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Hamptons Life

Jun 18, 2018 12:34 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Remembering Fred Rogers: Wally Smith Recalls His Friend and Long Ago Neighbor

Wally Smith with his autographed trolley from Fred Rogers.  DANA SHAW
Jun 19, 2018 4:52 PM

For generations of American children, he was a hero, a friend, a confidant. Fred Rogers spoke frankly to kids in an era when most adults didn’t. He knew how to soothe them, honor them and, perhaps most importantly, during turbulent times he knew how to explain the complicated and confounding world of adults in a simple and loving manner.

As a result, children understood that Mr. Rogers was there for them, and no matter how scary things became in the outside world, in his world at least, they were safe and loved.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is Morgan Neville’s new documentary about Fred Rogers, the gentle and unlikely hero of PBS’s children’s programming and creator of the iconic show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The film opened in select movie theaters on June 8 and continues to expand to theaters nationwide, including a limited run at the United Artists East Hampton Cinema that began on June 15.

In the face of all the discord and anger surrounding modes of media these days, it’s somehow fitting that the calm, slow-spoken Mr. Rogers has been the focus of so much attention lately. That attention is linked to the 50th anniversary of the national premiere of his show. In addition to the new film, in March, the U.S. Postal Service honored Fred Rogers with a postage stamp marking the anniversary.

Unfortunately, Mr. Rogers didn’t live to see any of it. Despite his quiet demeanor and healthy habits—he was an early vegetarian and swam daily to stay fit—the children’s show host died of stomach cancer in February 2003 at the age of 74.

One Southampton resident who was proud to call Fred Rogers his friend—and onetime neighbor—is Dr. Wally Smith, the general manager of WPPB Peconic Public Broadcasting.

Recently, Dr. Smith sat down at the radio station’s offices in Southampton to recall how that friendship came to be, and the manner in which it endured through the years.

“I am so thrilled that this man is getting the national attention he deserves,” Dr. Smith said. “He really raised an entire generation of children.

“One of the things that was great about Fred Rogers is that mothers used to stand in the back of the living room when the show was on, working through their own childhood issues they hadn’t resolved.”

Like Mr. Rogers, Dr. Smith grew up near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The two met as students at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and though both men were ordained Presbyterian ministers, neither ever had a congregation. Instead, Mr. Rogers and Dr. Smith went on to have parallel careers in public radio and television, just as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and National Public Radio (NPR) were coming into existence.

For Dr. Smith, that career took him to many radio stations in many cities, including Los Angeles, while, for Mr. Rogers, the compassion and empathy that might have been directed toward parishioners found its outlet instead in a relatively young medium—television—and a very young audience—children—beginning in 1954 with his first TV program, which aired locally on WQED in Pittsburgh.

“It was called ‘The Children’s Corner,’ and he started it with a woman named Josie Carey,” Dr. Smith said. “I was in the dorm at the seminary. He would come to my room and say, ‘Would you help with the show?’ So I’d go help and do other things too as a volunteer intern.”

He said the work helped them bond more. “A few times, I told Bible stories from the B Room [one of the show’s sets], or I read a story. But it didn’t work out, so I didn’t become a regular,” laughed Dr. Smith.

What also bonded the two was their mutual love of music. Mr. Rogers was a trained classical musician, and he always told Dr. Smith how he loved hearing music coming out of his dorm room whenever he paid a visit.

“His wife was also a pianist,” Dr. Smith said. “He had that natural talent. He composed every piece of music that he performed on the show.”

While it may have seemed that Mr. Rogers was speaking off the cuff in his show, nothing was ad-libbed. Every word spoken was carefully crafted to meet the needs of his young audience. Dr. Smith explained that, prior to airing, scripts were passed through the Psychology Department at the University of Pittsburgh.

“The woman who ran that department was making sure that nothing he said or did was alienating or would mislead a child,” Dr. Smith said. “He cared about only helping the children. He was so engaging. He would never look down on a child. He’d get down to their level to talk to them.

“He was one of the most genuine human beings I ever met,” he added.

Turns out, Mr. Rogers had that same effect on adults too.

On May 1, 1969, he testified before a Senate subcommittee in Washington, D.C., to make the case for the support of public television. PBS and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” were barely a year old at the time, and the $20 million in federal funding that had been allotted to PBS was on the chopping block—at risk of being cut in half.

But the impassioned six-minute plea made by Mr. Rogers that day was so effective, even a skeptical Senator John Orlando Pastore of Rhode Island, the chair of the subcommittee, immediately restored the entire budget of PBS as soon as Mr. Rogers finished speaking.

“If he had not been at WQED, he would not have been known as a child of a medium,” Dr. Smith said. “CPB came after, and they were looking for content. He testified, ‘Mr. Chairman, this is why I do what I do. I want to work in the medium because I knew it was a way to communicate with children in a way they hadn’t been talked to before.’”

From its inception, television had been a medium designed to sell products. For Mr. Rogers, the noncommercial aspect of public broadcasting was key to his mission—speaking straight to children without trying to get them (or their parents) to buy something.

Earlier in his career, while working at NBC, Mr. Rogers was offered an opportunity to host the “Captain Kangaroo” show. He declined.

“He said, ‘No, I don’t want to do “Captain Kangaroo.” I’m not interested in having children watch TV to sell products. I want to be an educator,’” Dr. Smith recalled. “That’s why public television was so important. Commercial broadcasting became a tool for selling and people became rich doing that.

“It’s a business and that’s fine,” Dr. Smith added. “But there was no motivation to do soft things like this. The shows are costly and you couldn’t make money on it … He’s really responsible for the funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Public television was an opportunity to do something he could have never done otherwise, and Fred knew it. His demeanor and sincerity was so compelling, and he said we need this.”

While living on the West Coast, Dr. Smith even went to bat for Mr. Rogers once by convincing a friend who ran the public television station in Los Angeles to put “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on the air.

“They didn’t get it. I said, ‘You guys have to pay attention to this.’ They said, ‘It’s an East Coast kids’ program,’” Dr. Smith said. “They finally put it on the air, and the morning it premiered they had an open house to meet Fred, and 300 to 500 people showed up.

“He spoke to every one of them,” he added. “Every child in the world who came in touch with him was a single friend of his.”

Though Mr. Rogers and Dr. Smith didn’t see each other all that often as the years went by, when they did meet up, Dr. Smith says it was always a genuine and heartfelt reunion. In his North Sea home, Dr. Smith keeps a collection of objects, notes and memorabilia Mr. Rogers sent him over the years—including a replica of the red trolley used on the show, complete with an inscription to his old friend.

“I’m a terrible correspondent. He would get in touch with me now and then, and he came to visit me in California,” Dr. Smith said. “I hadn’t seen him in a while, but he and I never missed a beat between one five-year absence and another.

“He was genuinely exactly as he was on the show—he liked you as you were precisely, and he was exactly who he was.”

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I worked on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood when I was in college. I was working for WPGH and often worked during the taping of Fred's show. Later in life, I often had to convince people that he was genuine and the real deal. The relationship between Fred and his pianist, Johnny Costa, was interesting. He was a downtown, cigar smoking jazz pianist and yet they spoke the same language. Another "oil and water" relationship was with Chef Brocket. He was a local comedian who often performed a wonderfully dirty ...more
By mediamanbob1 (1), Wading River on Jun 25, 18 10:35 AM
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