Fred Rogers spent much of his life devoted to helping and educating young children. Though Rogers passed away on February 27, 2003 at the age of 74, his iconic PBS television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood continues to nurture new generations of pre-school kids. A unique oral history project is now underway that will go even further to preserve Rogers’ philosophies and work.
The Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, PA has begun what is known as the Fred Rogers Oral History project.
The effort is being funded from a grant from the Buhl Foundation and will consist of 50 two-hour interviews with Rogers’ friends and professional colleagues. Through relaxed conversations, they’ll discuss their relationship and experiences with the beloved Neighborhood creator. Over a dozen subjects have been interviewed thus far including child development expert Dr. Nancy Curry, Family Communications, Inc. administrative secretary Elaine Lynch, and David Newell (best known as Neighborhood’s Speedy Deliveryman Mr. McFeely). The remaining interviews should be completed by August 2008.
The Narrative Trust, an oral-history company based in New York, is conducting the interviews. Jessica Wiederhorn, founder and director of the company, believes that their mission is to document Rogers’ creative process through the stories of people who worked with him and knew him best.
Rogers Center archivist Brother David Kelly is coordinating the project. He related that the interview subjects would reflect a wide variety of individuals who knew the TV educator at various times in his life. For example, Kirk Browning worked with Rogers on Amahl and the Night Visitors for the NBC Opera in 1951. Kelly said. “It’s quite interesting because he goes back to Fred’s earliest experiences with television. One of the things [Browning] says is that Fred had such an instinct for how to use a television camera that Kirk Browning didn’t have anything to teach him about that. That’s the kind of thing you only get by having someone tell their story of meeting Fred Rogers. That’s what oral history brings to this.”
The Rogers Center is currently under construction but is expected to be finished by mid-2008. Excerpts from the oral history project will likely play continuously in an exhibit at the Center. The complete interviews will be available to those who wish to research Rogers’ approach to child development and media.
Kelly notes, “There hasn’t been a whole lot of concentrated research into its [the TV show's] distinct applications and how [Fred] himself developed it. There is history to this. It didn’t just happen, and it wasn’t a construct. One way to get at it is to listen to people who knew him.”