David Newell (aka Mr. McFeely) on how we can all 'be like Fred'

Amanda Collins Bernier

The rebirth of interest in Fred Rogers, which includes an upcoming Tom Hanks film, has inspired a unique musical tribute of the man known as “America’s Favorite Neighbor.” A newly recorded collection of Fred’s songs, Thank You, Mister Rogers: Music & Memories, dropped last month.

David Newell, who portrayed the friendly mail carrier Mr. McFeely on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” recently talked with baystateparent about the new album. The “Speedy Delivery” man is a grandfather who lives in Pittsburgh and still works with Fred Rogers Productions.

Tell us about the path to becoming Mr. McFeely? 

I was going to college at the University of Pittsburgh, working at a local theater, and volunteering at the Pittsburgh Public Television station. After Fred Rogers secured underwriting to take the regional “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” children’s program national, I interviewed for a job overseeing items needed for production, like props and costumes. Fred asked me, “When can you begin?” And then, he added, “I would also like you to play the part of a delivery man. His name will be Mr. McCurdy.”

On the first day of taping, I was in costume waiting to begin. The phone rang in the control room, and the call was from Mr. McCurdy, president of the Sears and Roebuck Foundation, calling to wish us all well on the first day. However, he had one request: “Please don’t call the delivery man Mr. McCurdy.” He thought it was a little too self-serving. Fred came back to me and said, “We tape in 10 minutes, and we have to get you a new name and then he said, “McFeely. That will be your name. Mr. McFeely.” I guess he thought of it because it was his middle name.

Ten minutes later, we were taping the show. I later became associate producer of the show and then director of public relations. Since I was also Mr. McFeely, I did a lot of public television station visits and interviews that Fred couldn’t do because he was so busy writing and producing the daily program.

How did the tagline “Speedy Delivery” come about? 

My first delivery was an armadillo. After the segment was over, I ad-libbed, “Speedy delivery, Mister Rogers,” and he replied, “Speedy delivery.” I have lost count of how many times I’ve said that over the past 50 years.

What was it like being part of a show that so deeply impacted three generations of children? 

When you choose your career, make sure you choose something you love because you’ll never work a day in your life. I looked forward to going to work each day. It was not a job; it became almost a way of life. We were extremely busy. We had long days, but I loved it. I have often said that I feel as though I have a degree in child development after working all those years with Fred Rogers. I don’t. My degree is in theater and English literature, but I learned so much by working alongside Fred for more than 35 years and catching some of his wisdom.

You became close friends with Fred Rogers over the years. Was there a different side to him that television viewers didn’t see? 

The best way to answer that question is to quote Fred’s wife Joanne, who always says, “What you see is what you get.” People who met Fred always told me he is just like he is on television. But one side of Fred that people didn’t know much about was his sense of humor. He was an excellent “appreciator!” He would often attend performances of cast members when they were in other productions. One could always hear his laugh and applause rising from the audience.

Sometimes, the crew would play jokes on him during a taping by switching his shoes to a smaller size. When he was changing shoes at the end of the program, they didn’t fit. He would always break up laughing and enjoy the joke.

So much about life and childhood – including the mail service! – has changed since 1968. So, what is it about the show that makes it timeless?

Well, maybe the US Postal Service has changed a little! I compare the timeless quality to that of “The Wizard of Oz” because it opens in reality and then takes us to the neighborhood of make-believe. Along the way a lot is learned, friendships made, adventures had … plus there’s the music. It’s evergreen. What doesn’t change are the messages. Children learn to walk and talk and absorb new ideas; this doesn’t change. Maybe some of the costumes and props change but the story and the subject are timeless.

What stands out to you about new album Thank You, Mister Rogers – Music & Memories? 

It’s not just an album for children. It is really an album for people who grew up with Mister Rogers. Fred Rogers composed the music and wrote the lyrics to all the songs on the album, except for the last song. It’s a special tribute to Fred sung by all the guest artists. Each song in this collection is different stylistically from the other selections, and each singer has made it their own. Fred would be delighted to know that his music lives on to a new generation. 

My 2-year-old son is absolutely crazy about “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.” How special is it that the legacy of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” is continuing in a new way for a new generation? 

“Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” takes Fred Rogers’ message to the current generation. An animated Daniel, the son of Daniel Tiger on “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood,” is now the host of his own program. It still has that Fred touch to it. Daniel changes into a sweater, puts on a pair of sneakers and talks directly to the viewers. Some of the scripts that Fred wrote have been adapted for “Daniel.” It is one of the most popular children’s programs on PBS. 

November is “Thank You, Mister Rogers Month,” a time when we’re all encouraged to “be like Fred.” It a nutshell, how can we do that? 

To be like Fred, it can be as simple as making a list of kind things you can do for others. A phone call to a friend, an invitation to meet for dinner, saying good morning to a friend or fellow worker.

Fred Rogers was always thinking about others. Here’s an example: Fred knew I liked the architecture of old movie theaters. One day, I found a brick on my desk. I couldn’t figure out where it came from, until Fred peeked in my office with a smile on his face. He had been walking by a demolition site of an old movie theater. He picked up a brick and brought it to me.

That was Fred. Always thinking about others. I still have the brick. It constantly reminds me of Fred’s kindness… a touchstone for me to always be aware of others.