For generations of children, the characters from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood are cemented in their minds, like a mental photo album: the cranky Lady Elaine Fairchilde in her red coat and white lace collar, shyly smart Daniel Striped Tiger with his wayward whiskers, the all-ruling King Friday XIII with his multicolored jeweled crown and sweet Henrietta Pussycat always dressed in the fanciest dresses and hats.
But for Fred Rogers himself — the real man who masterminded the entire imaginary world where animals and humans exist harmoniously — he loved creating his own actual photo albums, always taking pictures of the people who came into his life.
He always had a passion for cameras
Throughout much of Rogers’ life, cameras of all kinds surrounded him. A few years after graduating from college in 1951, he started working at public television station WQED in Pittsburgh, where he was from. Though he started behind the camera working on The Children’s Corner show, he immediately saw the power of the camera.
“He was into cameras and photography,” AP photographer Gene Puskar, who documented Rogers from 1984 through 2000, said in November 2019. “Obviously, he was very comfortable being in front of the camera and I think he was a very visual person.”
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Rogers enjoyed taking 'pictures of all my new friends'
That instinct for the visual was evident when the cameras weren’t rolling as well. While being profiled by Esquire by reporter Tom Junod — whose relationship is the basis of the 2019 film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood starring Tom Hanks — Rogers famously often switched the focus onto Junod.
During one poignant moment, Rogers asked Junod, “What about you, Tom? Did you have any special friends growing up?... Maybe a puppet, or a special toy, or maybe just a stuffed animal you loved very much. Did you have a special friend like that, Tom?”
After Junod told the children’s television icon about his stuffed rabbit named Old Rabbit, Rogers answered, “Old Rabbit. Oh, and I'll bet the two of you were together since he was a very young rabbit. Would you like to tell me about Old Rabbit, Tom?”
Rogers knew that would open Junod up and capture a side of him that would offer more insight.
“And it was just about then, when I was spilling the beans about my special friend, that Mister Rogers rose from his corner of the couch and stood suddenly in front of me with a small black camera in hand,” Junod wrote in the 1998 Esquire story.
“‘Can I take your picture, Tom?’ he asked. ‘I'd like to take your picture. I like to take pictures of all my new friends, so that I can show them to Joanne….’” Junod wrote, as Rogers referred to his wife. “And then, in the dark room, there was a wallop of white light, and Mister Rogers disappeared behind it.”
Rogers believed 'we are all special, just the way we are'
Junod’s experience was just one slice of Rogers’ gentle ways he showed the world how to care about one another. After all, his wife wasn’t the only one he showed his photos to — he also showed the print photographs on-air on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood as well to talk about people in his life.
And his overarching message of telling children that “I like you just the way are,” was effervescent through his life — to people of all ages — as both Junod and Puskar experienced. Even though both of their jobs were to tell Rogers’ story, they both have shared that Rogers always put them in the spotlight — as he did quite literally when he took photographs of all his new friends.
“A more kind and caring neighbor there never was or will be,” Puskar wrote. “Whether working behind the set with his puppets, feeding his fish, pulling on his cardigan or talking to a young AP photographer about his kids between takes, Mister Rogers had a message: "We are all special, just the way we are.”