Esteemed TV Host Gave ’02 Commencement Address
By Catherine Elvy, Staff Writer
For nearly 35 years, Fred Rogers invited young viewers to be part of his neighborhood.
An upcoming film from Sony Pictures will take a closer look at the kindness behind the life of the beloved children’s television host who attended Dartmouth College for two years before transferring to Rollins College. Dartmouth awarded Rogers an honorary degree in 2002 when he gave the commencement address.
An upcoming film from Sony Pictures will highlight the life of Fred Rogers, the iconic children’s television host.
Academy Award-winner Tom Hanks will portray Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a movie named after the theme song to PBS’ Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
The production is an adaptation of Tom Junod’s 1998 article, Can You Say…Hero?, which chronicled how the cynical journalist was touched by his exposure to Rogers’ good nature. The essay also detailed the prayer and benevolence at the core of the country’s cherished neighbor.
“This is a man who loves the simplifying force of definitions, and yet all he knows of grace is how he gets it; all he knows is that he gets it from God, through man,” Junod wrote for Esquire. Acclaimed actor Matthew Rhys will depict the jaded magazine writer who is transformed after being assigned to profile Rogers, also an ordained Presbyterian minister.
The movie is part of a series of efforts to spotlight the remarkable life of Rogers in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Among other highlights, a University of Pennsylvania alumnus was the force behind Won’t You Be My Neighbor? In June 2018, director Morgan Neville ’89 released a documentary highlighting Rogers’ pioneering work in television, especially on behalf of preschoolers. Rogers was his show’s creator, composer, producer, head writer, showrunner, and of course, its cardigan-clad host.
The television host sought to show youngsters how to navigate life’s challenges and deal with emotions. In his role as the soft-spoken host and puppeteer, he actively took on challenging topics, including racism, divorce, and even some national tragedies.
The film portrait also features fresh insights from Rogers’ widow, sons, and sister.
Documentary producer Nicholas Ma, Harvard ’05, played a pivotal role in involving the star’s relatives, thanks to his relationship with the Rogers family via his own famous father.
As a youth, Ma appeared twice on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood alongside acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Harvard ’76. In exchange for her participation in the documentary, Joanne Rogers only asked the production team not to characterize her late husband as a saint.
Among the takeaways from the production, director Neville learned that Rogers received astonishing piles of mail—4,000-plus per year by one count—and the television icon attempted to answer nearly every piece of correspondence.
Fittingly, the US Postal Service jumped in with its own tribute and commemorated the broadcaster’s rich legacy with a Mister Rogers Forever Stamp. In conjunction with the unveiling of the stamp in spring 2018, the Pittsburgh International Airport also honored Rogers with a slate of activities inside the terminal. For its part, PBS aired a one-hour tribute in March 2018.
As for Neville’s documentary, the Penn graduate explained to Film Journal International how the original idea for his production came from the influence of Rogers upon Nicholas Ma. Rogers specifically emphasized the importance of using fame as a positive force.
Likewise, Neville was fascinated by the profound insights that Rogers shared during commencement addresses, including one at Dartmouth. “Here’s this voice saying things that I don’t hear anymore,” Neville told Film Journal International. “He was an empathetic adult with no other agenda. It’s a voice we’re missing today.”
During his talk to the Class of 2002, Rogers reflected upon valuable life lessons plus the imprint of Dartmouth upon his life, including an appreciation for astronomy. “Our world hangs like a magnificent jewel in the vastness of space,” he said.
A year before his passing, Rogers encouraged newly minted graduates to inspire goodness in others.
“Because deep down, we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too.”
Ever the role model, Rogers stressed the importance of investing in human lives to the Dartmouth Class of 2002. “What choices encourage heroism in the midst of chaos?” he asked, rhetorically. With that, Rogers urged graduates to “make goodness attractive again.”
Rogers attended Dartmouth in the late 1940s before transferring to Rollins College, where he graduated in 1951 with a degree in music composition. After studying divinity at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, he went on to a long and storied career, much of it tied to his eponymous show that ran from 1968 to 2001.
Among notable achievements, Rogers was appointed the chair of the Forum on Mass Media and Child Development of the White House Conference on Youth in 1968, and he won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002. The Pittsburgh native also picked up two George Foster Peabody Awards and four Emmys. Plus, the Television Hall of Fame inducted Rogers in 1999.
Throughout his broadcasting career, Rogers reflected a Christian worldview that emphasized the importance of treating individuals as image-bearers of God. The man behind one of television’s longest-running programs taught generations of kids that they were indeed special.
In his trademark sweater and sneakers, Rogers told children to make each day special. “There’s nobody else in the whole world who’s exactly like you, and people can like you exactly as you are,” Rogers often said.