St. Fred

Maxwell King’s Mr. Rogers biography is more of a hagiography.

Fred Rogers was the first ordained Presbyterian minister to fulfill his calling through a television program designed for children. When he was ordained in 1963, according to Maxwell King’s biography, the elders of the local presbytery did not see the value of the new medium. They wanted Rogers to be an assistant pastor and work his way up to a senior position in a church, not to work in television. Finally, according to a friend of Rogers quoted in the book, the elders relented and allowed the young minister the assignment he sought. But they refused to direct any church resources toward Rogers’s television ministry.

Nevertheless, Rogers brought his spiritual and humane values to the screen, first in a show with the Canadian Broad­casting Corporation and then at the Pittsburgh public television station WQED. Morgan Neville’s 2018 documentary film, Won’t You Be My Neigh­bor?, shows how Rogers communicated love, kindness, and acceptance, occasionally in ways that were ahead of his time. There are few times when I recommend a movie over a book, but this is one of them. King’s biography simply doesn’t capture the whole of the man—his charm, along with what made him unique—in the same way Neville’s film does. Because Rogers was at heart a screen personality, it makes sense that the values he presented so whimsically with music and puppets would be most effectively conveyed on the screen.

The biography’s main flaw, however, isn’t its medium. It is its overly hagiographic tone. King once directed the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media in Latrobe, Pennsyl­vania. Latrobe is the town where Rogers was born into a wealthy family that had made its fortune selling bricks, and it’s where he is buried. King says in the acknowledgments that he was convinced to write the book by Rogers’s widow, Joanne. At no point does the biographer (or anyone he interviews) ever criticize Rogers, even about details that some might find unsettling.