By Nicholas Cabnariato
Like many kids in the 1980s, I grew up learning how to accept who I was by watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
I remember it all: the trolley; the fish tank; the cardigans; the ritual changing of the shoes. Then there were the people who made the show so memorable: Mr. Rogers; Lady Aberlin; Mr. McFeely and, of course, Officer Clemmons.
Now we have an occasion to talk about the man behind Officer Clemmons — Dr. François S. Clemmons — whose ambition, artistry, pain, and struggle informed the character. I admit I was a little wary of reviewing Officer Clemmons: A Memoir at first — because if I didn’t like it, I’d be professionally obligated to say so. Then I’d have to pan a book by a man who played an important role in a children’s program central to my childhood — and, well, I didn’t want to be that guy.
The good news is that it’s quite a good book, full of resonant moments and artistic insights, with only a few overly explanatory passages. Clemmons’memoir is often disarming in its intimacy and honesty. He vividly recalls his struggle with his homosexuality and his surviving of frequent racism — in some of the book’s most affecting and powerful moments — as well as his noteworthy career ascent in musical performance.
He also lays out why and how he set out to write his memoir in the first place. Of all the writing on Fred Rogers, he notes, none of it was written by a “black, gay, ordained person of the theater” who had spent decades working with arguably the most famous and highly regarded person in children’s programming. “Our relationship,” Clemmons writes, “was sustained, intense, and elbow-to-elbow. For me, you [Rogers] fulfilled the role of mentor, fan, and surrogate father.”
Clemmons was born in the rural South and, as a boy, moved with his family to Youngstown, Ohio. From childhood to adolescence, pain, racism, and homophobia were regular obstacles in Clemmons’ life. Yet the imagination and dedication to art he cultivated early in his life set him on a path forward. He steadily made progress toward his musical goals by leaving, for him, the stifling grimness of Youngstown and opening a new chapter of his life at the highly regarded conservatory at Oberlin College.
Then he met Fred Rogers, while pursuing graduate studies in music at Carnegie Mellon and singing at Third Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. He writes:
“My clearest memory of that occasion was of Fred Rogers’s sincerity and the deep look, bordering on passion, in his gentle blue eyes. He nailed me when he took my hand, turned his head slightly, and paused, as though he was waiting for me to say something. I waited too, because it was he who had come over to talk to me. He took his time and spoke of my lovely voice, my compelling interpretations, and the genuine effect the songs had had on him during the service. I smiled and returned his warmth and sincerity. It was easy to accept his praise. There was something serious yet comforting and disarming about him. His eyes hugged me without touching me.”
Even though Rogers had an undeniably unique way of distilling complex emotions into humanistic balm, his relationship with Clemmons couldn’t help but be a little complicated. Clemmons, for instance, expressed reservations about performing in the role of a police officer, given the levels of historical distrust African Americans have rightly felt for many in law enforcement. Clemmons also recounts a time Rogers, out of concern for the public viability of his show and Clemmons’ career during a time prior to broader LGTBQ acceptance, encouraged Clemmons to consider staying in the closet and maybe even marrying a woman. He writes that Rogers told him:
“I want you to know Franç, that if you’re gay, it doesn’t matter to me at all. Whatever you say and do is fine with me, but if you’re going to be on the show as an important member of The Neighborhood, you can’t be out as gay…I wish it were different, but you can’t have it both ways. Not now anyway. Talent can give you so much in this life, but that sexuality thing can take it all away.”
It’s a complicated situation, but it’s even more distressing and tragic to consider it from Clemmons’ perspective.
But even after he moved to New York City in pursuit of opera, Clemmons still flew back to Pittsburgh to film episodes of the show, owing to a feeling of dedication to Fred Rogers and his mission. He shared Rogers’ seriousness of purpose, his commitment to producing something meaningful for the personal and spiritual enrichment of others. And his trust in Rogers’ mentorship grew slowly over time. “I found it hard to believe,” he writes, “that a white man would make that kind of deep commitment to a black man like myself. It was like a lifetime commitment to me… Mentorship was for life in my humble opinion, and that was Fred.”
To so many, Dr. François S. Clemmons was Officer Clemmons from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood — a place where make-believe was about building self-knowledge through love, patience, and the embrace of every person’s uniquely vulnerable humanity. But the show wasn’t Clemmons’ story — this memoir is. In the book he doesn’t ask you to be his neighbor, but rather just to hear his story: one of a man of profound strength and talent who stood up, sang out, and, after great struggle, was heard.