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François remembers his ‘guru’ — Mr. Rogers

François Clemmons was 24 years old and midway through his first year of graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University when he first met Fred Rogers. Clemmons sang as a tenor soloist at Third Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, where he stood right next to Joanne Rogers, an alto. The two joked between songs and enjoyed each other’s company. After the Good Friday service that year, Joanne’s husband, Fred, came up to Clemmons backstage and told him that he had never been more moved or touched by a service.
“For me he was very boring, I was a 24-year-old hot shot,” recalled Clemmons, who is now 73. “He had like a London fog coat on, he was very soft spoken. The thing I remember, though, is that he was very sincere. There was something about him that was very sincere and it caught me a little off guard.”
Rogers asked Clemmons to lunch, and later to come by WQED-TV Studios, where he introduced the young man to all of the characters on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Fred’s children’s show.
“What is this grown man playing with all these puppets for?” Clemmons wondered in a recent interview with the Independent.
After accepting a gig to be in a couple episodes of the show because he needed the money, Clemmons received a phone call from Fred Rogers telling him that people responded very well to his performance. Rogers wanted him to do more, and while Clemmons initially kept wondering which episode would be his last, he ended up staying on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” for almost 30 years.
It was a life-changing experience for Clemmons in numerous ways, some of which surfaced during interviews for a new documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” The documentary, directed by Morgan Neville, examines the impact of Fred Rogers and his long-running children’s show. Clemmons, who first watched the documentary at the Mercer Arts Center in New York City, thought Neville did a superb job.
“I liked the pacing. The pacing was very important because Fred didn’t do anything fast. I thought that was a very important way of showing something integral about his personality,” Clemmons said.
While revisiting old scenes may make some nostalgic for a more slow-paced form of entertainment, the documentary also shines a new light on the social importance of “Mister Rogers.” Rogers chose to cast Clemmons, an African American, as a police officer on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in the late 1960s. Clemmons, who grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, did not have a positive view of police officers.
“They were the enemies. They were abusive,” he said.
For these reasons, Clemmons told Rogers that he did not want to play a police officer. When he got scripts in the mail and saw “Officer Clemmons” scribbled across the top, he was slightly disappointed. But Rogers was persistent; he told Clemmons that he could have an impact on children and change their perception of police officers. In one especially notable scene from 1969, Rogers and Officer Clemmons sat next to each other with their pants rolled up, the skin on their legs exposed, and placed their feet in a small kiddie pool as they sang. This scene, which aired during a time when black children were often prohibited from swimming in the white neighborhood pools, has become an emblem of the fact that Mister Rogers’ was not merely an ordinary children’s program, but one that discussed significant social issues.
“It was no longer a black and a white man. It was about integration and racism in our country. It suddenly took on this otherworldly flavor. For me, it became spiritual,” Clemmons said of the pool scene, which was reconstructed for his last appearance on the show in 1993.
Clemmons has been reflecting on his time on the show and on its creator for quite awhile.
“I haven’t stopped thinking about him since 15 years ago when he died because I loved him very much. He was an important part of my life. So when he died it was like a stab in my heart,” Clemmons said of Rogers.
Many have wondered why the two, separated by 25 years in age, were so close. Clemmons said it was their belief in god, their shared spirituality — Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, Clemmons is well known for his performance of traditional spirituals — that brought the two together.
“I was black, gay, and poor, but he chose me. Our bond was spiritual. He was my guru, he taught me,” Clemmons said.
Beyond the personal impact, Clemmons’ tenure as Officer Clemmons on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” greatly shaped his career as a singer.
Millions of people all around the world — from Germany to Austria to Korea — have heard Clemmons’ voice in the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble, a group he founded in 1986 that specialized in American Negro Spirituals. He said this would not have happened had it not been for his role on Fred Rogers’ TV program. “There was no place I could go where people didn’t know Officer Clemmons from ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,’” Clemmons said.
He travelled to Pittsburgh to film the show around 10 times each year, when he was not performing worldwide. Later, in 1997, Middlebury College President John McCardell invited Clemmons to Middlebury, where Clemmons mentored students in the art and business of the theater industry. He served as the Alexander Twilight Artist in Residence until his retirement in 2013.
Clemmons still lives in Middlebury, and his house is adorned with mementos of his remarkable career. Posters from his Harlem Spiritual Ensemble tour hang next to framed photographs of him on set with Rogers, and others of him in some of his many custom-designed gold costumes. Clemmons recently received a new poster in the mail — a larger than life copy of the movie poster for “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” that he plans to get framed.
There’s a lot, after all, that we can learn from “Mister Rogers” today, he says.
“This world needs love. There’s a spiritual hunger in this land. They’re hungry for Fred,” Clemmons said.
You can see “Wont You Be My Neighbor?” when it opens in Burlington on June 29 or in Montpelier on July 6.

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