Mr. Rogers’ real neighborhood: Spotlight on Latrobe, Pennsylvania

For much of the world, The Land of Make-Believe is a fabled state of mind. But in Fred Rogers’ hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, it has elements of a reality show.

Though Rogers lived in the Pittsburgh enclave of Squirrel Hill while making his iconic children’s show, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Latrobe – an old steel town with a population of 7,885 –  is where he conceived what became a global phenomenon that nurtured multiple generations of kids.

Rogers, who died in 2003 at age 74, is back on the pop-culture radar thanks to the biopic “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (out Friday), which stars Tom Hanks as Rogers and filmed in Pittsburgh. But his presence is always felt in Latrobe.

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“He’s on our utility poles, on our store windows and he’s in our hearts,” says Mayor Rosie Wolford. “His image is a constant reminder of how we all need to carry on Fred’s vision for kindness. His message will always matter.”

It’s a message that has a way of really getting around. But what else would you expect from a message that travels by trolley?

In Latrobe, the trolley is to town identity what little green men are to Roswell, New Mexico. A popular local bumper sticker boasts, “My Other Car is a Trolley.”

All the Latrobe city street signs are topped with trolleys.

Ding! Ding! Ding!        

The trolley legend is based on Make-Believe, but you can ride a real one at nearby Idlewild & SoakZone, a three-time winner of the Golden Ticket for World’s Best Children’s Park from trade magazine Amusement Today.

From 1989 through 2014, the attraction was known as Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe, unique in that it was designed wholly by Rogers himself with the deliberate intention of avoiding crass commercialism. It remained a pastoral escape throughout Rogers’ life.

In 2015, It adopted a “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” theme in keeping with the animated PBS spinoff show, but the purity remains. 

The Fred Rogers Center at nearby Saint Vincent College is a $14-million, 36,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art hall dedicated to preserving the namesake’s lofty standards for teaching and nurturing children. It has 18,000 documents outlining his thinking, interactive exhibits as well as some nifty Rogers show memorabilia on permanent display. Meanwhile, VIPs, brides, and campus nostalgics can enjoy a mobile frolic on a custom-built trolley.

At Saint Vincent College near Latrobe, there’s nothing Make-Believe about the ceremonial campus trolley.

The school name may be familiar to those who revere men more comfortable in shoulder pads than cardigan sweaters. Since 1966, the school has been the summer training camp site for the six-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

Latrobe is resplendent with legends. Besides Fred Rogers, the town celebrates its role in cradling icons that have for years enlivened and entertained the whole world. Latrobe is the birthplace of professional football, the banana split and Rolling Rock beer. (That last one is a bit of a sore spot: It’s been brewed in New Jersey since 2006.)

An Arnold Palmer statue stands outside the local airport, which is named after the golf icon, who was also a devoted pilot and local appointee to the airport authority.

And golf legend Arnold Palmer, a man who could have been pampered in palaces around the planet, called Latrobe home for his entire life. When he died in 2016, his ashes were scattered at the local country club, Golf Digest and CBS Sports noted.

Throughout their illustrious lives, Palmer and Rogers – who graduated one year apart at Latrobe High School – believed there was just something special about Latrobe.

Those beliefs were justified in 2018 when Smithsonian Magazine named Latrobe as one of the top 20 American small towns and the Travel Channel, which included it in its list of the 50 most charming small towns in America.

“The Forged Fred,” a Jon Hair statue dedicated in 2016, is a popular spot for Latrobe tourists and locals alike.

But to many what’s special about Latrobe has nothing to do with football, legends or ice cream festivals. Rather, it has to do with the spirit of the gentle soul whose downtown statue hearkens to a humanity so benevolent it seems to shimmer.

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Fred Rogers poses with some of the residents of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe: King Friday (left), Daniel Striped Tiger and X the Owl in 1984.

Tom Kennedy, the senior pastor at Latrobe’s United Methodist Church, says the spirit of Mr. Rogers inspires a euphoric community spirit, the likes of which he’s never experienced anyplace else.

“Oh, there’s far more volunteerism and involvement than any place I’ve served. In Latrobe, helping people is reflexive. I don’t know if it started with Fred Rogers, but it’s his message that today still inspires so many. I have to think that’s what makes Latrobe special.”

Believe it.

Chris Rodell is the author of “Growing Up in the REAL Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: Life Lessons from the Heart of Latrobe, Pennsylvania.”

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