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Why Are There So Many Urban Legends About Mr. Rogers?

September 21, 2018 in History

By Erin Blakemore

If popular folklore is to be believed, he’s a tattooed former sniper with a dark secret.

You may have read it on the internet or heard it from a friend: Before Fred McFeely Rogers became a beloved TV legend, he was a sniper in the Vietnam War. Then he took to the airwaves, adopting his signature sweater to cover his full-sleeve tattoos, using his platform to abuse children and flipping off television cameras along the way.

Everything in that paragraph is untrue—so why do these stories keep being repeated? The persistence of these stories, and their stark contrast from the truth, tells us a lot about urban legends and how they spread. In fact, folklorists, who study how people express themselves in everyday life, say that the stories we tell about public figures can actually tell us a lot about ourselves.

Celebrated in the latest Google Doodle, Mr. Rogers’ real biography reads like a squeaky-clean fable: A Pittsburgh native, he entered a seminary but left to pursue a career in children’s television. A deft puppeteer and storyteller, Rogers had a deep love of—and respect for—children that made him a uniquely qualified kids’ entertainer. “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” his iconic TV show that debuted 50 years ago this month, ran for 33 years on public television and is still shown in reruns. Rogers’ soft-spoken persona, his inventive puppets and the familiar residents of his “neighborhood” turned the show into a much-loved kids’ classic filled with gentle lessons and quiet entertainment. The cherished star made a famously emotional plea for public television before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communications in 1969, and was a devoted Presbyterian minister who neither smoked nor drank. An award-winning documentary about Rogers released in 2018 was one of the most successful specialty box office releases of the summer.

Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

He’s also the subject of a string of tall tales. Supposedly, he flipped off a television camera in an uncharacteristic show of aggression, captured in a GIF that’s reached meme status. (In truth, he was raising his fingers during an innocent on-air game of “Where is Thumbkin.”) Other myths have it that he fought in Vietnam or was a particularly violent Navy SEAL. (He did neither, though he did receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush for his work in television.) Some even …read more


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