John Rogers, son of children’s television icon Fred Rogers, visited the set of A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood in 2018. He told the media his dad would have been overjoyed to know Tom Hanks was playing him in the biographical film. This, however, was an example of how John and his brother James are still publicly tied to their late father’s legacy, which has sometimes proved a struggle for them over the years.
According to John, his father was exactly the same gentle, moral man in his home life as he was on television. He told Florida TV news channel WESH 2 in 2019 that Fred disliked it when people called him a star and he didn’t like fan encounters to be all about him. John said, “People would always want to ask questions about him, and he would always turn it around and ask about you.”
In June 2018 Fred’s wife Joanne also spoke about Fred’s character. While a guest on the TODAY TV show, she told a charming anecdote about the quaint, classic way he proposed to her. The year was 1951 when they first met, while he was studying music composition at Rollins College in Florida. Joanne later took up graduate work at Florida State University and also played piano.
After he graduated, Fred moved to New York City to take a producer’s assistant job at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, which at the time was known as the RCA Building. He must have missed the woman he left behind in Florida, though, because he wrote her a life-changing letter. Joanne told TODAY host Megyn Kelly, “My last year at Florida State, he wrote me a letter proposing marriage.”
Traveling back to where it all began, Fred Rogers was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania in 1928. He attended Latrobe High School, before going to Rollins College. The legend goes that, during his final year of college, he returned home to visit his parents and was amazed by the newest member of their household: a television set. He would later say he immediately knew he wanted to be a part of TV’s future.
By 1953 Fred had landed a job at WQED, a community television station in Pittsburgh, the city with which he would become synonymous in later years as “Mister Rogers.” Within a year of starting work at WQED, he became the co-producer of The Children’s Corner. This show was the perfect vehicle for his love of puppetry, in which he had been interested since childhood.
In 1962 Fred became ordained as a Presbyterian minister after attending the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. At this time, he also went to the Graduate School of Child Development at the University of Pittsburgh. Here he met child psychologist Margaret McFarland, who became his mentor and chief collaborator. According to Sally Ann Flecker of PITTMED magazine, a huge amount of Fred’s “thinking about and appreciation for children was shaped and informed” by McFarland.
Interestingly, though, it wouldn’t be in America that the groundwork for “Mister Rogers” was truly laid. In 1963 Fred would debut an early version of the persona on Misterogers, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation show. This was where he first began to formulate the look and format of the show that would eventually make him famous.
Misterogers ran for four years and, when it finished, Fred returned to Pittsburgh with his wife Joanne and two young sons. He owned the rights to Misterogers and so developed a new version of the show. In 1968 the legendary Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted on PBS in the form of a half-hour children’s education show.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ran for a staggering 895 episodes, with the last new episode being produced in 2001. Over those 33 years, the format of the show barely changed at all, which is a rarity in the television landscape. Fred’s connection with the children in his audience was key to the show’s success. He was gentle and kind, but also respected their intelligence by broaching subjects other children’s shows would avoid.
Fred believed his show had to be honest with children. “The world is not always a kind place,” he wrote in his 1995 book You Are Special: Words of Wisdom for All Ages from a Beloved Neighbor. “That’s something all children learn for themselves, whether we want them to or not, but it’s something they really need our help to understand.”
The opening of the show became iconic. Mister Rogers would enter through the front door of his idyllic TV house, changing out of his jacket and raincoat and into a zip-up sweater. Over the course of the show’s run, Fred would wear roughly two dozen different sweaters, all of which were handmade by his mother. Indeed, one of the sweaters even wound up displayed as an exhibit in the Smithsonian Institution.
While Fred made it clear to his viewers that his television house was not where he really lived, he did have his family on the show on a few occasions. When James and John were young children, they and Joanne appeared to film a family-portrait episode. They posed around a piano and sang “It’s Such a Good Feeling” in unison.
In 1971 James appeared on the show to teach his father how to make a newspaper into a fun paper hat. And 20 years later, James appeared again with his own son in tow and this allowed Fred to play with his grandson on TV. Regarding how he related to children on-screen and in his private life, Joanne once said that Fred “had a patience the likes of which I greatly admired but couldn’t emulate.”
Sadly, Fred died in February 2003 from stomach cancer. A form of comfort, however, was that he passed with his wife at his side. Joanne told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper that she reassured her husband, who was in a tremendous amount of pain, that his family would manage without him.
Joanne said, “There was a feeling of real relief when I could say to him, ‘You know, we’re going to be okay. We’re going to be all right. The boys will be fine and I’m going to try to be fine.’ So, when he went, I could feel he went at peace and even with joy. I really feel he went with joy.”
However, growing up with a father like Fred, the same morally virtuous man on television and at home, was sometimes difficult for his sons. When they were young, they knew the television version of their father as their “other daddy.” Their father’s morally upstanding public image also left them vulnerable to school bullies.
In 2018 a feature documentary was released, entitled Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and it was the first biography to feature the involvement of all of Fred’s core family. Joanne, James, John, and Fred’s sister all gave in-depth interviews. The documentary was shown at the Sundance Film Festival and was directed by Morgan Neville, an Academy Award-winning filmmaker.
In the documentary, John admitted, “It was difficult to have the second Christ as your dad.” He was subsequently interviewed by the Los Angeles Times newspaper and explained this comment in more detail. He said, “Dad’s morals were just beyond most people. The way he led his life, I believe dad tried to follow the example of Christ and did in such a fabulous way.”
John conceded that he struggled with the notion of matching up to the person his father was. How could he be as good a man as Mister Rogers, who was morally beyond reproach? He said, “So living up to a legend such as he was challenging for me growing up. I had my issues with that.”
It wasn’t until he reached adulthood that John came to terms with his father’s legacy, in terms of how it pertained to him living his own life. He said, “But at about age 30, I sort of came to peace with it. I was like, ‘You know what? I’m happy with myself.’ And what did dad always teach us? ‘Be happy with the way you are.’”
James, who goes by “Jim”, also struggled with the weight of the Mr Rogers persona. In 1978 when he was only 18 years old, People magazine exposed his teenage rebellion in a tell-all article. It read, “A freshman at his dad’s alma mater, Rollins College in Florida, Jim has stopped writing [to] his folks or even returning their phone calls.”
In 2018 Jim told the Los Angeles Times, “Oh, I remember that article, and I wasn’t really thrilled with it.” The piece had also included quotes from Jim’s parents, with Fred saying, “He’s flown the coop,” and Joanne admitting, “It’s been a difficult year. There’s real hostility.” Jim’s perspective, however, was that his father was simply letting him spread his wings.
“But dad always gave me room to grow,” Jim said in 2018. “I’ve had a beard and long hair for a pretty long time, and he always thought of that as outside stuff that didn’t really matter. I can remember him saying one time he wished he could grow a beard so that people wouldn’t recognize him.”
In February 2020 the website of British newspaper the Daily Mail revealed that John, who had been so open about struggling to live up to his father’s persona, had been a part of some very messy marital turmoil shortly after the turn of the millennium. He was arrested in 2002 for an incident involving his wife Mary, who was pregnant with their son at the time. Aggravated battery and domestic violence was the charge, and his mugshot was taken.
The marriage disintegrated soon after this incident, in which Mary alleged that John slapped her on the back, grabbed her by the neck and forcefully disconnected the phone while she attempted to call 911. She also claimed he screamed, “Get out bitch! Nothing in this house is yours, you’re not even getting the dog!”
John and Mary were living in Winter Park, Florida at the time and a detailed police report was made by the arresting officers. Mary told them that she and John had quarreled, which led to her deciding to spend the night at a hotel. She had only gone back to the house to gather up her belongings when John attacked her.
The police report read, “While the victim was collecting her belongings Mr Rogers arrived at the home and they began to have a heated argument. The victim noticed that Mr Rogers was intoxicated. During the argument, the victim placed a 911 call to the police which was disconnected when Mr Rogers unplugged the base unit from the power outlet.”
The report continued, “Mrs Rogers attempted to walk away when Mr Rogers slapped her on the center of the back with an open hand. Mr Rogers then used his right arm around her neck to restrain her in preventing her from leaving the residence. Mrs Rogers threw the phone and Mr Rogers released her.”
John denied hitting or restraining his wife in this way, telling the police that he only held her by the wrist to stop her leaving the house. However, Mary’s statement was that he had attacked her when she told him she wanted to take one of their dogs to the hotel. She also maintained John was fully aware that she was two months pregnant when he struck her.
Two years later, when they were living apart, Mary alleged that she received an inappropriate phone call from John. She claimed he had sounded distressed and that he had inquired about coming over to her house for sex. After she had said no and hung up, he then called back and said he was contemplating a pill overdose, as, “it’s either me and you or nothing.”
Mary was later prompted to call 911 when John allegedly showed up at her home and “began looking through the window of the back door.” However, when the police went to John’s house, everything seemed normal. According to the police report, he “did not appear distressed and stated he was not going to harm himself.”
John told the police that he and Mary were in the midst of an extremely messy divorce and theorized this caused her to make up allegations against him. John later won a custody battle and their son moved in with him, while Mary went to live with her new lover. It was Mary, however, who subsequently went down a dark path.
Mary found herself in trouble with the law several times over the next few years, being arrested for a series of alcohol-fueled arguments with her boyfriend. John was eventually forced to file a protective order against her, as he claimed she was repeatedly harassing him and their son. Sadly, in 2014, the situation would become even more untenable.
After alleging he had received demeaning phone calls from Mary, John was granted a no-contact order, which prevented her from being in physical or verbal contact with him. The order included a ban on direct face-to-face contact, but also prohibited phone and internet communication. Unfortunately, in 2015 John informed the police that Mary had violated the order.
John had been receiving text messages and phone calls from Mary and her boyfriend Wayne McClendon. He took screenshots of some of the messages, which included abusive rhetoric from McClendon that referenced his famous father. In the end, it seemed John was able to maintain his composure, as his only response to the abusive message was, “Please discontinue contact and go through the proper channels.”
Finally, John had another upsetting encounter with the law in 2018. On this occasion, he was forced to call the police on his own son. At this point, the boy was 15 years old, and John phoned the police following some sort of “disturbance” between them. When the officers arrived, John was reportedly sweating profusely and he told the cops his son was, “acting weird.”
John confessed that he knew his son smoked marijuana, but maintained he had “never acted like this in the past.” The police believed the behavior was so odd and potentially dangerous that the boy needed to be detained for mental health reasons. According to the police report, when his father tried to fasten his son’s shoes, the boy kicked him and became “agitated and combative.”
Official records stated that John’s son had his hands handcuffed behind his back, in preparation for being transported to a mental health facility. However, he was somehow able to contort his body and get his hands in front of him by the time of arrival. In fact, he had also taken his shorts off, leaving him completely naked in the back of the vehicle.
At the facility, John’s son became violent again and the local Fire and Rescue service took him to a more secure facility. It was on the way to this second institution that he finally admitted he was “tripping on LSD.” He confessed that there was more of the hallucinogenic drug in the pocket of his pants back at home. Police indeed found the stash, confirming what was happening to the boy.