PITTSBURGH - In the summer of 1967, David Newell was in Europe when he received a telegram from a friend telling him that Fred Rogers was taking his Pittsburgh-based children's show to a national audience. That friend had recommended Newell to Rogers for a position with the program.
Newell, whose background was in theater and English literature, later met with Rogers and was hired as a production coordinator for the program. In addition to his primary responsibilities, Newell learned from Rogers there would be one other small requirement for the position. He was needed to play a delivery man who would quickly drop off packages to Mister Rogers' television home.
"He said here's what we do, but I also want you to play this delivery man who will come in, and I'll write the script for you," Newell remembers.
Morning Journal/Ryan Gillis
Mr. McFeely (actor David Newell) signed autographs and posed for pictures with fans who came to see the Neighborhood of Make-Believe set.
The character was to be called Mr. McCurdy, in honor of a man at the Sears Roebuck Foundation, which had agreed to help finance the fledgling program. But just hours before the show was set to begin, the foundation, afraid that naming the character after one of its own people may seem too self-serving, asked that the name be changed.
The request created a problem for Rogers, who could not have a nameless character on the show, but after giving the matter some thought, Rogers made the decision to change the name, and the character became Mr. McFeely.
Fred Brooks McFeely was Fred Rogers maternal grandfather and had once told his grandson, "Freddy, I like you just the way you are!" While the character of Mr. McFeely was not directly modeled after Rogers' grandfather, Newell admitted there was little doubt Fred Brooks McFeely had been a strong influence on Fred Roger's life.
"It was really his grandfather who encouraged Fred to go into television and to go into something that he wanted to do," Newell said.
In the program's early years, Mr. McFeely would quickly "speed" away after making his deliveries, but as time went on and the character grew in popularity, Newell found Mr. McFeely's visits became longer and longer. "He became bigger and bigger and became a major character on the program," Newell recalled.
Mr. McFeely was invited to spend a few minutes at Mister Rogers' home and even asked to narrate some of the films he had delivered, such as those showing "how people make things," which remain popular segments with both children and adults.
In fact, Newell said he would like to see a new series of half-hour programs produced showing how things are made. Hosted by Mr. McFeely, the show could feature the processes that go into creating things like musical instruments and different foods.
Mr. McFeely - and his family - also became important instruments for introducing children to concepts which might be difficult for some to understand. In one example, Mr. and Mrs. McFeely's granddaughter with spina bifida came to visit Mister Rogers to help children viewing the program better understand children with disabilities.
By inviting the speedy Mr. McFeely to slow down and visit a while, Mister Rogers was also able to make a point about slowing down and doing a job right, Newell said. "We used the character as a teaching device," he said.
Not only were Mr. McFeely and Mister Rogers close friends on screen, Newell found he had a friend in Fred Rogers when the cameras stopped rolling, as well. Newell said there really was little difference between Rogers' television personality and his demeanor in real life, but for small differences only apparent to those who knew him.
"That's Fred Rogers; that's what he was like," Newell said. "A very caring person, a true friend."
Newell recalled a party Rogers held for him after Newell received his college degree. In the early days of the program, Newell would spend his days working on the WQED-TV Pittsburgh set of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," then rush away to attend night classes at the University of Pittsburgh, next door.
As he reached graduation, Rogers asked Newell for a favor. Rogers said he would be having a houseguest with a birthday, and he asked if Newell could surprise the guest by delivering a gift to the home as Mr. McFeely.
Newell agreed, but when he arrived at Rogers' home, the surprise was on him. The party was being held in his honor to celebrate his graduation. "He was one who really cared about the people who worked for him. You didn't work for Fred, you worked with him," he said.
In the years since his friend's death in 2002, Newell has continued to don the "Speedy Delivery" uniform, in an effort to continue the "Mister Rogers" legacy for future generations, and in 2007 he became the subject of filmmaker Paul Germain's documentary, Speedy Delivery, which looks back at the character's origin and follows Newell in his work at Family Communications Inc., the company created by Rogers to produce the program.
The film has won several awards, including "Best Feature Film" at the Children's Film Festival Seattle and the "IndieFlix Audience Award" at the Hollywood Feel Good Film Festival. More information about the documentary is available online at www.speedydeliverymovie.com.
Newell is not working alone to continue Fred Rogers' mission of using media outlets to promote the healthy development of children. The Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., has become the archive for Rogers' papers, and the center features displays of show props - including the Neighborhood of Make-Believe puppets and the Neighborhood Trolley - the history of the show and a timeline.
Videos of the series are also being digitized by the center, Newell said.