ON THIS DAY: Feb. 27, 2003, Fred Rogers dies of stomach cancer

PITTSBURGH — Fred McFeely Rogers began his television career at NBC in New York City, but it wasn’t until the debut of “The Children’s Corner” on WQED in 1954 that he first reached out to children in Pittsburgh on the show that would make him a household name.

Born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania on March 20, 1928, his father, Fred McFeely, was the president of one of Latrobe’s largest businesses: McFeely Brick. His mother, Nancy Rogers, came from a wealthy Pittsburgh family, volunteered at Latrobe Hospital and knitted sweaters for American soldiers in her spare time.

Rogers’ early childhood gave little indication of the public figure he would become. Introverted and overweight, Rogers was frequently homebound due to asthma and was frequently bullied by his peers. His confidence grew through high school, where he became the president of the student council and the editor-in-chief of the yearbook.

Rogers graduated with a music degree in 1951 from Rollins College in Florida, where he met Sara Joanne Byrd. The couple married on June 9, 1952, and moved back north.

Rogers dove into the fledgling world of television in New York City, working odd jobs until WQED gave him the opportunity to do a children’s show.

“The Children’s Corner” was hosted by Josie Carey, as Rogers worked behind the scenes to develop many of the puppet personalities that Rogers would become famous for: Daniel Striped Tiger, King Friday XIII, Lady Elaine Fairchilde and X the Owl. Rogers also wrote music for the show.

Rogers earned a divinity degree from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in Highland Park in 1962 and became an ordained Presbyterian minister. He sought to comfort and teach children and families through television as a form of ministry.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. contracted Rogers to create and host a new 15-minute episodic show called “Misterogers” in 1963. The show was made in Toronto until Rogers moved back to Pittsburgh, bringing with him many of the sets and props, and the program was picked up by National Education Television (which would later become PBS).

On Sept. 21, 1967, Rogers recorded the first full episode of the new “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” at WQED. The first episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” made its national debut on Feb. 19, 1968.

The show would go on to become a quiet powerhouse in children’s programming despite the calm and humble nature of its creator and set into motion one of the greatest and most honored legacies in the history of television.

Rogers would record more than 900 episodes over the next 31 years, coming out of retirement to soothe children in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

The Television Critics Association honored Rogers with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Daytime Emmy Awards in 1997. During his now-famous acceptance speech, Rogers invited the audience to remember those people who “have loved us into being.” What followed was perhaps one of the most powerful 10 seconds of any award broadcast, as Rogers turned his attention to his wristwatch and quietly “marked the time.”

Through it all, his wife of 50 years, Joanne, steadfastly supported him and protected his legacy. The couple had two sons.

Diagnosed with stomach cancer in December 2002, Rogers underwent surgery on Jan. 6, 2003.

Fred Rogers died at his Squirrel Hill home on Feb. 27, 2003, with Joanne by his side. He was 74 years old.

Joanne Rogers died at the age of 92 on Jan. 14, 2021.