“Welcome to Mr. Rogers’ real neighborhood,” says Mary Lou Townsend as she opens the door to the Latrobe Area Historical Society on a warm fall Friday afternoon.
The building, formerly a synagogue, sits on a tree-lined street in the small town with a population of about 8,000, about an hour outside Pittsburgh. Just a few blocks over are the school and the Presbyterian church where Fred Rogers spent his formative years. Within walking distance is the stately brick home in which he grew up.
Inside the historical society, Townsend proudly points out other exhibits: quilts, school desks, fireplaces from old buildings, memorabilia from the town’s other native son, golf legend Arnold Palmer.
Then we arrive at the Fred Rogers corner. Hung on a lattice wall are puppets — playthings Rogers created long before King Friday XIII, Daniel Striped Tiger and X the Owl, the characters that would help legions of children learn empathy and kindness and that it’s OK to talk about emotions.
There are yearbooks (Rogers served as editor), newspaper clippings, photographs and a song cue card from one of his first TV appearances.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, recently opened in theaters across the country. In 2018, a documentary about Rogers’ life, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” rekindled interest in Rogers’ legacy and that of his classic PBS children’s television show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
“I think he taught a lot of things that have been lost on the world today,” Townsend says. “People want to hear those messages again. Kindness. Understanding. I think we crave that sort of thing.”
Those who grew up watching the show, along with his newfound fans, may want to plan a trip to Latrobe, the highlight of Pennsylvania’s Fred Rogers Trail.
St. Vincent College
Just outside downtown Latrobe sits the lovely St. Vincent College, a private Benedectine liberal arts college where there’s a course in Fred Rogers ethics. Monks in robes walk the hilly campus, there’s a football field where the Pittsburgh Steelers hold their summer training camp, and amid a field of wildflowers, there’s a gleaming Fred M. Rogers Center, built in 2003. Rogers’ family had ties to the university, though he never attended there.
Upon entering, visitors can get a glimpse, through windows, at the holdings of some 30,000 pieces of memorabilia. It’s mostly papers, scripts from the TV show and the like, but there’s also a replica of King Friday’s castle and a giant Lady Elaine Fairchilde head, used in one dream-sequence episode.
Upstairs is the main Fred Rogers exhibit, a public, interactive display featuring information on the life, work and influence of Rogers.
A sign at the entrance to the center reads: “This exhibit offers a window into his work, both on screen and off. It examines the origins of Fred’s core values, to which he adhered with fearless and unwavering authenticity, and follows his path from small town boy to nationally known media personality. With his gentle, unassuming manner, he made a profound impression on everyone he encountered.”
On view are many iconic artifacts from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” including some of the original puppets, Daniel Striped Tiger’s Clock, the Neighborhood Trolley and several of Rogers’ sweaters and sneakers, all encased in glass. Video screens play iconic episodes or recorded interviews with Rogers that are worth a listen. On my visit, it was crowded, and the videos were difficult to hear.
Emily Uhrin, the archivist at the center, talked about Rogers’ influences on the town and on society as a whole. “He never expected to be on television, but he always expected to communicate with children and to help them.”
She says Rogers’ widow, Joanne, and some former cast members such as David Newell (Mr. McFeely) often stop by to drop off more memorabilia.
“The archives keep growing,” she says. “More people are donating because I think they are realizing what an impact he has made, and they want to share with others. … His teachings seem to be reaching more and more people, and more people want to learn more about him.”
A few miles away is downtown Latrobe, once a bustling coal town. It’s easy to imagine it as the setting for “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Latrobe is the birthplace of the banana split, but Tassel Pharmacy, a soda fountain Rogers used to frequent as a boy, is no longer there. In its place, a vacant lot and a giant banana split sculpture.
Just next door is the Latrobe Art Center, founded in 2002 by Fred’s only sibling, Nancy (Laney) Rogers Crozier. Some of her watercolor paintings hang on the wall.
Executive director Lauren Buches says the center has grown over the years, taking over multiple storefronts as it expanded. It mostly displays work by local and regional artists, but visitors can also buy Fred Rogers merchandise — mugs, T-shirts, sticky notes and more items bearing his likeness. (I have to wonder what he would have thought about all this.) Each June, the street in front closes for Mister Rogers Family Day.
Ricolita’s Cafe offers Italian and Mediterranean favorites such as a Neighborhood Salad (veggies, pecans, cranberries and strawberries), and around the corner, be sure to stop at James H. Rogers Park, named for Fred’s father, a community activist.
A statue of Fred sitting on a park bench is a popular spot for sightseers who stop and pose with him. Sculptor Jon Hair used Rogers’ real jacket, shoe and pants sizes to create the lifelike piece. (In downtown Pittsburgh, there’s a 7,000-pound sculpture of Rogers called “Tribute to Children.”)
Rogers, an ordained minister, grew up in the nearby Latrobe Presbyterian Church; if it’s a nice day, walk there and see if the workers will let you look around. It’s a beautiful chapel and worth a look on its own. It’s also open for services.
There’s a Fred Rogers display at the local high school, though it’s not the physical building where he attended; that one, at 1501 Ligonier St., is now privately owned. To honor its famous graduate, the school showcases not only school memorabilia but a few production items from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The display is only open to the public during scheduled school activities.
Visitpa.com also lists the address of the Main Street home where Rogers was born and the Weldon Street home where he grew up. They’re privately owned, so slow down on a drive-by, but don’t gawk.
Linda McKenna Boxx, who has lived in the Weldon Street house for 35 years, gave me a private tour of Rogers’ childhood home.
“Come around here,” she called as she walked to the side door. “This is how he would have entered, and his friends would have come in this way.”
It’s a beautiful home with hardwood floors, a sun room, fireplaces and a backyard with large trees. It wasn’t hard to imagine a young Fred playing the piano in the front room, reading in the sun porch or playing with his puppets on the wood staircase.
One last stop
A fitting last stop in Latrobe is at beautiful Unity Cemetery. It takes some windy country roads to get there, through this beautiful area called the Laurel Highlands, but GPS can help. Rogers died of cancer in 2003 and is buried in the family mausoleum there. Visitors can park at the church and walk a half-mile or so toward the back. On a hill, a small building is visible with tall, wood doors and four sturdy columns and the name Given on the top (it’s a family name).
Climb the path and peek in the windows. “Fred McFeely Rogers” is etched in marble along the side wall next to his mother’s and father’s names.
The skies were blue, not a person around — just the silence of a breeze and maybe a squirrel running through the trees on my visit. A beautiful day in this neighborhood.
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