The world knew him as a saintly, soft-spoken figure in sneakers and a cardigan sweater who lived in a magical world of puppets and singing policemen. But long before he became every child’s best-loved neighbor, the real Mister Rogers was a familiar and comforting sight on the campus of his alma mater, Sullivan Foundation partner school Rollins College.
Those who knew Fred Rogers best unanimously agree the character he portrayed in his classic PBS show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” was scarcely different from the man who studied music composition, philosophy and religion as a Rollins student in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In fact, Rogers was such a force for goodness and decency, Rollins awarded him the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Foundation Award in March 2001.
Rogers isn’t the only famous Sullivan Award recipient—Eleanor Roosevelt was another recipient, after all—but he’s certainly the only one to be played by A-list actor Tom Hanks in a major feature film. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” debuted to rave reviews nationwide in November 2019. And although box-office numbers would probably be the last thing Mister Rogers would care about, the film raked in a respectable $35.7 million in its first 10 days in theaters.
A native of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Rogers graduated from Rollins in 1951. For the remainder of his life, he carried with him a photo of an engraved marble plaque, located near Strong Hall on the Rollins campus, that bore the motto, “Life is for Service.” Rogers’ list of activities at Rollins would likely surprise no one who ever watched his show. He served on the chapel staff, sang in the chapel and Bach choirs, and belonged to organizations such as the Community Service Club, the Student Music Guild, the Welcoming Committee and the After Chapel Club.
Although he shot “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in Pittsburgh, Rogers and his wife, fellow Rollins College graduate Joanne Byrd Rogers, spent a part of their winters every year in a rented house in Winter Park, Fla., near Rollins College. He touched many lives in that neighborhood as well as in the fictional one he created for PBS.
“Some of my favorite childhood memories are from the time my family and I spent with Fred and Joanne Rogers having afternoon teas and piano concerts,” recalled Sara Patrick, Rollins’ Executive Assistant for Alumni Engagement, in a Rollins College website article published last year. “I was eight years old, and it was just like having him step out of ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ and into my home.”
“I’d see him walking to the chapel every day in winter,” recalled Daniel Parke, a 1997 Rollins College graduate, in an article in Rollins Magazine. “Every day. He’d take the time to stop and talk with students as if it were no big deal.”
Rogers was even known to drop by his old music department haunts and play piano for the students. “Uncle Fred would put his face up to the window of my music class, and everything would come to a stop,” remembered Rogers’ nephew, Dan Crozier, a music professor at Rollins College, in the Rollins Magazine article. “He’d walk in and say, ‘How are things in this neighborhood?’ The students were in awe.”
Rogers was such a beloved figure that the school created the Mister Rogers Rollins College Self-Guided Walking Tour, offered year-round Tuesdays through Fridays, on the campus. Visitors can wander through Tiedtke Concert Hall, where a large portrait of Rogers hangs on the wall, and check out his stone in the Rollins Walk of Fame in front of Lyman Hall, his old dormitory. Additionally, Rogers’ famous sweater and sneakers are on view at Olin Library, along with a collection of other personal items, including letters and photos.
When Rogers received his honored spot in the Rollins Walk of Fame in 1991, the “low-key ceremony” didn’t quite go as planned, according to Joanne Rogers and Rita Bornstein, who was president of Rollins College at the time. “Fred was concerned about word getting out,” Joanne Rogers explained to Rollins Magazine. “He told Rita, ‘If you want me to spend time with the adults, then don’t make this an occasion for children. If children come, they’ll get first dibs.’”
To give everyone a chance to meet Rogers, Bornstein arranged for him to visit Rollins’ Child Development and Student Research Center. “Word got out,” Bornstein told Rollins Magazine. “Children came from everywhere. Girls were wearing princess dresses. Boys were all excited to see Mister Rogers. I thought, ‘Oh … my … God.’ … He did what only Fred could do. I have a picture from the ceremony of him surrounded by children—the children I was supposed to keep away.”
Rogers died of stomach cancer in 2003, but his legacy has never faded. A 2018 film about him, called “Won’t You be My Neighbor?” became the highest-grossing biographical documentary of all time. Its success was quickly followed up by “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” based on author Tom Junod’s experience with Rogers on assignment for Esquire magazine in 1998.
Hanks told Rollins Magazine that he had bounced ideas around with Marielle Heller, the movie’s director, for years, “but either my stuff didn’t gel with her or vice versa. Then she called me with ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.’ We agreed to shoot it as soon as I was available.”
Hanks was Rogers’ favorite actor, Joanne Rogers has said in press interviews. “The biggest shock of my life,” she told Rollins Magazine, “is when I heard Tom Hanks said ‘yes’ to being cast as Fred.”
Rogers passed away just weeks after serving as the Grand Marshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade and tossing the ceremonial coin in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. But family members said Rogers had no fear of death. “He’d talk about how wonderful his next journey would be,” Joanne Rogers said.
“Our family had to share him a lot,” his son, John Rogers, told Rollins Magazine. “I’ve said he came as close as you can come to being Jesus Christ himself. It bothered me that I couldn’t measure up to him, until I was about 30 years old. He would have been the first to tell me, ‘Just be you.’”