The Internet is full of crazy stories. It’s a place where you can read article after article explaining why Gandhi and Mother Teresa were monsters or about all the wonderful, underappreciated things that Hitler did. It’s a place where surprise is the greatest currency—and often more valuable than the truth.
Even humble Fred Rogers, the charming, mild-mannered man who graced our childhoods with his soft smiles and cardigan sweaters, has been mercilessly pulled apart. In the absence of any real dirt on the man, people have taken to making up stories to make him sound like everything he wasn’t.
But Fred Rogers wasn’t a hardened criminal, a secret pedophile, or anything else you may have heard. He was, in the words of one who knew him, “essentially the same guy off camera as he was on-camera.” He was a mild-mannered man who didn’t even smoke or drink, every bit as wholesome as he seemed.
Mister Rogers, according to a rumor spread online, was a convicted child molester.
According to the rumor, this wasn’t just a dirty secret he hid while he promoted his show—it was the whole reason he was on TV. “One condition of his sentence,” a chain e-mail claims, “was that he fulfill a community service obligation by performing a television show for children on a local public station.”
In another version, they say that were never any kids on his show because he wasn’t allowed to be on the same property as a minor. And in another, the whole show was nothing more than a ruse to lure in naive children.
All of this is nonsense, of course. Aside from just how ridiculous the idea that a court would sentence a convicted child molester to a life as a children’s entertainer is, and aside from the fact that children were very clearly regularly on the show, Fred Rogers simply has never been accused of doing anything indecent with any child.
Fred Rogers has explained why he really made the show. In his words: “I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.”
“Mr. Rogers was a U.S. Navy Seal,” a chain e-mail sent out in the early 2000s read, “combat-proven in Vietnam with over twenty-five confirmed kills to his name.”
Fred Rogers, the e-mail insisted, was secretly closer to Rambo than he was to a friendly neighbor. “[He was] a master in small arms and hand-to-hand combat, able to disarm or kill in a heartbeat.”
This is actually one of the more popular stories about Fred Rogers, one that’s passed around pretty well since the show first hit the airwaves. Every version of the story’s a little different. In some, he has 150 kills; in others, it’s just about half a dozen. And in others, every single word of the story is the same—except that, instead of Fred Rogers, our Navy assassin is Captain Kangaroo.
The rumor has spread so far that the Navy itself has dedicated a section of its website to dispelling it, where they explain that Rogers would have been too old to enlist during the Vietnam War and went “directly into TV work” as soon as he finished college.
Mister Rogers never killed a single person—and even did his best not to kill any animals. Fred Rogers was so staunchly against hurting another soul that he became a vegetarian, explaining: “I don’t want to eat anything that has a mother.”
Going hand-in-hand with stories about Fred Rogers’s gruesome body count in Vietnam are the stories about the tattoos that allegedly covered his arms. Rogers’s trademark cardigan sweaters, the rumors say, were his way “to conceal the tattoos on his arms”—marks of a darker past life.
Of course, Rogers didn’t always wear that sweater. Anyone willing to put “Fred Rogers topless” in their search history will have no trouble finding pictures of Mister Rogers’s notably tattoo-free arms and chest. Even viewers of his show have seen Mister Rogers without his sweater—in one episode, he swam in nothing but swim trunks.
The real reason Mister Rogers wore those sweaters is about as wholesome as Mister Rogers himself: His mother made them for him. Every single one of Fred Rogers’s sweaters was hand-knit by his mother.
When author Michael Long started working on a biography of Fred Rogers, he heard one question over and over again from every person he spoke to: “Wasn’t he gay?”
It’s the sort of conclusion you almost expect people to jump to when they see a friendly, soft-spoken man—but, no, Mister Rogers wasn’t gay. He had a wife, Joanne Rogers, and by the time he died, he’d been married to her for more than 50 years.
That doesn’t mean he was a homophobe, though. Fred Rogers hired two gay men, John Reardon and Francois Clemmons, to work on his show and quietly supported a gay-friendly church in Pittsburgh.
He was still a product of his time—Fred Rogers once quietly told Clemmons, “You can’t be ‘out’ as gay,” and suggested he marry a woman to keep up appearances. His wife, though, says Rogers changed his tune on the issue later in life.
Clemmons himself holds no hard feelings. He claims that Fred Rogers’s sign-off, “I love you just the way you are,” was targeted at him. Clemmons says that once, after Rogers’s sign-off, he asked him: “Fred, were you talking to me?”
“Yes,” Fred Rogers told him. “I’ve been talking to you for two years and you finally heard me today.”
A classic “reaction gif” shows Fred Rogers, a great, big smile beaming on his face, lifting up his hand and giving the camera the middle finger. Then, with a firm nod, as if assuring the people watching him that this really is happening, he slowly lifts up his other hand to flip the crowd off with both fingers at once.
It’s taken from a real Mister Rogers clip—but, despite how it looks, this isn’t a glimpse into Fred Rogers’s dark, dirty secret life. It’s a perfectly innocent moment in Mister Rogers’s neighborhood that’s just been taken out of context. The clip comes from an episode in which Fred Rogers leads a group of children in a game of “Where Is Thumbkin,” which those of you with kids will recognize as that song that gets really awkward about halfway through.
In the song, kids lift up each of their fingers, one by one, and sing the name of each finger. And, yes, that means that halfway through the song, you’ll inevitably see children holding up their middle fingers and singing. But it’s as innocent as can be—nothing more than teaching children the names of their fingers.
More than a few articles on the Internet have claimed that Mister Rogers would start every morning off by stripping down to birthday suit, hopping in a pool, and going skinny-dipping. In some versions of the story, he’s even in a public swimming pool, just to make it that much more scandalous.
The source of this story is cited as something Mister Rogers “revealed in an interview”—specifically, a 1998 interview with Esquire magazine. But that isn’t exactly accurate. The source isn’t so much the article itself as it is a whole lot of people misreading it.
The author of the Esquire article, admittedly, did see Mister Rogers naked, and he dedicates an entire paragraph to describing Fred Rogers stripping off all of his clothes. And, immediately after the paragraph, he writes: “Nearly every morning of his life, Mister Rogers has gone swimming.”
But those two things aren’t as related as they some people have taken them. The interviewer saw Mister Rogers naked because they were in the locker room together, getting changed before getting into the pool.
Seeing Mister Rogers naked wasn’t a normal sight. Rogers, in the interview, even quipped that the interviewer was one of the few people to ever see him nude, joking: “Well, Tom, I guess you’ve already gotten a deeper glimpse into my daily routine than most people have.”
And, yes, Mister Rogers put on swim trunks before he left the room. Which he always did—you can find a few fans describing seeing Fred Rogers taking his daily swim, and in every one, he’s consistently described as wearing a speedo.
So that’s the real scandal: sometimes, when Fred Rogers changed his clothes, he was briefly naked for a few seconds.
Another rumor that has spread around the Internet is that Mister Rogers, in real life, was a surly neighbor. On Halloween, it’s said, he’d turn off his lights to try to keep kids from dropping by. And if any little goblins or ghouls made their way onto his porch, Fred Rogers himself would chase them off, cursing at them that there was no candy to be found at his home.
It took Mister Rogers’s actual, literal neighbors speaking out to correct this one. Jessica Reaves, a little girl in Fred Rogers’s real neighborhood, wrote an article on what it was like to live near the Rogers family and revealed that his home was every bit as delightful as you’d imagine:
“At Halloween, Mister and Mrs. Rogers gave out amazing candy (full-size, full-sugar candy bars! No bite-size Hershey bars here.)”
Every report about him shows he was just as willing to spend his time with children in real life as he was on TV. Reaves recalls regularly spotting Fred Rogers at church “talking earnestly with a five-year-old about a new puppy,” while other children have described meeting Rogers and watching him put on full puppet shows just for their amusement.
In 1990, the Ku Klux Klan set up a telephone recording of a man pretending to be Mister Rogers. They tried to convince children around Missouri that Mister Rogers was a complete and total racist, apparently trying to lure them, at a young age, into a lifetime of bigotry.
Their Mister Rogers impersonator would tell children that “AIDS was divine retribution”against homosexuals or would warn them to watch out for “n—er drug pushers.”
Fred Rogers, as you can imagine, wasn’t very happy about being used as a spokesman for hate. He sued the KKK and won.
The real man, after all, was anything but racist. In 1969, as a subtle protest against segregation, he shared a footbath with Francois Clemmons, the black actor who played Officer Clemmons on his show. And afterward, he knelt down and dried Clemmons’s feet—an act that Clemmons sees as akin to Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
Rogers was trying to show kids that he and Clemmons were equals and normalize the idea of white people and black people being friends. “I think he was making a very strong statement,” Clemmons has said.
It’s hard to imagine, but on a 2007 episode of Fox & Friends, the hosts called Fred Rogers an “evil, evil man.”
Their argument was that Rogers had ruined children by telling them that they were “special.” By boosting children’s egos, the hosts said, Fred Rogers had created a generation of “kids who feel entitled just for being them.”
Fox & Friends aren’t the only people pushing that argument, either. Professor Don Chance of Louisiana State University has likewise been leading a campaign blaming Mister Rogers for modern entitlement. He explained the sophisticated scientific method he used to figure out that Mister Rogers was behind it all. If we may quote him directly: “It just hit me. We can blame Mr. Rogers.”
Experts are still debating whether telling kids they’re “special” is helpful or harmful—or, perhaps more accurately, the right way to do it—but it stills seems a little unlikely that one show single-handedly ruined an entire generation.
Being called “special” by Fred Rogers definitely directly affected one child, though. One little boy, whose parents were so abusive that they forced him to sleep on the floor, says he only realized that there were adults who cared after watching Fred Rogers on TV. He called an abuse hotline, was rescued, and ended up being adopted and given a better life by the hotline operator who took his phone call.
The boy credited Mister Rogers for changing his life, saying that he “never knew there were such kind people until he tuned into the Neighborhood.”
At least one lie about Fred Rogers is a nice lie.
According to an old story that’s been passed around since at least 1990, a group of thieves stole his car. When they saw it contained Mister Rogers’s papers and props, they promptly drove it right back into his driveway, leaving a note behind that read: “Sorry, we didn’t know it was yours.”
It’s a nice story, for once, one that doesn’t try to make Mister Rogers look like something he wasn’t. Even this one, though, is almost certainly made up.
Every time the story’s told, it’s a little bit different. In some, the thieves took his car from his home; in others, they took it from his studio. Sometimes, they figured out whose car it was by the props, and in some, they figured it out by reading the newspaper. There can be one thief, or two thieves, or three; it can have happened in the 1990s, the early 2000s, or very nearly any decade you can imagine. Or sometimes it’s the exact same story but with a different celebrity’s name in Mister Rogers’s place.
It’s hard to conclusively prove that something definitely did not happen, but Mister Rogers never mentioned this story himself. And so it’s generally agreed that this is just another tall tale.
No matter what we might want him to be, Mister Rogers wasn’t such a saint that thieves would return his car, and he wasn’t such a monster that he ruined a whole generation. He was just a man, like any other—and more or less the person he seemed to be.