Most kids rebel against their parents sooner or later. But Jim Rogers is having a harder time than other 18-year-olds telling his father to buzz off. Jim’s pop is not just any Mr. Rogers. He’s the Mister Rogers, for 24 years the gentle host of public TV’s Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and a paragon of parental understanding. A freshman at his dad’s alma mater, Rollins College in Florida, Jim has stopped writing his folks or even returning their phone calls. “He’s flown the coop,” sighs his father. “It’s been a difficult year,” agrees his mother. “There’s real hostility.”
Ironically, this personal family problem could practically serve as a script for Fred Rogers’ first new series since the last Neighborhood episode was taped in 1975. (Updated reruns still play daily on 250 stations.) Last month Rogers began hosting Old Friends…New Friends, a half-hour show, also on PBS, devoted to “intergenerational differences.” It features guests like the Hoagy Carmichaels (père et fils), poet Robert Frost’s daughter Lesley and Rogers’ own barber—all trying to talk across the generation gap.
Despite his son’s defection, communication has hardly collapsed in Rogers’ Pittsburgh home. “It’s been painful, and it’s rough on Jamie,” says Rogers, 50, gamely understanding of his older boy’s relatively mild insurrection. “But if we don’t allow him to go off and have this time for himself, he’ll never come back to the nest.” “Mom and Dad have been nice about this break,” Jim reckons. “I’m just trying to get used to being a person, to get along by myself.”
Fred’s younger son, John, 16, devotedly commutes 40 miles a day rather than room near his prep school and diligently polishes the family autos. “When we have conflicts, they don’t last too long,” John says. “We talk them out. He’s just like any other father.” But Joanne, 50, doesn’t always find it easy to be Mrs. Rogers. “It’s difficult to live with an image,” she says. “Sometimes I want to do something impulsive, silly, adolescent. But then for Fred’s sake, I say, ‘Don’t do that!’ ”
Rogers, who grew up in Latrobe, Pa., recalls with a smile, “I tried to be a good boy—through no fault of anybody’s.” (He now believes “goodness” is over-stressed by parents.) His father was a brick manufacturer, and his mother still knits those cardigans that Rogers wears more often on TV than Jimmy Carter. “I was mostly around adults because I was 11 before I had a sister, so I had to make up my own friends.” Playing the piano became “a very modulated way of dealing with my feelings,” says Rogers. Later he entered Dartmouth, but after meeting Joanne, a concert pianist, during a Florida vacation, he transferred to Rollins and majored in music composition. “He was lots of fun,” she remembers. “I never knew about his great interest in kids until after we were married.”
Rogers studied at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary to become an ordained Presbyterian minister with the mission of working with families and children through the media. He broke into TV as a junior producer and director of network shows like Voice of Firestone, Your Lucky Strike Hit Parade and The Kate Smith Hour. In 1954 he started Children’s Corner, the predecessor of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, on Pittsburgh’s public channel WQED. In contrast to the frenetically paced Sesame Street, Rogers’ style expects more of a child than an attention span of 90 seconds. “People who produce children’s TV are attempting to work out their own unresolved childhood fantasies,” he believes. “They’re so goal-oriented. That’s not good for personal development. What children see in Neighborhood is an authentic human being who cares about each of them individually.” (An abstemious viewer himself, Rogers watches only The Waltons.)
His series has won him numerous awards and nine honorary degrees, and the latest indication of its success was the Saturday Night Live send-up “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Rogers” (an idea Fred finds delightful). As for those who mistakenly think his unassuming style masks a Goody Two-Shoes (in fact, he specifically tells children their feelings of anger and fear are normal), even son Jim is quick to defend him. “Some people don’t understand what Dad’s doing on TV. They mock it. Occasionally,” Jim admits, “that gets dumped on me.” His mom realistically observes, “The kids can feel pride for what their father has accomplished, but also jealousy and resentment.” Rogers, who has done graduate work in child development, claims to answer personally thousands of letters asking for advice on parenting every year. “The main problem is that many parents are too concerned with being good at it. They become overanxious and self-conscious.”
Fred himself is a bit uncomfortable with the turn-of-the-century splendor of his six-bedroom house—he’s trying to sell it—and the affluent life his inherited money has brought him (his TV production company has always been nonprofit). His friends include boyhood neighbor Arnold Palmer and college classmate Tony Perkins, but Fred says, “You really cherish those people who loved you before you were famous.” Weekends he drops into the visitors’ room of a Pennsylvania prison to talk to the children of inmates.
A nonmeat eater and fitness nut, Rogers still keeps his high school weight of 150 pounds. Every summer he spends a month with his family on Nantucket. There, and most other places he visits, Fred finds, “People who meet me often say, ‘You must throw things and get furious and scream just like everyone else.’ But I don’t,” insists Mister Rogers. “That kind of statement says more about the people who are making it than it does about me.”