KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Fred Rogers was a saint of a man who dedicated his life to providing care and emotional well-being to children through television.
For nearly 40 years, Rogers produced and hosted beloved children’s programs in the United States and Canada, most notably “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which ran on PBS from February 1968 to August 2001.
His soft-spoken and empathetic approach touched the lives of tens of millions of children over the decades. Rogers was heralded as a paragon of compassion and bedrock of decency.
But in 1990, Rogers’ briefly shed his kindly demeanor to go after a Missouri branch of the Ku Klux Klan, who used a Rogers impersonator to target children with recorded messages of racism and bigotry.
In late September and early October of that year, a phone number had circulated among school children in and around Independence, Missouri. When children would dial the number, they’d hear recorded messages imitating the sounds and songs of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and Rogers’ own voice and speech pattern. In one message, the faux Mr. Rogers identified a black youth on a playground and uses a racial slur to identify the child as a “drug pusher,” and ultimately lynches the youngster. A second message is targeted at homosexuals, with the phony Fred Rogers saying, “AIDS was divine retribution.”
Local civil rights and religious leaders discovered the same phone number had been used earlier in the year to promote the ideology of the Missouri Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
On October 9, Rogers and his production company, Family Communications Inc., sued the Klan and three men—Adam Troy Mercer; Michael Brooks (also known as M. B. Madison), and Edward E. Stephens—for copyright infringement and to protect children from those messages. The following day, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order to halt the Klan’s use of the recordings. The Klan and the men named in the suit had to turn over the tapes and other related materials.
Less than 10 days later, Mercer, Brooks, and Stephens signed settlements with Rogers and Family Communications Inc. The trio agreed to destroy the tapes and not use any material to imitate Rogers’ show. However, the men claimed they were not members of the Klan and had that put in the agreements.
With that mess behind him, Rogers kept on churning out children’s programming for another 10-plus years. When he retired from public broadcasting in August 2001, he’d recorded more than 900 episodes of the half-hour “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
Rogers spent his final years lauded for his decades of community care. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002. In May 1997, he accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 24th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards. Rather than bask in the adulation of the audience, Rogers used his brief acceptance speech to encourage everyone listening to engage in thoughtful reflection:
So many people have helped me to come here to this night. Some of you are here, some are far away and some are even in Heaven. All of us have special ones who loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are, those who cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life. 10 seconds, I’ll watch the time. Whomever you’ve been thinking about, how pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they have made. You know they’re the kind of people television does well to offer our world. Special thanks to my family and friends, and to my co-workers in Public Broadcasting and Family Communications, and this Academy for encouraging me, allowing me, all these years to be your neighbor. May God be with you. Thank you very much.Fred Rogers, 24th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards
Fred Rogers died of stomach cancer on Feb. 27, 2003, at his home in Pittsburgh. He was 74. At the time of this death, he’d written more than three dozen children’s books and over a dozen books for adults.