Walking The Beat In Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, Where A New Day Began Together For 25 years, Francois Clemmons played Fred Rogers' neighborhood police officer, often lending a hand and a soothing voice. But as Clemmons recalls, it was a foot bath that offered a memorable lesson.

Walking The Beat In Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, Where A New Day Began Together

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Friday means StoryCorps. And this morning, some softer, gentler voices you might remember from childhood. For 25 years, Francois Clemmons played a character on "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." Fred Rogers heard Clemmons sing in church, and in 1968, he joined the cast. He was thought to be the first African-American actor to have a recurring role on a kids TV series. At StoryCorps, he told a friend about how he became officer Clemmons.

FRANCOIS CLEMMONS: Fred came to me and said I have this idea. You could be a police officer. That kind of stopped me in my tracks. I grew up in the ghetto, and I did not have a positive opinion of police officers. Policemen were siccing dogs and water hoses on people. And I really had a hard time putting myself in that role. So I was not excited about being Officer Clemmons at all. But there was one particular scene that Fred and I did where he had his feet resting in this plastic pool on a hot day.


FRED ROGERS: (As Mr. Rogers) Oh, there's Officer Clemmons. Hi, Officer Clemmons. Come in.

CLEMMONS: (As Officer Clemmons) Hi, Mr. Rogers, how are you?

CLEMMONS: And he invited me to come over and to rest my feet in the water with him.


ROGERS: (As Mr. Rogers) Would you like to join me?

CLEMMONS: (As Officer Clemmons) OK, sure.

The icon Fred Rogers not only was showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends, but as I was getting out of that tub he was helping me dry my feet.


ROGERS: (As Mr. Rogers) There, that one's dry.

CLEMMONS: (As Officer Clemmons) Thank you.

And so that scene touched me in a way that I was not prepared.


ROGERS: (As Mr. Rogers) Sometimes just a minute like this will really make a difference.

CLEMMONS: I think he was making a very strong statement. That was his way. I still was not convinced that Officer Clemmons could have a positive influence in the neighborhood and in the real-world neighborhood. But I think I was proven wrong.

KARL LINDHOLM: You were on "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" for a long time.

CLEMMONS: Yeah, I discovered a friend for life. I'll never forget, one day I was watching him film a session. And you know how at the end of the program he takes his sneakers off, he hangs up his sweater and he says you make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are. I was looking at him when he was saying that. And he walks over to where I was standing and I said, Fred, were you talking to me? And he said, yes, I have been talking to you for years, but you heard me today. It was like telling me I'm OK as a human being. That was one of the most meaningful experiences I'd ever had.


ROGERS: (As Mr. Rogers) I'm so proud of you, Francois.

CLEMMONS: (As Officer Clemmons) Oh, thank you, Fred.

ROGERS: (As Mr. Rogers) Do you have time to give a song to my friend and me?

CLEMMONS: (As Officer Clemmons) I sure do. (Singing) There are many ways to say I love you.

GREENE: Francois Clemmons - you might know him as Officer Clemmons from "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." He spoke with Karl Lindholm in Middlebury, Vt., and the interview is archived at the Library of Congress. The podcast is on iTunes and also at npr.org.

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