By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

A beautiful day in our neighborhood

Submitted photo##
Fred Rogers claps as Linfield College s Class of 1982 sings the  Mister
Rogers  Neighborhood  theme song during commencement exercises.
Submitted photo## Fred Rogers claps as Linfield College's Class of 1982 sings the "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" theme song during commencement exercises.

Members of Linfield College’s 1982 graduating class burst into song as their commencement ceremony started.

“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine? Could you be mine?” sang more than 200 candidates for bachelor’s and master’s in education degrees, dressed in black robes and wearing mortarboards.

On the stage, Fred Rogers, TV’s “Mister Rogers,” clapped his hands in delight.

“Yes, I’d love to be your neighbor!” he called, genuinely touched.

Rogers — the subject of a movie that premieres today, starring Tom Hanks — came to McMinnville to receive an honorary doctorate of humane letters.

Charles U. Walker, then-president of Linfield, presented the degree in honor of Rogers’ “positive impact on the education and self-esteem of millions of young children and, subsequently, our society.”

He went on to say the public broadcasting host, musician and minister gave each young viewer “a sense of intrinsic worth and dignity as a unique individual,” and helped children “face common childhood crises with courage.”

Rogers was one of three people who became honorary alumni on May 30, 1982.

Linfield also honored Robert McHarness, a 1928 graduate who introduced Teflon, the non-stick coating for cookware. Head of the lab at DuPont, he was an authority on Freon and other refrigerants and propellent gases.

The third recipient was the Rev. Robert Campbell, general secretary of American Baptist Churches of the USA. He gave the graduation address, “Learning to Love.”

But while all three men had distinguished themselves in their fields, it was Rogers who surprised and delighted the Linfield community and McMinnville residents that weekend.

“He was very nice and just like he was on TV,” said Walker, whose daughter Christy was a fan of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” as a child.

Walker also enjoyed meeting Rogers because both men are from Pennsylvania. Rogers’ family lived in Latrobe, about 20 miles from Walker’s hometown of Boliver. The Linfield president was familiar with some of the real people for whom Rogers named puppets on his TV show, such as Mr. McFeely, who ran a large coal mine in the area.

“So it wasn’t just another honorary degree for me,” said Walker, who came to Linfield in 1975 along with his wife, Cherie.

The visit had a lasting impact on Rogers, as well.

He and the Walkers exchanged several notes over the years.

One was a thank you card the TV personality sent after receiving a gift from the Walkers — a realistic duck decoy that the president put together himself from a kit. Rogers wrote, “I’m deeply touched by your wanting us to have this treasure, as I was by your whole community’s loving welcome.”

In another note, Rogers thanked the president for mentioning him in a speech — Walker addressed the Portland Executives Association on the topic of “Being Playful and Secure,” using examples from Rogers’ visit.

“Wish I could have been in the audience,” he wrote. “In fact, I think so often of you all in McMinnville. I feel as if part of me stayed there.”

By the time Rogers came to Linfield in 1982, he had been hosting “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” for nearly 20 years. Started in 1963, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation show soon became a popular children’s show known for its gentle humor and even gentler advice about being good to other people.

Before the show, Rogers earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Rollins College. He worked for NBC as a producer, director and performer for several years.

Then he returned to school, earning a degree in divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1962. He was ordained by the United Presbyterian Church.

In addition to hosting “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Rogers wrote a booklet for adults to help them understand the show’s messages for children. He recorded numerous albums, as well.

By the time he was recognized by Linfield, Rogers had received three Emmys and a Saturday Review television award, as well as several honorary degrees from other institutions.

Two Linfield professors, education professor Pam Dalton and business professor Mike Jones, nominated the children’s TV host for the honorary degree. They said he would be a fitting recipient, given “Linfield’s strong commitment to early childhood education ... and his outstanding contributions to his profession and society at large.”

According to Walker, anyone at the college could make such a nomination. A review committee — faculty and administrators, plus a member of the senior class — discussed the proposal. The student’s enthusiasm helped convince the committee to say yes, the president recalled.

He then presented the idea to the faculty at large and the board of trustees. There were many positive comments, but also some questions at first, Walker said.

Noting his gentle, soft-spoken nature, some people wondered, “Is he masculine enough?”, the president said. That led psychology professor Linda Olds to talk about androgyny, the combination of characteristics traditionally considered masculine and feminine.

After her discussion, the vote was unanimous: Linfield would offer Rogers an honorary degree in 1982.

Walker wrote to Rogers, through his TV show, that March, inviting him to receive his degree at the graduation. His manager replied on his behalf in late April.

And on Saturday, May 29, Dalton, one of is nominators, picked him up at the Portland Airport. Jones, the other nominator, would take him back Sunday night.

Rogers stayed at the Safari Motel, now the McMinnville Inn. Sunday morning, Shelley Jones, the professor’s wife, picked him up and took him to the city pool so he could get in his daily swim.

In 1982, the center was open Sunday afternoons, but not mornings. Linfield rented it out for $20 just so the special guest could go swimming.

Later, Cherie Walker said, Rogers received a phone call from his wife back in Pennsylvania. She wanted to make sure he’d remembered to take his medication, since he’d been suffering a severe cold. She wasn’t happy to learn he’d gone swimming, the president’s wife recalled.

Also that morning, Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, attended services at the McMinnville Presbyterian Church. The Rev. Jack Hodges invited him.

Then he joined trustees, college chaplain Bill Apel —who also had advocated for Rogers during the selection process — and other guests at a luncheon at the Linfield President’s House.

Cherie Walker, known for cooking and baking for everyone from college students to renowned guests, prepared a buffet lunch. At the last minute, she learned that Rogers was a vegetarian.

“I got out a package of frozen mixed vegetables and mixed up a quiche, so we’d have a vegetarian dish,” she recalled. “I didn’t have time for anything else.”

Naturally, she said, Rogers was very gracious about it.




Fast facts:

* In 1982, Linfield College still offered a master’s degree in education. The graduate program ended a few years later, but today the school is looking at more graduate programs as it considers changing its name to “Linfield University.”

* Back then, Linfield held its commencement ceremonies on the lawn in front of Melrose Hall, just as it does today. But students sat facing the Cozine, with the ceremonial platform at the end nearest the president’s house.

* The college had no pool in 1982; its pool was built in the late 1980s along with the gymnasium complex. Linfield swimmers used the city’s small indoor pool, just as Mister Rogers did. The McMinnville Aquatic Center, with its large competition pool, opened in 1986.

* Linfield has granted honorary degrees to many people who have lived lives of significance and contributed to society in a variety of ways. Other honorary alumni include politicians such as Mark Hatfield, Norma Paulus and Ron Wyden, scientist Samuel Graf, former journalist and winemaker Doug Tunnell, and McMinnville’s own Rev. Bernie Turner, who founded the local Habitat for Humanity chapter.


Walking with Mr. Rogers

Fred Rogers and I received degrees from Linfield College on the same day.

He was presented with a doctorate of humane letters for his contributions to children and society. I earned a bachelor’s degree in two majors, communications and psychology.

I remember how excited many of my classmates were when Linfield announced that the children’s TV personality would speak at graduation. Many of us had grown up watching him, along with Sherry Lewis and Lambchop, Capt. Kangeroo and Portland TV host Ramblin’ Rod; we were a little too old for Sesame Street, which didn’t start until 1969.

We also were familiar with “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” because of a popular parody on “Saturday Night Live,” the show that every dorm television was tuned to at 11:30 p.m. each Saturday.

Eddie Murphy had a regular spot called “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood.” Let’s just say that it was a bit more edgy (and realistic, for many) than Fred Rogers’ always-positive, uplifting show.

At graduation, my classmates and I greeted Rogers by singing his theme song (he discovered us practicing in the auditorium just beforehand). We shook his hand, along with that of President Charles Walker, as we received our diplomas.

I remember him being friendly, soft-spoken and genuinely nice. But I don’t remember what he said that day.

I remember well, though, what the college president said as I crossed the commencement stage.

My dad had died of cancer 10 weeks earlier and didn’t get to see me graduate. Walker knew that; being known by faculty is one of the benefits of attending a small school.

As I shook Walker’s hand, he told me, “Your father would have been very proud.”

That kindness, even more than the special guest, made the day memorable for me.



Web Design and Web Development by Buildable