The Mentorship That Shaped Mister Rogers

Mr. Rogers in a suit and tie, photographed chest up, resting his head on his fist and looking into camera

With the upcoming Nov. 22 release of the film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the University of Pittsburgh is celebrating the values that Fred Rogers—Mister Rogers of the beloved children’s television show—contributed to the fields of education, culture, media and child psychology.

In 2014, Pitt Med magazine explored Rogers’ three-decade-plus friendship and professional relationship with Pitt child psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry Margaret B. McFarland in its article “When Fred Met Margaret.” The story, written by Sally Ann Flecker with photos by Jim Judkis, illustrates McFarland’s mentorship and Rogers’ commitment to caring for the feelings and experiences of children. Pitt Med's website hosts the full story, a photo essay and podcast.

The following is an excerpt:

Pitt Medcast

In 2019, the Pitt Med article "When Fred Met Margaret" was remixed by Elaine Vitone, senior editor of Pitt Med magazine and writer/producer of Pitt Medcast, into an award-winning podcast.

Past Pitt Medcast episodes are available online, and Pittwire Health also will be carrying each new episode and promoting it via its free newsletter.

In the 1950s, before Fred Rogers became Mister Rogers of television fame, he was a theology student who was interested in working with young children. For counseling experience, Rogers was assigned to work under the supervision of child psychologist Margaret B. McFarland, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. That, as they say, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. It was a pivotal professional relationship, as well. For 30-some years, until her death at the age of 83 in 1988, Rogers and McFarland would meet weekly to discuss children, upcoming scripts, props for the show, or song lyrics. They often talked daily. So much of Rogers’ thinking about and appreciation for children was shaped and informed by McFarland’s work—actually by her very being—that to know and love Mister Rogers is to know and love Margaret McFarland.

In 1953, a powerhouse triumvirate founded the Arsenal Family & Children’s Center, where pediatric students could go for training in normal child development. McFarland, as cofounder and director until 1971, was at the heart of the center. Her partners were pediatrician Benjamin Spock, her then-colleague on the medical school faculty, and psychosocial developmentalist Erik Erikson (a visiting professor in the School of Medicine from 1951 to 1960). McFarland had not achieved the same fame as Spock, author of “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care,” one of the bestselling books of all time, and Erikson, author of “Childhood and Society” and originator of the term “identity crisis.” But McFarland, a 1927 alumna of Goucher College who did her doctoral studies at Columbia University, was every bit their equal. Fred Rogers, on the many public occasions when he acknowledged McFarland’s significance to his work, frequently passed along Erikson’s high praise: “Margaret McFarland,” Erikson had said, “knew more than anyone in this world about families with young children.”

If Rogers wanted to understand more about the inner life of the child, he came to the right person. McFarland, a tiny, soft-spoken woman from Oakdale, Pa., had taught kindergarten teachers in Australia for four years and was on the faculty of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts before returning to her hometown. She didn’t just have deep intellectual prowess in developmental theory. The meanings and textures of the child’s emotional landscape were the air she breathed.

Read the rest of the story and see the photo essay at Pitt Med magazine.