In 2003 the television world mourned the loss of Fred Rogers, the gentle and genial host who for over 30 years delivered lessons on love, kindness, and friendship to children on the television program Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Mr. Rogers' show-opening "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" ditty, his daily on-camera donning of a cardigan sweater and comfortable shoes, and his tinkling Neighborhood Trolley were all familiar, reassuring icons to millions of children (and their parents). He was loved. And venerated.
According to a widely-traveled tale, Mr. Rogers was so beloved a children's host and had exerted so great a positive influence on the youth of the day that thieves returned his stolen car to him once they realized whose vehicle they'd made off with.
I read a story once about Mr. Rogers that just cemented his total coolness. One day his car was stolen in broad daylight while parked on the street in Pittsburgh. The evening news reported that Mr. Rogers car had been stolen. The next day, it was back in the same spot with a note that said, "Sorry, we didn't know it was yours."
So far, the earliest printed reference to this the tale we've found comes from a March 1990 Wall Street Journal article about this television icon:
Children aren't the only ones with a soft spot for Mr. Rogers. Two weeks ago, his Oldsmobile sedan was stolen while he was babysitting for his grandson. After looking over papers and props he had left in the car, the thieves apparently realized who the owner was. Mr. Rogers found the car parked in front of his house a day or so later. All that was missing was a director's chair with his name on it.
That early version omits an element solidly worked into all later tellings: the note left by the thieves which says "Sorry, we didn't know it was yours." Also of interest is where the vehicle is said to have been acquired — the account says the theft occurred while the television star was babysitting his grandson, a detail that would tend to place the purloining in a residential neighborhood. Later renditions (such as the one given in a February 2003 Plain Dealer article) assert that thieves absconded with the car from the parking lot of the Pittsburgh television station where Rogers worked.
As to how the thieves purportedly found out whose jalopy they'd made off with, the earliest version says they worked that out for themselves via papers and props left in the vehicle, while some later tellings (such as the one given in a September 2004 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article) assert they gleaned that information from local news broadcast or newspaper reports.
Renditions of this story vary in other details as well. Sometimes there is one car thief; in other versions two or three. Where the car is stolen from and where it's returned to also changes. When the theft occurred is similarly up for grabs: A 1990 recounting of the legend asserted it happened "two weeks ago," while versions circulated after the television star's passing stated the crime took place "a year or two before Rogers' death" (which would place the incident in 2001 or 2002). Additionally, mention is sometimes made of the car's being returned in better condition than it was when it was taken (e.g., "completely cleaned and detailed").
The legend tends to confirm a theory that many want to believe: that even bad people are sometimes swayed by good impulses. In this case the car thieves thought better of their act once they realized whom they'd stolen from — while they might feel okay about pilfering a car belonging to a stranger, they could not steal from the man who had played such a large and reassuring role in their childhoods.
It's a great story, but it's doubtful the incident ever happened. While Fred Rogers was interviewed countless times during his life, we've yet to happen upon a case of his telling the story himself. Neither have we encountered any instances of his being asked by an interviewer about it, even within articles that presented the tale as an anecdote about him. (His representatives also told us that although they were familiar with the legend, they could not verify that the event it describes had actually taken place.)
It's interesting to note that a similar "returned item" tale has been told of Scottish poet James Montgomery:
The poet had many valuable items stolen from his home in 1812. One of them, a treasured desk, was returned with this note from a member of the burglary gang: "Honored sir: When we robbed your house, we did not know that you wrote such beautiful verses as you do. I send this desk back. It was my share of the booty, and I hope you and God will forgive me."
Although the returned car legend highlights the positive associations many felt and still feel about this man, other rumors about Mr. Rogers are far less acclamatory, such as claims that he was a sniper with many kills to his credit, or that he was a convicted child molester, or that he wore sweaters to conceal large tattoos on his arms. Each of those tales is false.