Latrobe-area writer focuses on Fred Rogers’ kindness, hometown impact
Beloved children’s television host Fred Rogers achieved his greatest effect on others by being “defiantly kind,” Latrobe-area writer Chris Rodell asserts.
Rodell offers an example — a 1995 encounter with Latrobe native Rogers that lifted the spirits of a younger man — in his new book released this month, “Growing Up in the REAL Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: Life Lessons from the Heart of Latrobe, Pennsylvania.”
Rodell, 56, recounts how the brother of a former schoolmate, then 27, was coaxed out of a surly mood by Rogers’ smile and repeated greetings, as both men waited for appointments in a Pittsburgh medical office.
“I wasn’t in the mood for any chitchat, but how do you snub a smiling Fred Rogers?” Rodell quotes the younger man. “Every time our eyes would lock, even for a split second, he’d say, ‘hello!’
“If it’d been a stranger, it would have seemed a little weird. But because it was who it was, it seemed perfectly normal. I’m living proof it’s impossible to be angry after talking to Fred Rogers.”
The fact that such a benign attempt to connect with a stranger can be seen as odd drives home the need for an emphasis on kindness that was a running theme in the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” show, according to Rodell.
“The question we should ask is: ‘What’s wrong with me for resenting someone trying to make me feel better?’ ” says Rodell, who hopes some of the attention focused on Rogers by a recent documentary and the upcoming Tom Hanks film, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” also will fall on his self-published book.
It’s the second time Rodell has written a book centered on an iconic Latrobe figure, following last year’s “Arnold Palmer: Homespun Stories of The King.”
“I had people tell me, ‘You have to do this book,’ because they liked the Arnold Palmer book,” Rodell says of his 200-plus-page reflection on Rogers and his hometown of Latrobe.
Former Pennsylvania Governor and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge was among the sources Rodell drew upon for the Palmer book, and Ridge penned the foreword for the Rogers follow-up. Ridge writes that Rodell’s latest work looks at “what kind of people could have had a hand in raising a human being (Rogers) so kind, decent, cheerful and loving, so perfectly aspirational.”
Rodell, a former reporter for the Tribune-Review and later freelance writer for the National Enquirer, notes his book about Palmer was informed by a professional relationship with his subject that grew into a friendship, while writing the book about Rogers was more of a challenge.
Rodell met Rogers just once, briefly, when he attempted to interview him for an Enquirer piece but was ejected from the TV icon’s Pittsburgh office. Rogers remained “smiling serenely” as a security guard pulled him away, Rodell recalls.
“Growing Up” is actually three books in one, Rodell explains: “One book is how Latrobe influenced Fred Rogers, the other is how the adult Fred Rogers influenced Latrobe, and the third one is how both of them influenced me.
“Once I got the (book) title, the focus came in.”
Drawing from a 1995 speech Rogers delivered at Saint Vincent College, Rodell recounts how the young Fred was pursued by a “wolf pack” of boys who taunted him as he walked home from elementary school in Latrobe.
Rogers turned that experience around when he created the safe streets of the Land of Make-Believe on his TV show, Rodell says. Rogers took it a step further when he defused a confrontation with some teen rowdies as he rode home from a Pittsburgh ballet performance with family friend and Latrobe attorney Bob Lightcap and their wives.
“We were at a red light and they just came up and started beating on the car,” Lightcap told Rodell. “It was really scary.”
But Rogers rolled down his window and said, “ ‘What do you kids think you’re doing?’ ” Lightcap recalled, noting the boys recognized him as “Mister Rogers,” apologized and “were going to go straight home.”
Latrobe’s ties to Rogers are celebrated with a statue of him in a downtown park, an annual Mister Rogers Family Day event and decorative street signs that bear an image of the familiar trolley that traveled through his TV set. His family’s McFeely-Rogers Foundation provides financial support for local educational and community projects.
Rogers is “still such a big part of our lives,” Latrobe Mayor Rosie Wolford is quoted in Rodell’s book. “His voice still matters.”
Rodell didn’t watch “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” when he was growing up. He caught up by watching it with his and his wife, Valerie’s, daughters — Josie, 18, and Lucy, 13 — when they were younger.
“I learned, not only was I special (in Fred’s eyes, we all are), but that I could be better, do better,” he writes. “And, for the sake of our children, I ought to at least give it a shot.”
Rodell reveals that his efforts to perform acts of kindness, in the spirit of Fred Rogers, have had mixed results. On a humid July day in 2017, Rodell helped a grateful woman carry her groceries to her home. But on another occasion, he was rebuffed in his attempt to offer a fast-food sandwich to a local homeless man.
Rodell, who is coping with a recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, says that, considering all aspects of his life, “I’m better than I was and, I swear, that’s thanks to Fred Rogers and the people here in Mister Rogers’ neighborhood.”
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter .