“Life Is For Service”: The Words That Inspired Mister Rogers

The plaque that inspired Fred Rogers, displayed on a walkway near Strong Quad

This marble tablet is well known on the Rollins campus for its association with one of our most famous graduates, Fred Rogers ’51 ’74H (better known to most as television’s “Mister Rogers”). After seeing these words as a student, he carried a copy of them in his wallet for many years, until he received a framed version for his desk. We know that this inscription was meaningful to him, but how did it come to be here?

As sometimes happens, finding the answer required quite a bit of research, since there were no clues in our online finding aids (descriptive guides to archival collections). Finally, a review of a folder labeled “New Buildings” in President Hamilton Holt’s correspondence files provided an answer:  several letters and memos referring to the installation of two marble tablets, engraved with mottoes, given to the College by Robert J. Caldwell and installed in 1936.

The companion plaque, currently displayed at Gale Hall

Mr. Caldwell (1875-1951), known to Hamilton Holt as “R.J.,” was a New York banker and industrialist who founded the R.J. Caldwell Company and several other manufacturing concerns. He was, like President Holt, a supporter of the League of Nations and an advocate for world peace. The citation for his honorary degree, awarded at Holt’s inauguration in 1927, recognizes his “untiring efforts to arrive at just solutions of the problems that confront both capital and labor,” and his “humanitarian efforts to relieve human distress and to promote international understanding and good will.” It also describes him as “one of that constantly increasing group of American business men who have the vision to see that success is more than the accumulation of dollars and service the only sure road to happiness.”

Mr. Caldwell at Rollins in 1927 (seventh from the left). Author Rex Beach, who also received an honorary degree that year, is on the far left, and President Holt is second from the right.

Though we found no record of why Mr. Caldwell chose these mottoes, his correspondence with the College mentions the Scarborough School, then a private K-12 institution in Briarcliff Manor, NY. The school was founded in 1913 by Frank and Narcissa Vanderlip, both advocates of Montessori education. The mottoes “Manners Maketh Man” and “Life Is For Service” were displayed on engraved marble tablets over the entrances to the Scarborough School’s Beechwood Theater, which opened in 1917. The building was rededicated as The Julie Harris Theater in 1984, but the plaques remain in place and can still be seen today.

Mr. and Mrs. Vanderlip, pictured in the July 1919 issue of The American Review of Reviews (via Google Books, http://bit.ly/27QRjuX ). Mr. Vanderlip was a banker and a former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury; Narcissa Vanderlip was a well-known suffragist who served as President of the New York Infirmary of Women and Children for many years.  

Marble plaque at what is now The Clear View School’s Julie Harris Theater in Briarcliff Manor, NY (Photo:  Courtesy of Priscilla A. White, The Clear View School)

We don’t know how the Scarborough School came to adopt these mottoes, but we have a clue about the origins of the plaques. In an online forum, an alumnus of the Class of 1948 reported that they had been given for the school’s new theater by one of Mrs. Vanderlip’s close friends:  Eleanor Roosevelt. Two of Mrs. Roosevelt’s grandchildren attended the school, and she herself lectured at the Beechwood Theater.

When Eleanor Roosevelt first came to Rollins in March 1936, our plaques had not yet been installed. She returned to the campus in 1956 to speak at the Annie Russell Theatre, but we have no record of her having seen them during her visit. She most likely could not have guessed the impact of these words on a young man who had graduated five years earlier.

The book The World According to Mr. Rogers includes this quote: “If only you could sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of.” Mrs. Roosevelt and Mr. Caldwell were both gone by 1968, when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was first broadcast on PBS. We can only imagine how pleased they would have been to know that the words “Life Is For Service” were taken to heart by a college student they never knew, who would go on to exemplify them throughout his life and for millions of television viewers.

Fred Rogers’ senior yearbook photo, from the 1951 Tomokan

~ by D. Moore, Archival Specialist

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