Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

By Patricia Schoene


The cheerful statement, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” could be said by anyone, but for many, it will always be the first line of a song composed and performed by Fred Rogers as the opening to his popular children’s television program, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Given that the show first aired on PBS stations across the US in 1968 and ended in 2001, current Rollins students may be more familiar with Eddie Murphy’s SNL parody of Mister Rogers’ classic invitation, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” But everyone in our neighborhood will soon have an opportunity to learn more about one of Rollins College’s most famous alumni, Fred McFeely Rogers, who will be celebrated and honored in a pop-up exhibition presented by the Winter Park History Museum and our local PBS station, WUCF.

Fred Rogers graduated from Rollins College Magna Cum Laude with a degree in music composition in 1951. The Fred Rogers Lobby and Plaza of the Tiedtke Concert Hall, where a portrait of Mister Rogers hangs, is named in his honor. Rogers met his wife Sara Joanne Byrd, an accomplished pianist, when they were students in the music department at Rollins. Once they completed their degrees, the couple married and moved to the Rogers family’s home state of Pennsylvania, but continued to spend time in Winter Park over the span of their lives. Soon, Rogers began his career in television, a relatively new medium that he immediately recognized for its tremendous potential. However, he did not like the violence in shows created for children, and so, as public broadcasting was just getting its start, Rogers developed his own special brand of programming. He was adamant about  promoting timeless lessons of kindness, patience, and acceptance of every individual – “just the way you are.” Mister Rogers respected children, understood their fears, and appreciated and nurtured their wonderful imaginations. For those who perhaps did not grow up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on television, WUCF will soon begin rebroadcasting his programs.

For an unusual juxtaposition of two different personalities, watch a video from 1983 of Rogers singing one of his best loved songs to Tonight Show guest host Joan Rivers, the queen of snarky comments about celebrity attire. Mr. Rogers looks in her eyes and sings, “It’s you I like. It’s not the things you wear. It’s not the way you do your hair. It’s you I like…” Another great example of Fred Rogers’ inspirational equanimity can be seen in his 1997 acceptance of an Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award. He uses his few minutes at the microphone to remind the audience: “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being.” He then asked each member of the audience for ten seconds of silence so each could think about the people “who helped you become who you are.”

The upcoming exhibition will be presented in three separate segments. The first coincides with the Winter Park Art Festival, the first day of which happens to fall on the honoree’s birthday, March 20. Mister Roger’s Birthday Party will take place over two days—March 20th and 21st from 10:00 am until 4:00 pm at the Winter Park History Museum. This portion of the events will celebrate the wonderful life of Fred Rogers, beginning with his student days at Rollins and continuing with his lifetime of work nurturing and educating children to believe in themselves and to express their feelings through music, art, drama, and every imaginable (but always positive) way.

The second segment of the pop-up exhibit, Be My Neighbor Day, will take place on March 29 from 12:00 to 3:00 pm in downtown Central Park, presented in collaboration with WUCF TV. This event, for children ages two to six, features activities that reinforce Mister Rogers’ message of kindness, acceptance, and love. There will be crafts, family entertainment contests, and a special meet and greet with Daniel Tiger, one of Mister Rogers’ characters featured in current PBS programming. Children of every age will love this event.

The third and final segment of the Rogers’ celebration will be held on April 2nd from 6:00 to 8:00 pm. The wine and cheese gathering at the Winter Park Farmer’s Market will give adults the opportunity to reminisce about their favorite memories of Mister Rogers and to watch a documentary film about Fred Rogers’ life. For this event, there is a suggested donation of five dollars, with all proceeds going to support the Winter Park History Museum.

Mark your calendars and be a part of our Rollins Winter Park neighborhood coming together to celebrate a very special man. Fred Rogers’ message of kindness and acceptance is just as important today as it was nearly fifty years ago, when he first invited us all to be his neighbor.


Image courtesy of Rollins College Library Records

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