'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' shows up at Presbyterian Heritage Center in Montreat

Paul Clark
Black Mountain News
Fred Rogers promoted kindness and curiosity as the soothing host of long-running children's show 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.'
  • The exhibit at Presbyterian Heritage Center runs all year
  • The Presbyterian Heritage Center is behind Montreat Conference Center
  • Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister

Fifty years ago, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” debuted on public television. And this year, the Presbyterian Heritage Center in Montreat is featuring an exhibit honoring Fred Rogers in part because 1968 is very much like 2018, the exhibit’s curator said.

“1968 was a horrible, chaotic year and has many echoes to today,” Vinson said. “There were assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bob Kennedy. There was an anti-war movement, Vietnam and the Tet Offensive, My Lai massacre. There was Black Power, a secessionist presidential candidate, the Poor People’s March, student protests and deaths – you name it, everything seemed like it was coming apart. Our cities were burning.”

And yet, he said, “there were two things that came out ’68 that ran counter to that. One was this quiet-spoken Presbyterian minister (whose show) went on for 33 years and over 850 shows, the longest-running children’s show of its time” (“Sesame Street” has since eclipsed that record). “The other was Apollo 8 circling the moon that year, taking pictures of planet Earth. Those are two quiet moments that went against the cacophony of the year.”

Ron Vinson put together the Mister Rogers' exhibit at the Presbyterian Heritage Center partly because of the Rogers show's parallels to today.

Vinson created the Mister Rogers exhibit as part of the Presbyterian Heritage Center’s exhibits honoring famous Presbyterians (Rogers got his degree from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary). Rogers is also timely, getting screen time in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the documentary by Morgan Neville that is at the Fine Arts Theatre in Asheville through July 5. Then there’s the film starring Tom Hanks that is scheduled to begin shooting this fall.

“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which debuted Feb. 19, 1968, embraced difficult topics, such as war and divorce. On June 7, 1968, the day after Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, Rogers did a special show to help children understand what happened. The show had the first black actor – Francois Clemmons – to regularly appear on a children’s show in the U.S.

Years later, Clemmons told NPR that he especially remembered a scene from an episode in 1969 in which Rogers invited Clemmons’ character to join him by resting his feet besides Rogers’ in a children’s pool.

"The icon Fred Rogers not only was showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends, but as I was getting out of that tub, he was helping me dry my feet," Clemmons told NPR through its “StoryCorps” program.

Rogers, who died in 2003, visited the dentist to help kids get over the fears of dentistry, and he interviewed a girl in leg braces, Chrissie Thompson, in 1973 to show viewers that she was just like them.

Vinson started doing his research with the Fred Rogers Co. in 2013. The center did a small exhibit then and talked about the one it has up now.  The Fred Rogers Co. sent albums and booklets and posters for the museum to display.

“The earlier exhibit had a letter from a young girl who cut her own hair,” Vinson said. “Her mom suggested she write to Mister Rogers, (who) wrote back and said, you know, maybe the best thing isn’t to cut your own hair because you can’t see what you’re doing.”  

The current exhibit has been quite popular, with people coming “from all over” to see it, Vinson said. Mister Rogers’ “relevance today is that, if you’re straightforward and honest and provide kindness, you can reach children and talk about difficult subjects. And there are plenty of difficult subjects today to talk about.”