Fred Rogers and François Clemmons on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Vanity Fair.
By Katherine LeClair
François Clemmons, known for his beloved role of Officer Clemmons on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, received an honorary degree at the University’s most recent Winter Convocation. During his time in Sewanee, he made a number of appearances where he spoke to students about his experience in the television industry, his relationship with Fred Rogers, and his sexuality.
Clemmons is prominently featured in the acclaimed documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and as a part of his visit to Sewanee, the documentary was screened in Guerry Auditorium for members of the Sewanee community. Afterwards, a conversation was held between Vice-Chancellor John McCardell and Clemmons.
The documentary details Rogers’ fascinating life and explores the social circumstances that lead to the success of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Rogers’ education in ministry and childhood development allowed him to create a show that was heartwarming and entertaining, even when it discussed serious issues ranging from grief to divorce. His fictional neighborhood reflected the realities of mid-20th century America, with segments of the show addressing the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and segregation.
Clemmons played an important role in addressing the latter. According to Clemmons, Rogers was adamant about demonstrating unity between blacks and whites during this time.
In one scene from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Officer Clemmons and Mr. Rogers take a moment to wash their feet off in the same basin. This small gesture was greatly politicized when the episode aired in 1969. Clemmons explained, “Around the country, they didn’t want black people to come swim in their swimming pools. And Fred said, ‘That is absolutely ridiculous.’”
Since there were only a handful of black actors on television at the time, Clemmons believed that his “image as a black person on children’s television” was important for children to see.
However, Clemmons openly shared his reservations about playing an officer on the show. “I didn’t feel that a policeman was the image I wanted to portray,” he admitted. “I thought it was almost a betrayal to ask me to be the kind of person I felt was abusive to black boys, women, girls.”
Although, he eventually warmed to the idea after having many conversations with Rogers. He also began to receive an outpouring of positive feedback from viewers. “Some people have written to me and said ‘I became a black police officer because of you,’” Clemmons remarked.
During his time on the show, however, he was asked to hide another part of his identity. As a gay man, he “stayed in the closet practically for 40 years” in order to protect the reputation of the show.
While at Sewanee, Clemmons visited the Queer and Ally (Q&A) house, a theme house that acts as a safe space and provides reliable resources for the LGBTQ community on campus. There, he shared his experiences with Q&A house residents and members of Spectrum, a club that promotes activism within the LGBTQ community at Sewanee.
Clemmons answered questions from these students and described the sacrifices he made to mask his sexuality. Upon the request of Rogers, Clemmons avoided gay bars and turned down romantic gestures, leading him to live a solitary life.
Owen Zalesak (C’21), a resident of the Q&A house, remarked, “You hear a lot of stories about people being triumphant and coming out, but you don’t hear a lot of stories about people having to hide away in the closet for so long.” Zalesak admired that Clemmons “was able to put who he was aside to help other people.”
Although Clemmons had to publically hide his sexual orientation, he was able to be “out” to the cast and crew of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and described a camaraderie among the other queer members working backstage at the show.
“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was my home,” said Clemmons.
Now that Clemmons is openly gay, he aspires to be a mentor for young queer people, who he describes as his “cosmic children.”
Zalesak remarked, “We, as gay people, don’t really have a family sometimes, so we have to choose our own family. It was nice for him to come by and say ‘I am your family, too.’”
Maria Trejo (C’20), co-director of the Q&A house, also commented on this mentorship. She believes that there should be more student interaction with those who receive honorary degrees, and appreciated that Clemmons went beyond the “pageantry of receiving a degree.”
In a way, Clemmons is continuing Rogers’ legacy. Like Rogers, he interacts with young people, spreads a message of tolerance, and promotes unity.
He said, “The things [Rogers] was talking about 50 years ago, we still need today. The empathy, the caring.”
Clemmons continued, “Our society has to open up and embrace people and love. If you don’t love, you don’t have the right to judge.”