Meeting Mister Rogers

I’m not too much of a celebrity worshipper. I once stood in a taxi line right behind Larry King in his signature red suspenders. Eh. Another time I found myself seated near a stony-faced Candace Bergen in a New York City restaurant. Neither of us was too interested in the other. Once, I was personally introduced to Rick Moranis, fresh from starring in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. We chatted a while, but the conversation wasn’t memorable.

But, oh, the day I met Fred Rogers! That celebrity encounter is seared into my memory, partly because Fred Rogers, nurturer of millions of children, was a personal hero of mine, and also because he said something that changed Highlights in a small but important way.  

We met two years before the world lost Fred Rogers, one of the most ardent advocates for children. Highlights was planning to do market research in Pittsburgh. When I realized we’d be in “the neighborhood,” I requested a meeting, and Fred’s staff said yes. (They said yes!)

Our visit began with a guided tour of the studio, which was much too humble for the likes of Daniel Tiger, Mr. McFeely and the gang, if you ask me. Afterward we were ushered to a small conference room, where we waited for Mister Rogers himself to join us.  

And then, there he was, all silver-haired and smiley. Speaking to us—no, to ME!—in the same, calm gentle tones he used to speak to children in his television audience. And I was just as mesmerized. He looked me in the eye, called me by name and autographed one of his books. He took a generous amount of time thumbing through the issue of Highlights magazine we’d brought for him. His eyes lit up when he turned to the verse page, featuring a full-page illustration of a classic children’s poem. In that particular issue, the poem was quiet, and the artwork beautiful but subdued. He held up the page, swept his hand over it and said approvingly, “This page. This page offers readers a moment of solitude. Children need more moments of solitude.” Yes, yes! That’s exactly what we were trying to do. Create a little oasis of calm in the issue—a respite from all the activities, the fun and the goofy humor. A quiet moment where kids could get into their own heads for a moment and reflect. He understood. He liked it!

Trust me—there’s nothing quite like having your work validated by Fred Rogers.  

But then he turned to the back cover of Highlights, where we’ve included for years the popular “What’s Wrong?” activity. In this feature, we urged readers to study the busy illustration and find things that seemed incongruous—or “wrong.” For example, a child might label as “wrong” a ballet dancer in a tutu weeding a garden. But the child who wears her tutu everywhere might not think that odd in the least. And that’s the beauty of the activity. It was designed to stimulate thought and conversation in which every child’s voice is heard and appreciated. We never list “answers” to the puzzle, because it is supposed to be open-ended. An educator first and foremost, Fred Rogers immediately understood all of this. But he took us to task (ever so gently!) for our use of the word “wrong,” which implied right and wrong answers, a black-and-white mentality. He urged us to rethink the directions that had read for decades: “How many wrong things can you find in this picture?”

He was right, of course, and we knew it. We’d always felt that using the word “wrong” here was, well, wrong. But “What’s Wrong with This Picture?” was so popular that it had become a cultural catch phrase. How could we change it without eroding the brand? Fred Rogers reminded us that our first obligation was to our readers. So we changed the directions to read: “How many silly things can you find?” It made the activity a better experience for children. And the experience of meeting Fred Rogers made me a better children’s editor.

Were you a fan of Fred’s? How did he influence you?

Christine French Cully

Christine French Cully is the editor in chief of Highlights for Children, Inc., where she is responsible for shaping the editorial direction of all the magazines, online content and products the company develops for children and their families.  She plays a strategic, ongoing role in the development of the Highlights vision and brand across all markets and channels/around the globe. Cully, a mother of two, resides in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.