Remembering When Fred Rogers '50 Was in Our Neighborhood

The public TV icon, subject of a new film, spoke at Dartmouth's commencement in 2002.

The new box office hit It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood honors a Dartmouth student who urged others to "stand for things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate. Peace that rises triumphant over war. And justice that proves more powerful than greed."

The children's television host and Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers '50 offered that and other uplifting messages in his commencement address to the Class of 2002. Over the years, the video has gone viral, though the internet was young when Rogers gave his speech.

On the podium, under sunny, breezy skies, Rogers showed his scholarly side. "Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius—what a name—was the last of the great Roman philosophers, and the first of the scholastics of the Middle Ages," he said. "Fifteen hundred years ago, Boethius wrote this sentence, 'O happy race of mortals, if your hearts are ruled as is the universe, by love.'"

Famous for telling the young television audiences of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood that "I like you just the way you are," Rogers praised, in his speech, a musician who would stand in that same spot, giving the commencement address 17 years later: Yo-Yo Ma.

Rogers had been invited to sit in on Ma's master class at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

"I can still see the face of one young man who had just finished playing a movement of Brahms' Cello Sonata, when Yo-Yo said, "Nobody else can make the sound you make." Of course, he meant that as a compliment to the young man. Nevertheless, he meant that also for everyone in the class. Nobody else can make the sound you make. Nobody else can choose to make that particular sound in that particular way," Rogers said.

Rogers died nine months after speaking at Dartmouth, of cancer. But children all over the world still watch his program online. Setting a calming mood, Rogers began each episode by exchanging street shoes for sneakers, and his sport jacket for a cardigan sweater. Reviews of It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood commend Tom Hanks, who portrays Rogers, for capturing those moments authentically.

Critical acclaim also followed the 2018 HBO documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, featuring footage of Rogers, his family, co-workers, and friends. And the U.S. Postal Service issued a "Forever" stamp honoring the soft-spoken advocate of kindness and respect. 

Charlotte Albright can be reached at [email protected].