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Illustration by Alex Cochran

The many, many, many letters of Mister Rogers

Fred Rogers possibly wrote individual letters to hundreds of thousands of people. Yet this resource — his most abundant — has somehow remained in obscurity. Why?

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Jeanne Marie Laskas couldn’t stop returning to Fred Rogers.

“That’s what I … went to him for, was another shot of wisdom. Another, another, another — you drink from Fred,” she recalled during a recent interview with the Deseret News, while noting her metaphor’s irony (Rogers didn’t drink alcohol).

In the 1980s Laskas worked at WQED, the Pittsburgh TV station where Rogers filmed “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The beloved TV host became Laskas’ acquaintance and eventually her close friend.

She’s been writing about Rogers in various publications for 35 years now. And she’s watched how the world, like herself once upon a time, keeps going to Rogers for another shot of wisdom. Another, another, another.

Look for the helpers.” “I like you just the way you are.” “I’m not very good at it, but it doesn’t matter.” Little Rogers-isms continue to circulate in an endless influx of think pieces, memes and viral social media posts — bits of gentle wisdom in a world that seems to have gotten decidedly less gentle in the 17 years since Rogers’ death.

Our modern harshness has also, inevitably, turned Rogers into a pejorative: Just last week, one of President Donald Trump’s senior campaign advisers dismissed Joe Biden’s most recent town hall as “an episode of Mister Rodgers Neighborhood.” (Two days later, “Saturday Night Live” seized the taunt, draping Jim Carrey’s Biden caricature in a red cardigan while he sang “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”)

For better or worse, there is no escaping Rogers at this point.

Laskas singled out a Rogers-related phrase — not one Rogers himself ever spoke, but one born from his mortal absence, repeated to the point it has become cliche: “We need Mister Rogers now more than ever.”

“And we’re just going to keep saying this,” Laskas predicted. “The next big crisis, or the next big, horrible thing — ‘We need Fred Rogers more than ever now.’”

Searching Rogers for advice these days isn’t unwarranted or misguided, necessarily. But when it comes to what he left us, it’s possible we’ve been looking in the wrong place. The most abundant source of Rogers’ output, after all, isn’t his TV episodes (more than 900) or his speeches (hundreds) or his songs (hundreds) or his books (dozens).

Rather, it’s the letters he wrote to other people.

“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” reportedly received 15 to 30 pieces of viewer mail every single day. Those who worked closely with Rogers say he personally responded to each of those letters or oversaw an assistant’s response on his behalf. Oftentimes, Rogers wrote separate replies to both the child and their parent. He had to visit the office on weekends to keep up with it all.

If Rogers’ old colleagues are misremembering or exaggerating the numbers here — say they received five pieces of viewer mail each day, instead of 15 to 30 — then Rogers still wrote replies to some 40,000 people over the program’s 31 seasons. If his colleagues aren’t exaggerating, then this number could exceed 200,000. (For scale, the world’s largest stadium, Rungrado 1st of May Stadium in North Korea, seats 114,000.)

Keep in mind, Rogers wrote to more people than just his TV viewers. He also maintained written correspondence with a vast network of friends, family and acquaintances via letters, emails and handwritten notes.

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Fred Rogers interacts with children in this undated photo.

Fred Rogers Productions

That Rogers’ individual replies constitute an entire stadium’s worth of people seems, well, kind of preposterous — not just because of the sheer volume, but because of how something so voluminous, from someone so beloved, has somehow evaded pop culture’s gaze for so long. Most people know about Rogers. Very few people have known about the extent of his letters.

Yet the letters do exist — many of them archived, many not. While “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” is remembered as Rogers’ legacy, that was only ever half of it. His message to the world was fully realized in these thousands upon thousands of intimate one-on-one written correspondences.

Numerous people from Rogers’ life — friends, co-workers, family members — talked to us about these letters. We also interviewed authors, scholars and archivists, as well as people who maintained various levels of written correspondence with Rogers. They helped us understand why his trove of correspondence has remained overlooked, and what a world that perennially needs Rogers might still learn from this otherwise untapped resource.

‘He was offering you a relationship’

Dear Mr. Rogers,

You do such a good job on TV. It’s fun when we do the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

I am a boy. I am five years old. I like to play around with my sister. I like to read books. I am a real good reader.

I love you Mr. Rogers.

Your friend,

Matthew Fagerholm
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Part of the letter that Matthew Fagerholm wrote to Fred Rogers in 1991.

Matthew Fagerholm

That handwritten letter, dated Aug. 1, 1991, changed the trajectory of Matthew Fagerholm’s life. A month after he mailed it, Fagerholm received Rogers’ personal response — “much to the astonishment of my parents,” Fagerholm recalled during a recent email exchange with the Deseret News. As a child growing up in Illinois, Fagerholm had written several letters to other famous children’s TV hosts, but the most he’d ever received back was a signed headshot. 

Rogers’ reply, by contrast, was warm, specific and thorough: a five-paragraph response to the eight sentences Fagerholm had first written him.

At the end of the letter to Fagerholm, Rogers wrote:

Now you can write a whole letter by yourself. It takes a lot of practice to write well. I’m proud of the way you’re growing, and I hope you are, too.

Your television friend,

Mister Rogers
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Fred Rogers’ 1991 letter to Matthew Fagerholm.

Matthew Fagerholm

“Now you can write a whole letter by yourself” — Fagerholm explained that, as a child, this particular sentence felt deeply empowering and motivated him to continue writing.

“Yet it was his careful attention to every one of my sentences that provided me with the profound affirmation that my words mattered,” Fagerholm added. “I don’t believe I would be currently employed as a writer if I hadn’t grown up with his show.”

Fagerholm is now an assistant editor at RogerEbert.com. In 2019 he hosted Morgan Neville, director of the acclaimed Fred Rogers documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” for an onstage Q&A at the annual Ebertfest film festival. During the Q&A, Neville mentioned that for a time, Rogers received more mail than anyone in America. 

“To him, it wasn’t a chore,” Neville told the crowd. “When a child wrote to him, that was a real relationship. And in a way, being able to minister to children one-on-one through letters was almost more satisfying to him than just the show.”

Hedda Sharapan, who met Rogers in 1965 and worked on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” for its entire 31-season run, was closely involved with the program’s viewer mail. During a recent interview with the Deseret News, she said Rogers viewed his written correspondence as part of his mission. She remembers Rogers reading viewer mail first thing every day at their office.

“The mail was so important to Fred,” Sharapan explained. “When you think about it, he was doing his communicating to a television camera, and wanting to be really helpful, offering meaningful communication to children. But you have no idea who’s on the other side, or how they’re reacting.

“He was offering you a relationship,” she added, “and the letters brought the other side of that relationship.”

Totally exposed

Dear Mr. Rogers —

I am sitting here, listening to your wonderful voice — and I am reminded of the joy you gave to my son Tommy —

Tommy died ... a few days after he received your message and pictures — he was very happy about your caring — as were we all —

The innocence and acceptance from children is amazing and a relief — After having seen my son die, I am full of bitterness that, hopefully, will fade with time — I wish you could explain that to children ...

I guess I can’t explain it because I don’t understand it myself —

I would enclose Tommy’s own thank you for the album that was sent to him, but I can’t bear to part with it — in his five-year-old penmanship it read

Dear Mr. Rogers. thank you for the record. I like it very much. I.V. doesn’t hurt just a little when they put it in.

Love, Tommy.

I miss his beauty — and I wish so many people could have met him — I hope you continue to generate all that love and care — I saw it in Tommy — I’ve seen it in others —

Again, many thanks

Sally Rector

Alexandra Klarén, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School in Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., studied this letter, written in 1974, while working on her graduate dissertation. Klarén’s dissertation included numerous other letters between Rogers and his viewers, and became the book “On Becoming Neighbors: The Communication Ethics of Fred Rogers.”

In her book, Klarén notes the age and gender diversity among these correspondents. Mothers, fathers, children, teens, senior citizens — all kinds of people wrote to Rogers, for all kinds of reasons.

Klarén noticed a pattern in these letters, particularly among teens and mothers. These folks often began their letters as if they had an existing relationship with Rogers — like he was their real-life friend, like he knew them. Their disclosures quickly became quite personal. 

“Rogers, I think, is very interested in an authentic dialogue,” Klarén told the Deseret News. “And you can see, in the letters especially, how he kind of rhetorically situates himself always as learning from the letter writer. … He doesn’t necessarily place himself in the role of a teacher in the traditional sense, of having all of this knowledge and imparting it on to the students. But he sees himself as an equal participant in the search for knowledge and understanding.”

These letters, then, weren’t just some chore for Rogers, but his ace in the hole: They helped him know whether “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was on the right track, whether the program was addressing the right topics and whether it was doing so in the right way.

“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” wasn’t a monologue, it was a dialogue. And Rogers valued this dialogue above all else.

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Fred Rogers on the set of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Associated Press

“It was unbelievable to me, the people that I would meet who Fred had responded to,” said Bill Isler, the former president of Rogers’ production company, Fred Rogers Productions.

“There are some incredible letters about how he was the only male role model in their lives — children who were abused or neglected — all they had was ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,’” Isler continued. “Some of the letters were absolutely overwhelming. And he would share those with the staff. He would talk about the importance of the work by what he was hearing from people.”

Rogers’ own childhood is worth mentioning. As a young boy he suffered from severe asthma, which resulted in long periods of quarantined isolation. He was also overweight, and frequently bullied. It certainly puts Rogers’ interest in child development, and his approach to it, in proper context. The friends and family of Rogers interviewed for this story, however, asserted that Rogers’ childhood wasn’t a source of ongoing inner turmoil.

Isler said Rogers considered himself an “emotional archaeologist,” always wanting to know why people chose to do the things they did, “so the (letter) writing was just really an extension of his life, and how he conducted himself with people.”

In reality, it would’ve been unusual for Rogers not to write someone back.

“Fred would always say that giving is a very simple thing to do, because when you give, you’re always in control,” Isler added. “When you receive, you have no control whatsoever. You are totally exposed. And you always have to be a grateful receiver — and what you are is a grateful receiver of people’s remarks. ... If people were going to take the time to write him something, he was going to take the time to let them know that that was a valuable gift to him.”

Wanting to believe it

Dear Elaine,

If the plane’s on time and you … are anywhere near the Salt Lake City airport, I surely would welcome the chance to give you all a hug. Just wanted you to know I think of you.

As always,

Fred

Salt Lake City resident Elaine Jarvik got a few of these letters from Rogers during the 1980s and early ’90s — “they were short little letters in his very distinctive handwriting,” she recalled. They also occasionally corresponded via email.

“He was just the kind of person that stays in touch,” Jarvik said.

When Jarvik received Rogers’ airport invitation, she was in the midst of some intense family troubles. She drove to the airport and talked with Rogers while he waited for his next flight.

The two had met years earlier on the set of “Good Morning America,” when Jarvik’s spouse and Rogers were both featured on the same episode. They formed an immediate friendship, and for the next few years, the Jarviks would visit Rogers whenever they were in the same city.

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Elaine Jarvik poses at her home in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 21, 2020.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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Two letters that Elaine Jarvik received from Fred Rogers, photographed at her home in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 21, 2020.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Jarvik is quick to downplay her friendship with Rogers — “I don’t feel that I own him any more than anybody else,” she hedged — but admits that even now, she still has a proprietary feeling about him.

Indeed, Rogers had a unique ability to elicit devotion, which grew from the quiet yet unbroken attention Rogers would give people when they conversed with him.

“He just had a childlike interest in life,” Jarvik said. “And the connection that he made, like he was talking just to you, that’s how you felt when you were with him off-screen.”

Jeanne Marie Laskas explained it this way: “You wanted to be special to Fred — and he told you you were special — and you just really wanted to believe it. And you did believe it. But ... it could slip away, because you knew there were so many other people, and how could you be that important? … You’re just one little person, and who are you to claim Fred’s attention? But he kept giving it to you.”

Laskas remembered the letters Rogers frequently wrote her — “It was always coming out of nowhere,” she recalled. Rogers liked to photograph people in candid moments. Within a few weeks of taking someone’s photo, he’d often mail it to them with a sticky note attached to the back. On that sticky note, Rogers would write a little comment — “look how surprised you look here” or “what were you laughing at?”

Laskas received a lot of these particular notes.

“It really was such a profound experience, because they were photographs of you. It’s not like you and Fred, or you and Joanne (Fred’s wife), or you and someone on the staff. It’s you — just you — being you.

“It was the experience of you seeing yourself through his eyes,” she continued. “And it was unlike any relationship you’d have with anybody else — who does that? But it was for a specific purpose, clearly.”

A divine disturbance

It is my conviction that the youth who are in revolt are being revolted by our failure to know who they really are. They are tired of being enrolled, assigned, programmed, graded and molded from without. … It is a person’s creativity which allows him to make something of himself. It is this natural human creativity for which I have such deep respect. It is this creativity which must be fostered far beyond the five-year-olds.

Rogers spoke those bold words before Congress in 1969. This wasn’t part of his famous testimony to the U.S. Senate from that same year — aka “the speech that saved PBS” — but Rogers’ direct language about youth in revolt sounds more like a revolutionary’s than that of a children’s TV host.

His conviction wasn’t just a matter of personal belief, but of extensive training, both religiously and secularly.

After graduating from Rollins College in Florida in 1951 with a bachelor’s degree in music, Rogers attended the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Child Development. It was here at Pitt where he met Margaret McFarland, a child psychologist who, among other accomplishments, founded the Arsenal Family & Children’s Center with psychoanalyst Erik Erikson and pediatrician Benjamin Spock (of “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” fame).

Until her death in 1988, McFarland remained Rogers’ closest professional collaborator. The two of them met weekly to discuss Rogers’ plans for upcoming “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” episodes.

Rogers surrounded himself with child development experts. Bill Isler, Rogers’ righthand man at Fred Rogers Productions, also graduated from Pitt’s Graduate School of Child Development. Same for Hedda Sharapan.

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Fred Rogers, right, speaks to a child while the child holds one of Rogers’ puppets.

Jim Judkis Photography, Fred Rogers Productions

Sharapan recalled the early days of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” when she was attending graduate classes in the daytime and helping with “Mister Rogers” tapings at night. Those nighttime tapings, Sharapan said, reinforced every aspect of child development she was learning in grad school. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was graduate-level child development made manifest.

Rogers considered his TV program nondenominational (“he believed children had all religions and no religions,” Bill Isler explained), but the program’s roots — and indeed, Rogers’ own personal roots — were undeniably religious. Rogers was raised Presbyterian in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, about 40 miles outside Pittsburgh. After completing his studies at Pitt, Rogers enrolled at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree of divinity, and was ordained a minister of the United Presbyterian Church in 1963.

The Pittsburgh metro area is one of America’s most densely Presbyterian populations. Dr. Helen Blier, the director of continuing education at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, said Rogers was very much a product of that city, which has blended Presbyterian theology and Industrial Revolution-era immigration into a culture all its own. 

This culture, she explained, emphasizes neighborhood identity, safety and responsibility. There are nearly 100 distinct neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, most with their own specific immigrant origins (Polish, Ukrainian, Italian, among numerous others). In these communities, “there’s a fierce sense of responsibility that when your neighbor is suffering, you are suffering,” Blier explained.

Aspects of Presbyterianism echo these same communal notions. The church’s congregations, for example, are governed by representatives from within those congregations. Other levels of decision-making within the church have a similar council-led approach. And Presbyterian culture prioritizes continual, lifelong education.

The learning, the kindness, the communal responsibility, the neighborhood — it’s no wonder Rogers’ outlook and work took on the singular form it did. 

“People think of him as having been a super nice guy,” Blier said, “when really, what he was doing was grounded in something that was a whole lot deeper than niceness.”

Yes, Rogers was nice. But his niceness, however gentle and modest and cardigan-adorned it seemed, was also unrelenting. The longevity of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” is a testament — 912 episodes dedicated to teaching children about their inherent, unchangeable worth, and assuring them that their feelings were manageable, valid and welcomed. We’re so accustomed to Rogers’ presence that we forget just how radical that presence actually was. He wasn’t just nice. He was daring.

Take Rogers’ 1963 ordination in the United Presbyterian Church. Rogers’ close friend, Bill Barker, gave Rogers his charge at the ordination. The words of that charge bring Rogers’ unique boldness into sharp relief.

“We charge you to shake us through a God who involves himself in our world,” Barker told Rogers that day. “We, as the church, charge that you speak to us to disturb us. … We charge you to speak to us to remind us that we, too, through you, must be involved.”

Tom Junod, whose 1998 Esquire profile of Rogers shaped last year’s feature film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” experienced Rogers’ spirituality firsthand as they developed a close friendship. Between 1998 and Rogers’ death in 2003, Rogers and Junod maintained a regular, often intimate correspondence via hundreds of phone calls, emails and handwritten notes.

In a 2019 piece for The Atlantic, Junod said Rogers was emotionally forthcoming as a pen pal, “closing often with the assurance that he kept me in his thoughts and his prayers.”

“And, I guess you know, each morning I pray for you; I really do,” Rogers once wrote to Junod. “You are loved with a greater love than anyone could ever imagine, Tom. I trust that you’ll never ever forget that.”

“I have read his old emails,” Junod recounted, “and I can see that he was very clear about what he wanted from me and everybody else. He never stooped to proselytizing. But he lived a life of prayer, and he wanted us — he wanted me — to pray.”

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Fred Rogers speaks at a church.

Fred Rogers Productions

Almost like calligraphy

And when the day turns into night

And you’re beyond my sight

I think of you

Rogers penned those lines — lyrics to a song he’d just written — on a sticky note. Then Rogers attached the note to a wide-angle photo he had recently taken in Nantucket, where he and his wife, Joanne, often vacationed, and mailed the note to her.

Joanne Rogers is 92 years old now and still has that note.

Their marriage was rooted in writing: In 1952, when Fred was working for NBC in New York City and Joanne was finishing her graduate studies in Florida, Fred proposed to her via a letter.

During a recent interview with the Deseret News, Joanne discussed her husband’s unique commitment to letter writing.

For all of Fred Rogers’ written correspondence — which possibly involved ongoing threads with hundreds of people at any given moment, and in which Rogers often displayed considerable vulnerability — he could also be quite private. Joanne said her husband rarely told her the details of someone’s letter.

“He did not share a lot of things,” she recalled. “That was one thing about being a minister. … I think it has to do with loyalty.”

Fred Rogers knew how to compartmentalize. And, oddly enough, this manifested in his handwriting. 

Joanne said Fred’s handwriting took on two very distinct forms — “sort of … a double personality, which I found strange at first.” If he was writing a draft of something, or jotting down basic notes for himself, he would do it in cursive. But when the notes were meant for someone else to see, his handwriting morphed into an elegant mix of longhand and print.

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Joanne Rogers, left, and Fred Rogers at their Pittsburgh home.

Jim Judkis Photography, Fred Rogers Productions

Tim Madigan, a journalist who, like Tom Junod, became close to Rogers after profiling him, mentioned the distinct quality of Rogers’ handwriting — “almost like calligraphy,” he described.

During a recent interview with the Deseret News, Madigan said Rogers’ letters were like works of literature.

“And you could just visualize him kind of leaning over a piece of paper, and very, very carefully putting down just the perfect words in just the perfect way,” Madigan continued. “And just seeing his handwriting, it’s so distinct ... that it kind of speaks to how carefully he went about communicating through the written word.” 

Madigan said he and Rogers exchanged hundreds of letters. Their relationship began with a phone interview in 1995, and two years later Madigan visited Pittsburgh to write a more in-depth profile of the revered TV host. At the time, Madigan was facing numerous personal crises, such as severe depression and a possible divorce, which Madigan later detailed in his book, “I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers.”

“The foundation of his greatness was his ability to be present, and listen, and be with the person without an agenda, take in whatever they’re saying, and respond from this remarkable place of love, compassion and never judgement,” Madigan said. 

“And I think he took that same sort of presence into the letters. ... How he managed to find the time to do that is in itself remarkable.”

Heavy lifting

In Rogers’ childhood hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, is Saint Vincent College, a small liberal arts school (enrollment around 2,000) that was founded by a Bavarian monk in the 1840s. On its campus is the Fred Rogers Center.

Rogers helped plan the center during his final years, and the space is a lot like Rogers himself: quiet, curious, inviting, but also deeply focused on the work of child development. And like Rogers, the center contains multitudes.

Emily Uhrin, the center’s senior archivist, said it currently has approximately 36,000 pieces of Rogers’ written correspondence — a mix of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” viewer mail, Rogers’ personal mail and copies of his written replies, as well as notes Rogers would jot down about his friendships; Tom Junod described the archive as “box after box of information and inspiration concerning those he loved.”

These thousands of letters buoy the center’s many educational programs. Children and adults wrote to Rogers about a broad range of concerns. Collectively, his responses are an encyclopedia of personal and professional care.

“He’s left so much behind that goes beyond the television program,” Uhrin said. “I really do appreciate what he did, and I want people to still be reading his work, like, 100 years from now.”

Uhrin and her colleagues have their work cut out for them. These days, some 17 years after the center first opened, its employees are still organizing this trove of material — categorizing all the letters by topic, cataloging the names of the people who wrote to Rogers, etc.

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The Fred Rogers Center, located at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, currently has approximately 36,000 pieces of Rogers’ written correspondence.

The Fred Rogers Center

Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, who co-wrote 2019’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” found their script’s story by sifting through these archived letters. Tom Hanks even spent a few hours at the center, reading the letters, while preparing to play Rogers. (“I could tell he was really interested in Fred, and I think he understood him,” Uhrin said of Hanks.)

Given that film’s popularity — and the success of the documentary that preceded it, 2018’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” — Uhrin and her colleagues expected the center to receive a surge in attention. That never really happened.

As for why, it’s likely because neither film drew any attention to Rogers’ written correspondence. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” for example, mentions Rogers’ letter writing only once. And “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” doesn’t mention it at all. To the general public, the letters remain in relative obscurity, despite their central role in Rogers’ everyday life.

Interest still trickles in. Uhrin said about once a month someone calls the center asking if their old letter to Rogers is somewhere in the archive.

When it comes to outside interest, the center mostly deals with educational/academic research requests — people working on books, grad school projects, etc. These visitors often spend an entire week at the Fred Rogers Center, such is the abundance of material there.

So yes, to the outside world these letters are generally overlooked. That’s no fault of the Fred Rogers Center — here, the letters do the heavy lifting.

Uhrin has overseen these archived letters since 2006. She never met Rogers but has become deeply familiar with this enormous part of his life. What strikes her most about Rogers’ written correspondence is its consistency: The Rogers who people saw on TV was very much the Rogers who shows up in these letters.

“I appreciate him as a philosopher,” she said. “I always call him a philosopher; he was more than a television show host.”

A secret

Rogers’ death in 2003 surprised nearly everyone, including many who were close to him.

According to biographer Maxwell King, Rogers first mentioned feeling unwell in the summer of 2002. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” had stopped recording new episodes the previous year, but Rogers remained busy. Shortly after he started feeling sick, Rogers visited Scotland with a few friends and didn’t see a doctor until later that fall.

The diagnosis was stomach cancer — operable, but the doctors recommended Rogers get surgery right away.

The surgery would have to wait. Rogers had agreed to be a grand marshal of the Rose Parade in Pasadena, California, which was scheduled for Jan. 1, 2003 — “and he never wanted to let anybody down,” King explained — so Rogers put off the surgery until a few days after the parade.

Joanne Rogers said that during her husband’s final months, he went through the many email conversations he’d accumulated with people through the years and sent those people the entire transcripts of their email exchanges. But he didn’t tell them why. 

He did tell the staff at Fred Rogers Productions, and asked them to keep his diagnosis private. Hardly anyone knew Rogers was sick.

When surgeons finally opened up Rogers a few days into 2003, they discovered his stomach cancer had spread to other areas, and they were too late to stop it. He died the following month at age 74.

Many people in Rogers’ orbit were shocked. Jeanne Marie Laskas didn’t know Rogers was sick until the day before he died. Tom Junod found out after the fact, via his AOL News homepage. Laskas and Junod weren’t Rogers’ closest confidants — but close enough, they thought, to receive more advance notice.

Then again, if Rogers was maintaining written conversations with so many people, breaking the news to each of them might have been too burdensome.

Rogers had spent five consecutive decades on television, guiding young viewers (and yes, adult viewers, too) through countless coming-of-age experiences. He’d always been there and always had sage advice about issues both micro (anger, self-esteem, divorce) and macro (foreign wars, terrorist attacks, racial unrest.) He was supremely dedicated. And so were the people who worked for him — being Rogers’ colleague required a certain devotion to the cause.

“Fred wrote all the scripts. He wrote all the music. He did almost all the puppets,” Hedda Sharapan recalled. “Each of us had our own responsibilities here to help Fred with his mission. That really was the way it felt.”

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Fred Rogers, second from right, and his colleagues look on in this undated photo.

Jim Judkis Photography, Fred Rogers Productions

After Rogers died, there was considerable worry among Rogers’ inner circle that his life’s work might begin fading away. Some of that worry, perhaps, came from pop culture’s treatment of Rogers while he was still alive.

Rogers was frequently lampooned throughout his career — there were unsettling Burger King commercials, and recurring “Saturday Night Live” sketches, and various “Simpsons” gags, among countless others.

“That was at the height of all the satires,” Laskas recalled. “So that was the main narrative, in the grownup world, around Fred.”

Still, Laskas never worried much about Rogers’ legacy, even if those who worked most closely with him did.

“The people in Fred’s camp, they are so close, and so inside Fred’s head and his world and all of that, they have the hardest damn time seeing that he is such a big deal to the rest of the world,” she remarked. “Never once did it occur to me ... that Fred’s message wouldn’t live on. Ever.”

Tending soil

Laskas was proven right. In the 17 years since Rogers’ death, the internet has become a huge asset to his reputation (those untrue tattoo and sniper rumors notwithstanding). Rogers’ advice to “always look for the helpers” has become the default cultural wisdom — an automatic, almost obligatory chorus, shared online whenever some horrific new tragedy rends the social fabric. And all the different ways pop culture once mocked Rogers have mostly faded to the point of obsolescence.

The news media still criticizes Rogers occasionally. But Rogers has accrued so much goodwill that these slights never really sink in. In 2007, “Fox & Friends” called Rogers an “evil, evil man” who “ruined a generation of kids” by telling them they were special. (“We need Tony Robbins in a clown outfit talking to kids,” one of the “Fox & Friends” hosts suggested.)

Other critiques are less directed at Rogers and more at the general populace for how it has interpreted Rogers’ concepts. A 2018 piece in The Atlantic, for example, argued that “look for the helpers” is bad advice for adults: “We were entrusted with these insights to make children’s lives better, not to comfort ourselves for having failed to fashion the adult world in which they must live,” its author wrote.

In a 2019 piece Laskas wrote for The New York Times, she mentioned something Rogers told her decades earlier: “I really don’t want to superimpose anything on anybody. ... A lot of this — all of this — is just tending soil.”

Laskas added, “Perhaps the best way to understand just how radical his message would be is to think of what happens when soil isn’t tended. A barren landscape. A toxic soil. An atmosphere devoid of love and of acceptance, where a person’s internal wars go unnoticed and unattended. What sort of creations come out of those people, stuck in that place? A world war? Walls? Children in cages.”

“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” debuted nationally in 1968 — a U.S. era marked by wars, assassinations and deadly civil rights struggles. In that regard, 2020 isn’t much different.

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Fred Rogers on the set of the TV program “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on June 28, 1989.

Associated Press

During interviews for this article, numerous people expressed a kind of melancholy that Rogers isn’t still alive — that he can’t be here now to tell us what to say to children about COVID-19 or how to soothe a child’s fears about violence and racial injustice, topics made infinitely more visible through social media.

Rogers’ ubiquity on social media is a tricky thing. Yes, he’s undoubtedly prevalent there, which can make it seem like Facebook/Twitter/etc. have really embraced Rogers. But at their philosophical core, these platforms have embraced the opposite of everything Rogers believed in: Facebook’s leadership admitted the company’s success is predicated on divisiveness, The Wall Street Journal recently reported.

The public, meanwhile, largely remains disappointed/worried/shocked at society’s polarization, but won’t bring itself to impede the acceleration. Platforms like Facebook have experienced occasional dips in growth, but most data has indicated a continued increase in social media use overall, not a decrease. And this year’s quarantines have generally increased social media use across the board. A phrase like “we need Mister Rogers now more than ever” doesn’t ever go away. And it can’t go away — our reliance on social media, its designed divisiveness intact, requires the continued presence of Rogers and his signature phrase.

Tom Junod wrote, “I often hear people say that they wish Fred were still around to offer his guidance and also that they are thankful he is gone, because at least he has been spared from seeing what we have become. In all of this, there is something plaintive and a little desperate, an unspoken lament that he has left us when we need him most, as though instead of dying of stomach cancer he was assumed by rapture, abandoning us to our own devices and the judgment implicit in his absence.”

Essential, invisible

Given the way current culture seeks Rogers for guidance, it’s surprising his letters never entered the zeitgeist. These letters, after all, are more abundant than anything else Rogers ever created. They’ve been discussed in the occasional kid-friendly book and examined in far more academic literature, but to the mainstream these letters have remained peripheral at best.

How, in a world where seemingly everything gets exposed and promoted, can something as bountiful as these letters remain so relatively untouched?

Numerous people interviewed for this story, including those who knew Rogers personally, were asked that question. Their answers were all identical, and all simple — so simple, in fact, that it was easy to overlook: Rogers’ letters were private. That’s it.

Rogers valued this written correspondence to the point of sacredness — it probably took a holy devotion to respond with his level of consistency — and those who received Rogers’ letters, apparently, felt a similar sacredness. Rogers kept the letters private. For the most part, so have his thousands of pen pals.

For years, Rogers’ favorite quote hung on a wall in his office: “L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” It’s from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince.”

Translated into English, the quote reads, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” 

Rogers’ letters and emails and little handwritten notes remain — in astounding, baffling abundance — still as essential as they ever were, and still mostly invisible to the eye.

That’s probably how Rogers wanted it.