Twenty-year-old Fred Rogers did not like Dartmouth College. The Ivy was a “beer-soaked, jockstrap party school,” as Maxwell King, Rogers’s recent biographer, puts it. Dartmouth also didn’t have a music major. But Rollins College, in Winter Park, Florida, did, plus a reputation as “the only New England college not located in New England.” In 1948, after two years at Dartmouth, Rogers transferred to Rollins and minored in French. “Bold move,” King summed on a phone call. Rogers had been a timid and sickly boy, overprotected. The switchover was “an instance of daring.” “And I think Rollins was the first place where Rogers really felt happy,” King told me. He’d once explained: “I just felt so much at home there.”
When I attended Rollins, sixty years after Rogers, his oil portrait hung in the concert hall, and a blue zip-front cardigan and signed canvas sneakers were encased at the library, like relics. We used to joke that a Rogers endowment bankrolled the landscapers—a huge, omnipresent force who cared for our subtropical surroundings—and frat boys boosted the urban legend that the children’s-TV host was an ex-Marine sniper.
Today, I’d shred those boys for wanting to bend the nonsmoking, teetotaling, vegetarian, pacifist mensch into a macho. Of course, Mister Rogers would not favor incivility. Mister Rogers would talk me out of it, slowly and softly. “He had this amazing ability to look into people and see past the adult façade that we present, and take a really direct look at the aching kid that’s within all of us—and to decide what that kid needed,” said the journalist Tom Junod, whose 1998 Esquire profile is the basis of the recently released A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks.
The director Marielle Heller waited almost a full calendar, until Hanks’s schedule opened up, to make it happen. “Tom was my first and only choice,” she told me. Hanks was Rogers’s favorite actor, perhaps because of his roles as the man-child in Big and the gentleman in Forrest Gump. Hanks has also been the playful cowboy in the Toy Story franchise and the boyish boss in Saving Mr. Banks. All these characters are renditions of Fred Rogers’s idée fixe that not only does the kid remain in every grown-up, a grown-up is coming of age in every kid, and that our humanity depends on keeping them conversant.
The last two years have seen a Mister Rogers boom: a documentary (the highest-grossing bio-doc ever), two biographies (Shea Tuttle’s theologically driven Exactly As You Are dropped in October), and this boffo film. But his undergraduate experience, that searching, shaping time between childhood and adulthood, has hardly been considered. In this peak Rogers moment, as a fellow alum, I had to ask: what was Fred Rogers like in college?