Everywhere Fred Rogers went, he touched people’s hearts with his gentle tone and irreplaceable way of relating to children and adults alike. Whether it was teaching relatable life skills through the Land of Make Believe puppets or tackling social issues by visiting neighbors around his brownish-yellow TV house, throughout his show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, every moment of Rogers’ television presence felt like a warm hug in his trademark cardigans (all made by his mother).
But there was one unique way that he saw as the world spreading love to him, through the number 143. “It takes one letter to say I and four letters to say love and three letters to say you. One hundred and forty-three,” he said, according to the Fred Rogers Center’s site. “I love you.”
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Mister Rogers had the same routine every day
Rogers was a creature of habit. He woke up every morning at 5:30 a.m. and started his day by reading and writing prayers for those who asked for them from him. He took a nap every day in the late afternoon and went to bed at 9:30 p.m., sleeping for a solid uninterrupted eight hours, according to a 1999 story in Esquire by journalist Tom Junod — their friendship is the centerpiece of the 2019 movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks.
That constant pattern likely accounted for another constant in his life: his weight. For 30 years, Rogers weighed exactly 143 pounds. In fact, he checked his own weight daily.
“Every day, Mister Rogers refuses to do anything that would make his weight change,” Junod wrote in his story. “He neither drinks, nor smokes, nor eats flesh of any kind, nor goes to bed late at night, nor sleeps late in the morning, nor even watches television.”
And not only does he avoid habits that could change his weight — he literally kept himself in check. “Every morning, when he swims, he steps on a scale in his bathing suit and his bathing cap and his goggles, and the scale tells him that he weighs 143 pounds.”
While some may just dismiss the number as a random three digits, Roger was always about seeing things on a deeper level and found meaning in the results of the daily weigh-ins. “Mister Rogers has come to see that number as a gift, as a destiny fulfilled,” Junod described.
Each of the numbers, he reasoned was the number of letters of the phrase, “I love you.” When describing that delight, he says in only a way Rogers can: “Isn't that wonderful?"
And so he kept that constant for decades, maintaining his very being in a number that equated love — and taking what the scale showed him and spreading it into every corner of the universe.
He once sent Mr. McFeeley home with a 143 delivery
With the number meaning so much to Rogers, he, of course, integrated it into an episode of his show when “Speedy Delivery” Man Mr. McFeeley came by. Before he rushed off, Rogers said, “I’d like to give you something” and came back with a yellow piece of paper with the three digits on it.
“This is a kind of code that we’ve just found out about,” Rogers explained to McFeeley before explaining the hidden meaning of “I love you.” The delivery man replied, “I think I’ll take this home and give it to Betsy!”
And on his way out, McFeeley bid him farewell with “143!” as Rogers replied, “143, Mr. McFeeley. Thank you!”
Afterward, he explained to the television audience, “Explaining things is another way of saying, ‘I love you.’ And coming back to visit each day is yet another way. Oh, there’s so many ways, you’ll find them. You’ll find them as you grow. Many ways to say 143.”
The 143rd day of the year is now a day of kindness
In 2019, the governor of Pennsylvania Tom Wolf decided to honor one of its greatest citizens, Rogers, who was born in the state’s Latrobe and died in Pittsburgh on February 27, 2003, of stomach cancer. Of course, he chose the 143rd day of the year — May 23.
“I’ve proclaimed today to be 1-4-3 Day, Pennsylvania’s first statewide day of kindness,” Wolf tweeted. “As governor, I’ve met countless Pennsylvanians. And I know we’re genuinely nice people. Join me in spreading love today and seeing just how far a little kindness can go.”
His tweet included a retweet from the Pennsylvania account with a graphic saying the day was to “embrace the spirit of the kindest Pennsylvanian, Fred Rogers.”
And that’s not the only way Rogers’ legacy with the iconic three digits lives on. The Fred Rogers Center has also started The 143 Club, which is a ”tribute to Fred’s wonderful legacy of love” and helps support programs that follow Rogers’ philosophy on child development. The annual cost of membership? Of course, $143.
The origins of 143 may have come from a lighthouse
While 143 provided a definite balance in Rogers’ life and has come to be associated with him, the origins may be traced back to the late 1800s at the Minots Ledge Light, located a mile off Cohasset and Scituate near Cohasset Rocks in Massachusetts.
The lighthouse went into operation in 1860 after the original tower was destroyed in a storm. When the Fresnel lens got a rotating mechanism in 1894, the lighthouse was able to flash its lights — and its flash was 1-4-3. According to the National Park Service’s site, a mysterious “someone” decided it meant “I love you” and so it became known as the “I Love You Light.”