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The State You're In: Mr. Rogers found calling of 'service' in Winter Park

The Fred Rogers Company  Mister Rogers: It's You I Like is a PBS special celebrating the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers Neighborhood and the life of Fred Rogers.  [Photo used with permission from Gabrielle Torello Grand Communications]
The Fred Rogers Company Mister Rogers: It's You I Like is a PBS special celebrating the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers Neighborhood and the life of Fred Rogers. [Photo used with permission from Gabrielle Torello Grand Communications]
Published Mar. 27, 2018

Everybody's raving about the avuncular Mr. Rogers these days.

The beloved host of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood got his face on a stamp, and he's the subject of a new documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbor, that premieres on June 8. A new biography, The Good Neighbor, is set to be published in September. Tom Hanks has been signed to portray the piano-playing puppeteer in a movie called You Are My Friend.

The flurry of Rogers rah-rah was sparked by the fact that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the premiere of his groundbreaking show — the first program to talk to kids (gently) about everything from accepting change to dealing with death and divorce.

Rogers is most identified with Pittsburgh — he was from Latrobe, Pa., and filmed his show in the home of the Steelers. But what most people don't know is that, at heart, Fred McFeely Rogers was a Florida man.

Rogers studied music composition at Rollins College in Winter Park, graduating in 1951. He met his future wife, a fellow music student named Sara Byrd, while at Rollins. She went on to become a concert pianist and the inspiration for Queen Sara Saturday, puppet-wife of King Friday XIII, in the show's Kingdom of Make Believe. Rogers did the puppet's voice, though. He did nearly all the puppets' voices.

Despite his gentle demeanor, Rogers was definitely a Big Man on Campus while at Rollins. He competed in intramural swimming, sang in two choirs and helped out at the campus chapel. He even chaired the Interfaith and Race Relations Committee, a pretty radical group for Florida in that Jim Crow era.

Courses he took in religion and philosophy ultimately led him to the ministry, and a drama class gave him his first taste of the spotlight. But he got something far more important from outside the classroom. It came from one of the buildings.

Engraved in marble near the college's Strong Hall is a four-word slogan: "Life is for Service." Rogers wrote that motto down on a slip of paper and carried it in his wallet the rest of his days. It became his reason for everything he did.

In later years, a Rollins music instructor snapped a photo of the slogan and gave him the photo, framed. That picture sat on his desk until he died in 2003.

Rogers and his wife returned to Winter Park frequently over the years, seeking a warm refuge from the bitter Pittsburgh winters. His foundation set up a music scholarship there in his name. He even donated one of his trademark cardigans and a matching pair of sneakers to his alma mater. You can see them on display at its Cornell Fine Arts Museum, and take a virtual walking tour of some of the places that were important to him.

Call it a way to spend a little more time visiting Mr. Rogers' neighborhood.

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Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.