There was no better neighbor when Mr. Rogers called Winter Park home
Our favorite television neighbor lives on at Rollins College
WINTER PARK, Fla. – If you haven’t already noticed, the love for Fred Rogers is experiencing a resurgence and causing us to reminisce about our childhood. That love is especially strong in Winter Park where Rogers spent many years of his life.
Throughout Winter Park are tokens and landmarks in tribute to the Rollins College alum, highlighting his talents both on and off-air. Friends of the children’s television neighbor say these landmarks often nod to some of Rogers’ well-known qualities.
Rogers was known for his endearing personality, his sweaters and the ability to tie his sneakers with a smile on his show "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Actor Tom Hanks is expected to emulate those characteristics in the upcoming film, “It’s a Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood” set to debut in theaters nationwide Nov. 22. The biopic is loosely based on the 1998 Esquire article by Tom Junod, the skeptical journalist who was apprehensive about Rogers’ kindness and his impact on people.
[WATCH TRAILER BELOW: It’s a Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood]
“He was exactly the person one sees on television in real life in all situations," Rogers’ nephew Daniel Crozier said, adding there were few people as genuine as his uncle.
Crozier teaches music theory and composition at Rollins College, which Rogers studied in college. He said both the liberal arts college and music played a large role in their relationship. Crozier described Rogers as his role model and said he would often turn to the musician for advice.
“He had such valuable critique,” Crozier said. “He was a harsh critic, but he said it in the kindest way as you would expect from Mr. Rogers.”
Even while on vacation, Rogers worked, his nephew said. Some of his music was written during his visits to Florida.
“Fred and Joanne would spend winters here even after I began teaching here. I would share the work space with him,” Crozier said. “They loved Rollins. When I began teaching here I think it was very satisfying for them, that the family still had ties here.”
The Rogers would rent an orange house near Osceola Avenue in Winter Park during their visits. People can see the neighborhood they stayed in if they spot the sign “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood."
Crozier said while he was away, Rogers would use his apartment as a study to do some of his writing.
“He always liked to have a place apart to do his work," Crozier said. "He had that in Pittsburg; in Massachusetts, he had his writing studio and here he would use my apartment for that.”
It was part of Rogers’ workflow, to separate his life from his work. Crozier said it was a testament to Rogers’ discipline -- a characteristic that many didn’t always get to witness.
“He woke up at 5 a.m. every day," Crozier said. "He worked very hard and he accomplished a lot but he was also one of the most relaxed people I have ever met. He was not stressed. Maybe inside but he was good at handling that.”
Rogers tackled the topic of discipline on his show, explaining how he woke up every morning to swim and weighed himself after. In interviews, Rogers explained his discipline extended beyond his work to maintain his weight and diet.
“He always weighed 143 pounds,” Crozier said. “I’m the only family member that could still fit in his clothes.”
Crozer explained that 143 meant “I love you.” One letter to say I, four to spell love, and three to say you. He would often tell people 1-4-3 as a way to tell them he loved them. During much of his time at Rollins, Rogers weighed 143 and maintained that weight over the 33 years that his show aired.
“Part of it was his diet,” Crozier explained. “He didn’t like to eat anything that had a mother.”
Rogers was a devote vegetarian. His discipline to his health and diet also included a strict bedtime, waking up at the same time every day, opting to not drink alcohol or smoke, and limiting his television viewing.
Rogers dedicated his life to helping children and adults as they dealt with complications in their life. He would help viewers understand those topics through skits and music. His social and emotional curriculum was evident during his time at Rollins.
“He conceived an opera plot while he was here,” Crozier said. “It’s about Josephine who doesn’t feel as good about the fact her neck isn’t as long as the other giraffes. By the end, she’s feeling that what makes her unique is very special and she’s fine with the fact that she has a short neck. But that’s a learning process, and we all have those things that make us unique, that aren’t liabilities but are blessings. They’re what makes us special people.”
Rogers’ longtime friend John Sinclair believes Rogers’ message of community is something he crafted during his time in Winter Park.
“Life Is For Service” is the fifth and last stop on the “Mister Rogers Walking Tour” hosted by Rollins College. The tour description says the college’s most famous alum looked to the plaque for inspiration. So much so that Rogers kept an etching of its words in his wallet for much of his life.
“I always wondered what influence, what Rollins gave to Fred,” Sinclair said. “One thing we know, musical training, we know he got that. And I would think that he learned community here, and he was inspired by the sign.”
Sinclair is the chair of the department of music at Rollins and said the plaque found on campus was sure to inspire Rogers.
[INTERACTIVE MAP: Click on the stops below to take a virtual tour. Turn your sound on, media includes interviews, photos and videos.]
Sinclair said Rogers took those words to heart, and used them to improve the quality of children’s programming across the country.
Rogers was known for his calm, slow and understandable speech, that enhanced a curriculum meant to teach children about emotional and hard-to-talk-about topics.
“Some of the topics he tackled in his own day with race equality, with handicap accessibility, was so important,” Sinclair said. "He handled it with such grace and dignity and kindness -- it seems that we’re in need of that in every generation. And yes, we could use him today.”
Rogers died in February 2003 at 74 in his home state of Pennsylvania. His hometown Latrobe honors him on the 143rd day of the year, May 23 which is now known as Pennsylvania’s day of kindness
In Winter Park, a mural was painted at Floyd’s 99 Barbershop by artist Jonas Never, the most recent depiction of the city’s admiration for its most beloved neighbor.
“I think Fred has been a great influence on the culture. He is sorely missed, I count myself hugely fortunate to call him our own," Sinclair said. “There was just no better neighbor.”
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