognized.

7. "I APPRECIATE YOUR TRUST."

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Effective management is just as much about offering guidance and support as knowing when to back off. Sometimes leaving employees room to breathe is the best thing managers can do to encourage growth and creativity. It's also a thankless move that often goes unrewarded. Expressing your appreciation to your manager can make a big difference in their day.

8. "WHAT A FUN PARTY (LUNCH/HAPPY HOUR/ETC.)."

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People take certain work events for granted without stopping to consider the employees who make them possible. Birthday cakes don't magically appear and after-work happy hours don't plan themselves. Behind every fun break you get from your day-to-day duties, there's a coworker who took the initiative to make it happen, and they would like to hear that you enjoyed the fruits of their labor.

9. "YOU'VE GOT A KILLER WORK ETHIC."

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We all wish we could be the employee who blows through projects without breaking a sweat. If you're not that person, the least you can do is pay the tireless person in your workplace a compliment—especially after a big project that had them tackling most of the work.

10. "YOUR POSITIVE ATTITUDE IS INFECTIOUS."

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Just like one pessimistic employee can bring down the whole office, a positive person can have the opposite effect. It's hard to feel grumpy about starting a new week when the colleague sitting next to you does everything with a smile on their face.

11. "YOU ASK GREAT QUESTIONS."

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Asking about something you're not familiar with at work can be intimidating, whether it's about a new policy or procedure or perhaps about the ins and outs of a department you don't usually work with. But asking for help or clarification is also the only way to learn and grow. Complimenting a coworker who asks a lot of questions lets them know that not only is that OK, it's valued.

12. "I LOVE YOUR IDEAS."

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When someone introduces a great idea at work, people often respond in one of two ways: They get upset that they didn't think of it themselves, or they admire the person for their brilliance. If you want to strengthen work relationships and feel better in the long run, we suggest expressing the latter.

13. "YOU'RE GREAT AT TAKING INITIATIVE."

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Employees who take initiative help businesses run smoothly. Managers don't have to worry about babysitting them, and their coworkers never end up picking up their slack. Next time you go into work, find the person you know who always takes initiative and compliment them for their efforts.

14. "YOU'RE VERY CREATIVE."

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Even if your job isn't particularly inspiring, you may have coworkers who find everyday opportunities to be creative. Their creativity might shine through in the form of a sharply designed flyer, a well-written memo, or an innovative solution to the problem at hand. Sometimes people who don't work in a traditionally artistic field are rarely complimented for their creativity—you can change that.

15. "I APPRECIATE YOU TAKING RESPONSIBILITY."

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Do you know someone at work who's taken responsibility—whether for a botched performance, a failed pitch, or a missed deadline—even when they could have gotten away with keeping quiet? That's not easy to do. Recognize their actions, and they may be inclined to do it more often.

16. "YOU'RE SO FLEXIBLE."

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Sure, you can promise your coworker this is the absolute last time you'll ask them to push a meeting back a couple of days or move up a deadline by a week. Or, you can compliment them on being so flexible and thank them for working around the changes so efficiently.

17. "I LOVE YOUR CONFIDENCE."

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Confidence in the workplace is hard to ignore. It radiates from everything a person does, and when you're working on a project with such a person, it can make you feel more confident as well. Let this employee know that you appreciate their poise and self-assuredness.

18. "I APPRECIATE HOW TECH-SAVVY YOU ARE."

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Who do you turn to when your screen freezes, or when the long email you spent the last 15 minutes crafting suddenly disappears? Likely, instead of running to I.T. every time, you ask a nearby coworker who always seems to have the answers. Even if they don't share their know-how for the praise, they deserve a compliment and gratitude.

19. "YOU'RE A GREAT BAKER."

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People who bake for their coworkers are a special breed. By sharing what they made with the office, it means that they not only took the time to cook with you in mind, but also that they're sharing a bit of their personal likes or hobbies with you. What better time to compliment the chef than when they bring platter of fresh cookies to the morning meeting?

20. "I ADMIRE YOUR LEADERSHIP."

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A good leader is many things, including fair, compassionate, and hard-working. But whatever qualities your manager exhibits that make you appreciate working for him or her, find a chance to let them know you commend their leadership, and that you're a better employee because of it.

21. "YOU HAVE A MIND FOR DETAIL."

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Details make a big difference at work, whether you're writing a big report or a thank you email. Sometimes the details that make the biggest impact on a project are hard to notice on their own. See if you can spot the smart, subtle details the next time you're evaluating your coworker's work, and tell them if you're impressed by what you find.

22. "YOU'RE ON MY WAVELENGTH."

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It may not always top lists of most valuable skills to take into the workplace, but empathy can do wonders for office culture. When team members practice empathy and really make an effort to understand the people they work with, they make everyone's job easier. This is one skill that definitely deserves recognition.

23. "THANKS FOR BEING SO RELIABLE."

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No matter what you do for work, it's impossible to do your job entirely on your own. Reliable coworkers you can depend on for support, guidance, and inspiration are a priceless resource. If they make the effort to show up and work hard consistently, the least you can do is show them you appreciate it.

24. "YOU'RE A REAL TEAM PLAYER."

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In order to succeed as a team, your colleagues need to have the right attitude. Maybe there's one person on your team who sets a good example for the rest of you: They know exactly when to step back and listen to other people's ideas and when to come forward with their own. Sometimes being a good team player means swallowing your pride to do what's best for the group, and that's behavior worth celebrating.

25. "YOU GIVE GREAT ADVICE."

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At some point in your career, you've likely relied on a more experienced coworker for advice. Without mentors, many of the world's most successful people wouldn't be where they are today. Never be ashamed to ask for guidance, and once you receive it, make sure to show your gratitude.

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