How ‘God Answered’ Mister Rogers’ Prayers Through His Grandfather’s Love
By Movieguide® Staff
Note: This story is part of our Faith in Hollywood series. For similar stories, click here.
Fred Rogers, better known as Mister Rogers, became a beloved household name for hosting the preschool TV series MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD, which ran from 1968 to 2001.
The television host, producer, author, and activist was passionate about teaching younger generations about the importance of care, love, and the understanding that everyone had worth because they were created in God’s image.
Rogers’ years behind and in front of the camera came from his desire to teach children the good, the true, and the beautiful.
“When I first saw children’s television, I thought it was perfectly horrible,” Rogers told Pittsburgh Magazine. “And I thought there was some way of using this fabulous medium to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen.”
Rogers was also an ordained minister, but his kindness and concern for children came from his grandfather, whom he lovingly referred to as Ding-Dong.
“The rain beat relentlessly against the windshield as we sped down the highway to Mercer. Pennsylvania. Mother sat next to me in the front seat. Since leaving from Pittsburgh nearly an hour ago, we had barely said a word,” Rogers wrote in an article from 1980. “It was 1952, and Ding-Dong was dying.”
“Ding-Dong was my grandfather, Fred Brooks McFeely, my mother’s father—and one of my best friends for as long as I could remember,” Rogers continued. “He earned his nickname years ago one sunny afternoon when he plunked me down on his sturdy lap to teach me the old nursery rhyme. ‘Ding Dong Dell.’ The name stuck.”
At the time, Rogers was two years out of college and working at NBC in New York. Rogers said that he received a call from his mother, letting him know that her father was dying.
Despite Roger’s job at a television station, he revealed that he felt lost in terms of what he could do next.
My goals seemed to be shifting—and this bothered me,” Rogers said. “I really didn’t know where I was going, or why. My self-confidence had sunk to near-zero. And never had I felt so far away from God.”
“I’d taken to stopping by St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue for morning prayer before going to work. Mostly, I prayed for guidance. But I was still uncertain and confused…” he continued.
While in the car with his mother on their way to visit Ding-Dong, Roger’s recalled a conversation:
“Fred,” my mother interrupted my thoughts as our car continued on the wet highway. “He might not know you.”
“What?” I asked.
“Your grandfather,” she answered. “He’s all mixed-up. He doesn’t know what day it is. Sometimes he doesn’t even know where he is.”
I felt my throat tighten. Poor Ding-Dong.
“But he is happy,” Mother went on. “And he loves to watch television.”
“Yes, he loves to watch TV—especially The Kate Smith Hour. He knows that’s one of the shows you work on. And from what I gather, he’s forever telling everyone in the home about his grandson in New York City. He’s so proud of you, Fred. You’re special to him. You always have been, you know.”
I nodded silently.
Although Rogers had had an idea of starting a children’s program for TV, this conversation made him think about his childhood.
“Listening to the rhythmic sound of the windshield wipers, I let my thoughts travel back to childhood… As a youngster, there was nothing I liked better than Sunday afternoons at Ding-Dong’s rambling farm in western Pennsylvania. Surrounded by miles of winding stone walls, the rustic house and red brick barn provided endless hours of fun and discovery for a city kid like myself,” he recalled. “I was used to neat-as-a-pin parlors with porcelain figures that seemed to whisper, ‘Not to be touched!’—to clean, starched shirts and neatly combed hair warning, ‘Not to be mussed!’—and to the inevitable wagging of an adult’s ‘Don’t do that, you might hurt yourself!’ finger.
“I could still remember vividly one afternoon when I was eight years old. Since my very first visit to the farm, I’d wanted more than anything to be allowed to climb the network of stone walls surrounding the property,” he continued. “My parents would never approve. The walls were old; some stones were missing, others loose and crumbling. Still, my yearning to scramble across those walls the way I’d watched other boys do grew so strong that finally, one spring afternoon, I summoned all my courage and entered the drawing room where the adults had gathered after Sunday dinner.”
All were chatting softly, sipping cups of tea and coffee. I cleared my throat. No one seemed to notice me.
“Hey,” I said hesitantly.
Everyone noticed me.
“I, uh—I wanna climb the stone walls,” I said. “Can I climb the stone walls?”
Instantly a chorus went up from the women in the room.
“Heavens, no!” they cried in dismay. “You’ll hurt yourself!”
I wasn’t really disappointed. The response was just as I’d expected. But before I could leave the room, I was stopped by Ding-Dong’s booming voice.
“Now hold on just a minute,” I heard him say. “So the boy wants to climb the stone walls? Then let the boy climb the walls! He has to learn to do things for himself.
“Now scoot on out of here,” he said to me with a wink. “And come see me when you get back.”
“Yes, sir.” I stammered, my heart pounding with excitement.
For the next two and a half hours I climbed those old walls—skinned my knee, tore my pants, and had the time of my life. Later, when I met with Ding-Dong to tell him about my adventures, I never forgot what he said.
“Fred,” he grinned, “you made this day a special day, just by being yourself. Always remember, there’s just one person in this whole world like you—and I like you just the way you are.”
I wondered now if he ever knew how important that day—and his words—had been to me. I wondered if there was any way I could ever repay him…
After Rogers and his mother arrived to see Ding-Dong, he recalled that his grandfather did not recognize him. However, Rogers said that he still remembers that final visit with Ding-Dong.
“In a very personal way, God had answered my prayers,” Rogers said. “I was beginning to understand what it was He wanted me to do with my television career: He wanted me to offer children the same kind of reassurance, encouragement and sense of self-worth that Ding-Dong had given me.”
“That was 26 years ago. Today, through the wonder of television, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is visited each day by millions of children throughout America and other lands,” Rogers said. “There have been changes over the years; characters and special guests to the Neighborhood come and go. But one thing—my message to the children at the close of every show—remains the same.
“‘There’s just one person in the whole world like you,’ the kids can count on hearing me say. ‘And people can like you just the way you are.'”
The movie A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD captures Rogers’ forgiving spirit and was selected as the Best Movie for Mature Audiences at the 28th Annual Movieguide® Awards Gala and Report to the Entertainment Industry.