Mr. Rogers: The true story behind his empathy

Fred Rogers’ troubled childhood is credited with imparting a deeper understanding of others to the beloved television presenter.

Fred Rogers, the beloved host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, is known for red cardigans, his love for children and most of all for his kindness. What is less known about Mr. Rogers, however – and what seems like a fitting story on the 18th anniversary of his death – is how his signature empathy emerged from a troubled and lonely childhood.

A challenging childhood

Rogers was an only child until a sister was added to the family at age eleven. He was overweight, shy, and protected. He also suffered from severe asthma, scarlet fever and “every imaginable childhood disease,” as he put it in a 2002 interview. Such circumstances made it difficult for Rogers to fit into his elementary school in industrial Latrobe, Pennsylvania, about an hour outside of Pittsburgh.

“I felt like I had no friends,” said Rogers in a speech he gave in April 1995 at Saint Vincent College. In the same speech, Rogers tells of a time when he was walking home from school and “a whole group of boys” started following him. As he walked the eleven blocks to his house, the boys mocked him and chased after him as he ran away. They yelled after him the whole time: “Freddy, hey fat Freddy! We’ll get you, Freddy! “

This isn’t the only time Rogers has been bullied. One of his childhood classmates, Rudy Prohaska, remembers children at school who “name him” and “bully Fred,” according to Rogers’ biographer Maxwell King in The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers. “There were a lot of people in the school who irritated me by the way they treated him,” Prohaska said. “I couldn’t stand the naming and all that.”

Such experiences traumatized Rogers. “I cried to myself when I was alone,” he said in the Saint Vincent College speech.

“It seems Fred’s greatest need was loneliness,” Emily Uhrin, archivist and researcher at the Fred Rogers Center in Latrobe, Pa., Told Reader’s Digest. “He was overweight and shy and sometimes felt that people couldn’t look beyond these things.”

The loneliness and bullying made childhood a difficult one, but it also gave Rogers a deeper understanding of others. Speaking at Saint Vincent College, he said that the negative experiences of his childhood led him to “seek stories of other people who were poor in spirit and I felt for them”.

Come out of its shell

From a young age, Rogers found his champions who put his awkwardness behind. Uhrin tells of a time when Rogers wanted to climb a stone wall on his grandfather’s farm, but his mother and grandmother wouldn’t let him because they didn’t want him to be hurt. His grandfather stepped in and encouraged his grandson to climb the wall “because he had to learn to do things for himself”.

Another person who stood up for Rogers was one of his classmates, Jim Stumbaugh. “Jim was popular and Fred wasn’t,” explains Uhrin. But Rogers’ social standing improved when Stumbaugh was injured at a soccer game and Rogers gave him his homework at the hospital. Stumbaugh learned another side of Rogers through their interactions, and when he returned to school from the hospital, he took Rogers under his wing. “Fred credited Jim with the confidence to have a good high school experience,” says Uhrin.

Steer adversity into strength

While Stumbaugh looked for Rogers, Rogers looked for others. “Fred Rogers was deliberate in everything he did,” Roberta Schomburg, executive director of the Fred Rogers Center, told Reader’s Digest. Junod observed something similar in his interactions. “When Fred asked you a question, he wanted to know the answer,” says Junod. “He made kindness a practice, not just something he talked about.”

Journalist Tom Junod, one of Rogers ‘friends and the inspiration for the 2019 film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, witnessed Rogers’ empathy firsthand and told Reader’s Digest that he considered it “one of the great ones Honors and Gifts of my Life “He was on the receiving end of Mr. Rogers’ kindness. “To be one of those people he prayed for, one of those people he cared for; I’ll never really understand how it happened, but I’m really glad it happened, ”he says. Junod says he sensed Rogers’ love and concern through countless letters, emails, and phone calls.

“Fred had a tuning fork from his own experience that gave him insight into what other people needed,” Junod continues. “What sets Fred apart is that he wasn’t just a nice guy who helped people with whatever they needed,” explains Junod. “He was also a true authority figure who was a very powerful person in his own way and He used that power to do good. “

The stories of the good in the world that Rogers achieved are legendary and he is credited with teaching generations of children to act with empathy, to be engaged listeners, and those other lessons for good neighbors.

And to think that Rogers’ compassion, understanding, and everything he meant to so many people around the world would never have been if it hadn’t been for a difficult and lonely childhood that made a boy the man, that he was.

In the 2018 Mr. Rogers documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, David Newell, one of Rogers ‘longtime friends and co-stars of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, best said, “I’ve been around a lot asked if there wasn’t a “fat Freddy”, would there have been a Mr. Rogers? “

Read on for 50 kindness quotes that will stay with you.


  • Fresh air: children’s TV presenter Fred Rogers
  • Emily Uhrin, archivist and researcher at the Fred Rogers Center in Latrobe, Pennsylvania

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