Neighbor and friend
Fifty years after Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood began, the people Fred Rogers knew away from cameras reveal the character of the man
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“Dear Kamel, We like you just the way you are. Happy Birthday … Love Joanne and Fred.” So reads a handwritten card to Kamel Boutros from Fred and Joanne Rogers, written the year before Fred Rogers died suddenly from stomach cancer at age 74.
Boutros has boxes of letters from Rogers and cassettes of voicemails of Rogers calling to check in on him. He is one of many people Rogers, the iconic host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, befriended, mentored, and prayed for away from the cameras.
“I miss this man so much,” said Boutros upon finding the birthday card. “I cannot believe he was my friend!”
With the 50th anniversary of the television show this year, a major documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, debuts in theaters June 8 (see sidebar), and Tom Hanks will star in a film about Rogers, You Are My Friend, coming to theaters in October 2019.
The people Rogers took under his wing—even as he wrote and produced more than 1,000 episodes of his show over his career—still feel the effect of his love. In a media environment where scandal from public figures is the norm, Rogers remains untarnished by the scrutiny of retrospectives and interviews with those closest to him.
“Fred, he didn’t play a character,” said Boutros.
Rogers’ show, where he voiced the puppets and wrote the songs he sang, was one of the longest-running children’s shows on television ever. The premise was simple and low-production: Rogers walks into his house, changes jackets and shoes, and then spends several minutes talking about something very simple, like the concepts of “going” and “coming.”
Ordained as a Presbyterian pastor (PCUSA), Rogers never led a church but focused on television where he taught children about the importance of love, hard work, curiosity, empathy, and expressing your feelings in healthy ways. His mission was to use television “for the broadcasting of grace through the land.” He had, by all accounts, a successful marriage with Joanne Rogers from 1952 until his death in 2003, and they had two children.
Rev. George Wirth is a PCUSA minister who was a close friend of Rogers, and he, like Boutros, has boxes of letters from Rogers. He recalls that Rogers swam regularly, ate healthy, never drank or smoked, and went to bed early.
“I don’t know how he found the time to be that personal with so many people,” said Wirth. “It was one of his gifts.”
A CHRISTIAN IMMIGRANT FROM EGYPT AND A MUSICIAN, Boutros was studying at Curtis Institute of Music in the 1990s when his path first crossed with Rogers’. Boutros’ roommate was Alan Morrison, an organist and the son of concert pianist Jeannine Morrison. The Morrisons were close friends with the Rogerses—Joanne Rogers was a concert pianist too, and she and Jeannine often performed together.
Alan Morrison appeared on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1994, showing Rogers how to play a pipe organ. On another episode Morrison played piano with Demarre and Anthony McGill, brothers who play the flute and clarinet. After hearing them, Rogers turned to the camera.
“Those young men, they spend their time doing healthy things,” Rogers told the audience. “Things that don’t hurt anybody. In fact their music helps -people. They practice as they play, and they make life better by doing it. I’m very proud of them for what they do, how they do it, and who they are. When you use your time doing constructive things, helpful things, and learn to do them as well as you possibly can, I’m proud of you too.” Then Rogers started singing his song, “I’m proud of you ...”
Having grown up in Egypt, Boutros had never watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, so his roommate Morrison put it on one day. At first Boutros found it slow and uninteresting, but that changed as he watched.
“I wanted to cry,” said Boutros. “What this man was doing psychologically for kids—I’m watching a genius.”
Fred Rogers himself studied music composition, and he composed hundreds of songs. He loved spending time with musicians. Morrison sent a tape of one of Boutros’ recitals to Rogers, thinking he would like Boutros’ voice. Rogers got in touch.
“He just decided he was going to pray for me and encourage me,” said Boutros. Rogers wrote letters regularly, attended Boutros’ programs, and, after Boutros graduated, helped with money while Boutros got on his feet.
They would work on music together, Rogers asking Boutros to show how he did piano improvisation. Boutros says Rogers was “not a small composer,” writing technically difficult pieces, like an arrangement of Chopin. They began by discussing music but moved on to “talking about God all the time.”
Soon after school, Boutros was performing The Messiah in Chile, and he got nervous about his visa coming back. The visa was in order, but Boutros worried he might be sent back to Egypt, and he hadn’t been able to obtain clear answers from the embassy. He called Rogers, who contacted U.S. diplomats in Chile, who invited Boutros to the local office and comforted him about the visa.
The Rogerses had Boutros up for long visits at their “crooked house,” as they called it, in Nantucket. Boutros remembers going to the grocery store with Rogers where fans would mob the PBS star. Boutros offered to do the grocery shopping, but Rogers insisted that he was a guest.
One conversation with Rogers stuck with Boutros throughout his career. They were eating at a diner in New York and Rogers ordered a sandwich, then asked if it cost extra to add cheese. The waiter said cheese was 40 cents extra. Rogers said he’d have the sandwich without the cheese. Forty cents isn’t much, is it? Boutros asked. Rogers told him he would spend a lot of money on his shoes, because he needed to have good shoes, but the cheese wasn’t necessary for his life’s work.
“That’s when I decided I was going to get a grand piano,” said Boutros. “Not a bad upright piano.”
Boutros sang with the Met Opera for about five seasons and performed multiple times with the legendary pianist Martha Argerich. He now directs music at New York’s Calvary-St. George’s Episcopal Church—composing, singing, and leading orchestras. This past December he premiered a piece he wrote in Coptic based on Isaiah 9, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
ROGERS BEFRIENDED REV. WIRTH at a funeral in 1983. Wirth’s closest friend at the time, Presbyterian Pastor Robert Holland, had died of a heart attack, and Wirth prayed at the funeral at Holland’s church, Shadyside Presbyterian. The church was near Rogers’ home in Pittsburgh, and Rogers came to the service, sitting in the back. Later that day, Wirth got a phone call—it was Fred Rogers.
“He said, ‘Your prayer was lovely and meaningful to me. I can tell that you are hurting. Would you like to get together and visit for a while?’” Wirth recalled. “He could sense the pain in other people, and he felt a calling to minister to them. And I was one of those people.”
They went to a Pittsburgh lunch spot, Duranti’s, and talked for two hours, crying and laughing. Rogers told him, “I think we could be friends.” They began having lunch at Duranti’s once a month, where they would regularly pray together. Then they began having family get-togethers.
A few years later Wirth went with Rogers to a speaking engagement near Lake Erie, where Rogers spoke about the importance of family. Afterward a microphone went out to the audience for questions.
One woman stood up and shared that her daughter and grandchildren had all watched the show. Then she shared that she was sad today because her daughter just found out she was going to get a divorce. The woman broke down into sobs, and Wirth recalled Rogers climbing off the stage and going back to the 15th row where the woman sat, slowly inching his way across the row as people tried to get out of his way. And he hugged her.
“Off-camera he was as caring and sensitive as he was on camera,” said Wirth. “Maybe even more so.”
Rogers retired from his show in 2001. He didn’t tell many people when he learned he was sick two years later, and he died shortly after his diagnosis. Boutros heard from Rogers’ lawyer when he died; Rogers had left him some ancient dishes that were a gift from the Egyptian Museum.
When Rogers was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1999, he used five minutes to talk about the value of life—referencing a recent comment on a news report he saw where someone said life was cheap.
“Life isn’t cheap,” Rogers said. “But how do we make goodness attractive? By doing whatever we can to bring courage to those whose lives move near our own. By treating our neighbor at least as well as we treat ourselves and allowing that to inform everything that we produce. Who in your life has been such a servant to you?” He asked the audience to sit in silence for 10 seconds to ponder that question.
A lovely tribute
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a new documentary about Fred Rogers, due in theaters on June 8. The documentary captures several moments that solidified Rogers’ greatness: his emotional connections with children as well as with those around him.
Mister Rogers was the one who allayed my childhood fears about the bathtub drain sucking me down, so I can’t be objective about him. But neither can many of the children who grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
The documentary contrasts the gentleness of Rogers with the violent world and culture around him. After 9/11 he went on his show and reminded his watchers that “we’re all called to be repairers of creation.” Watch an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood today, and it will feel like a foreign film in our fast-cutting media environment. His simple moment singing “It’s You I Like” with a disabled boy in a wheelchair will melt the hardest heart.
Bring the Kleenexes, but maybe not the kids. The only drawback of this documentary is that it is targeted at adults in order to pose some adult questions. It includes a brief foray into questions about whether Rogers was gay (his confidants laughed it off, including cast member François Clemmons, who was himself gay) and some off-color language from the show’s crew.
Those few adult moments are perhaps disappointing for parents who wanted their children to see the film but useful in contrasting Rogers with the crude, cruel world around him. In a touching moment, Clemmons shares that Rogers became his surrogate dad. “No man had ever told, had ever said, ‘I love you,’ like that to me,” he recounts. A rare man indeed. —E.B.
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