PAUL SIEFKEN ’92 was terrified of the big shoes he would have to fill. Not the size nine, dusty blue sneakers that Mister Rogers always put on as he sang “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Something even bigger than that—Fred Rogers’ legacy. It was 2012, and Siefken, director of children’s programming at PBS, had just received a job offer from Fred Rogers Productions to head its production for a time and go on to be its next president and CEO.

Working in the name of Fred Rogers—songwriter/puppeteer/ scriptwriter/scholar/beloved TV legend/very nice man—seemed daunting. Not only did Rogers change children’s television by playing pretend to help preschoolers through their very real emotions—he was every bit as kind and genuine off screen. (If niceness were rated on a scale, there might be nice, really nice, and then Mister Rogers nice.) How could anyone possibly live up to that?

At PBS Kids, Siefken had helped with the development of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, an animated show and the first spinoff from the neighborhood. But accepting the offer would mean having Fred Rogers on his business card and producing new shows in the name of an American icon.

He called Lisa Henson, daughter of Jim, of Muppets fame, who had worked with Siefken on Sid the Science Kid. She knew what it was like to work in the shadow of a towering legend. “There will be days people will tell you that you are not doing it right. But you need to look past that and believe in the work you are doing and your own abilities,” he recalls her telling him.

He also listened to the wise words of someone he’d never met but always admired—Rogers always had the right advice.

“Listening to what Fred said, I only had to fill my own shoes,” Siefken says. “So people can like me just the way I am. That takes all the pressure off.”

From the Fred Rogers Productions offices on the South Side, Siefken peers down at a tangle of buildings, churches, home-hugging hillsides, bridges—a quintessentially Pittsburgh cityscape. “It looks a lot like the neighborhood,” he says, the famous one that served as a backdrop to the show’s even more famous opening song. The miniature pieces of the original set that were filmed in the WQED studio a few miles away now are protected under glass in the lobby of the newer offices.

Siefken can walk around the streets of Pittsburgh without getting stopped by devotees of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Peg + Cat, The Odd Squad, and Into the Woods, the shows the production company has launched. After all, he’s not the host.

But when Siefken tells people where he works, Pittsburghers start telling stories about meeting Rogers—in an elevator or maybe on the street—and how he was able to connect with them. “There’s a statue outside of Heinz Field [home of the Pittsburgh Steelers], and it’s not of Franco Harris,” Siefken says, referring to a Steelers legend.

Lately, he’s been hearing even more Rogers stories than usual, with the fiftieth anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a 2018 celebration that began with the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and included the best-selling biography The Good Neighbor. The year crescendoed with dozens of articles and columns and magazine covers with the kind face of everyone’s favorite television neighbor staring out. Now the Mister Rogers lovefest has spilled over into a second year and third year with the feature film It’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring another standup guy, Tom Hanks.

Americans can’t agree on much these days, but everyone seems to look up to Fred Rogers. He stood for goodness and kindness and empathy, qualities that seem to be in short supply.

“It’s amazing,” Siefken says of the sustained celebration.

As president of Fred Rogers Productions, Siefken has overseen several anniversary projects, including a book of Rogers’ song lyrics for a new generation of youth who are rediscovering the TV host. He also helped plan an Emmy- nominated fiftieth-anniversary special for PBS stations, hosted by Pittsburgh-born actor Michael Keaton.

While he’s protective of the brand, more often, Siefken just sits back and lets the warm feelings about Rogers bubble up spontaneously. When a nurse at a Pittsburgh hospital decided to knit red sweaters for the newborn babies for World Kindness Day on November 13, photos of the babies went viral.

Siefken visited the hospital wearing a gray cardigan, one of the only times he has done so while on the job. “I don’t like to invite comparisons,” he says. True to his nature, he was off to the side during the press event, letting the cameras focus on Joanne Rogers, Fred’s widow.

On the tail of the frenzy, the company announced a new spinoff show, which will debut in the winter of 2021. Siefken and Ellen Doherty, the Emmy-award winning chief creative officer he recruited to the company, were batting around ideas for a puppet show based on the characters from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe back in 2016. They kept coming back to Donkey Hodie, the idealistic donkey à la Don Quixote who lives in a windmill. “We fell into giggles every time we saw Donkey Hodie,” Siefken says.

In the new preschool show about persistence, Donkey Hodie—the granddaughter of the original character now known as “Grampy Hodie”—is a little girl donkey who dreams impossible preschool dreams. Rather than slaying a dragon, she works hard to get over her fears, like the monsters she imagines in her room at night. Doherty has been working on the series with David and Adam Rudman of Spiffy Pictures.

Siefken reviews the scripts, but most of the time, he stays out of the way and lets the creative people create. “Ellen is ten times the producer I am,” he says.

Doherty, in turn, says, “I love working with Paul. He is a great colleague, and he gives me a lot of freedom and support and makes it possible to make great stuff.”

Siefken has a soft voice, earnest brown eyes, and short white hair. He’s a thoughtful speaker, often talking in full paragraphs with carefully delineated points. He doesn’t have the zany persona of some others in children’s entertainment.

But if you look around the office of the forty-nine-year-old Siefken, it’s clear he is very much in touch with his inner child.

As a child in New Orleans, he was a Mister Rogers kid who grew into a Sesame Street kid and then a Muppets kid. One day, his father took him to the carport, where they made Bert, Cookie Monster, and Big Bird figures out of wood and then painted them. “He helped me hold onto the show I loved,” says Siefken, the fourth of seven kids. All three of those Muppets figures are in his office, near photos of his wife and two teenage daughters and photos of Rogers. The Muppets occupy more prominent real estate than the twenty-three Emmys the company has won, some of which are on shelves inside a small side room.

Despite his love of educational TV, Siefken didn’t grow up thinking he would one day create it. As a teenager he worked at summer camp and decided he wanted to become a teacher. After graduating from Duke with a major in English, he went on to teach the subject at Chapel Hill High School.

About a year after graduating, he attended a party and met Anna Snowdon ’91, who had just come back from a stint with Teach For America. Siefken was the only person in the room she didn’t know, and, she says, the young man had charisma. In what sounds like a scene from a romantic comedy, they started talking, and three days later, she brought him to meet her mother. They dated for a year, and when she moved to Atlanta to study graphic design at the Portfolio Center, he was so smitten he followed her. They were engaged a year to the day they met. Twenty-five years of marriage later, they are still the presidents of each other’s fan clubs.

Siefken got a teaching job in Atlanta, and although he liked the classroom, he had an itch to write. The twenty-four-year-old became an intern at a public-relations firm while searching for his next act, something that would help him fulfill his creative side. He landed an interview at the Cartoon Network and was handed a cartoon trivia test. Thanks to the Saturday mornings of cartoon-watching, he aced the test and landed a job in public relations.

There he bonded with his colleague Linda Simensky, who was on the programming and development side of the business and worked her way up to become senior vice president of original animation. When he showed her some one-act plays he had written for his brother’s theater company, she was impressed. “I remember thinking the writing was really good and I would totally hire him to work for my department,” Simensky says.

He enjoyed marketing the story lines behind iconic cartoons. But one day, as a new father, he watched his daughter playing, and it hit him—maybe he could combine his love of kids’ TV with his teaching background. He applied to PBS KIDS in Washington, D.C., not knowing that Simensky had accepted a job there to develop new shows and oversee current series. Simensky immediately thought her friend Paul would be a perfect fit for her team. “I knew he could think creatively because he had written those plays. He was smart and interesting and worked well with others. Paul thinks in this three-dimensional way, seeing all the moving parts of a company.”

In his nine years at PBS KIDS, he worked his way up to director of children’s programming and worked with the producers to manage the development of shows such as The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That, Sid the Science Kid, WordGirl, Fetch! With Ruff Ruffman, and Wild Kratts.

For Wild Kratts, he worked with Martin Kratt ’89 and his brother, Chris, on developing the concept of the show. Originally the two brothers came up with an idea of an animated show that featured the animals. But Siefken believed kids would miss the exuberant, animal-loving pair who had hosted Zoboomafoo, featuring a playful little lemur from Duke’s Lemur Center. “You guys, you are the stars of the show,” Siefken said. “You should make the show you always dreamed of.”

Their new concept featured a live-action intro by the Kratt brothers, leading to an animated version of the pair taking kids on animal adventures that humans never see, such as a battle between a giant squid and a sperm whale.

“It’s really great for the creative process when you can go back and forth. Paul is very smart and a creative guy,” Martin Kratt says.

The formula has been a winning one for the show, which has been on the air for nine years. “It’s their show,” Siefken says. “I just helped shape it.”

Siefken also collaborated on the development of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, traveling to Pittsburgh to discuss the show with creator Angela Santomero and the team at Fred Rogers Productions. He would review scripts and talk about ideas for episodes.

The first episode was about Daniel’s excitement over his birthday, which turns to disappointment after he picks up his cake at the store and then drops it. Just as Rogers tapped the real emotions of preschoolers on his show, the Daniel spinoff explored themes such as disappointment.

“If you spend any time with a two- or three-year-old, you quickly realize they spend more time being something other than happy. It’s not all rainbows and parties,” Siefken says. “Preschoolers watching Daniel Tiger say, ‘He gets me. I get sad and mad, and I get angry.’ ”

Bill Isler, who was the first president and CEO of Fred Rogers Productions, was instantly impressed with Siefken and how he took Rogers’ legacy so seriously. He also had a good rapport with the creative team, and in the tight-knit world of kids’ TV, he had lots of contacts. Isler was planning to retire, and he wanted to make sure the company built out of one visionary’s imagination and talent would remain in good hands.

Of course, Siefken ultimately said yes to the job offer and worked as vice president of broadcast and digital media in 2013 before being named CEO in 2017.

Anna Siefken also made a mark in their new city, becoming the inaugural executive director of the Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University. She says she’s an extrovert to his introvert, and they have complemented and supported each other as they moved to different cities and jobs so they could both excel in their respective fields. “If we hadn’t met, our lives would be so different,” Anna says. “We made these giant leaps together.”

Siefken’s biggest leap, of course, was taking over the company that Fred Rogers built, a place where kindness is baked into the DNA. “It’s nice to be at a place that is unapologetically earnest,” he says. “Nobody is trying to be cynical or be cool or put on airs. We can really be ourselves, and that is really freeing.”

Though the community has welcomed Siefken, occasionally he runs into some people who second-guess his decisions for Rogers’ legacy. When Siefken and Peg + Cat creators Jennifer Oxley and Bill Aronson introduced the animated math show for preschoolers, a reporter balked. “You know, I knew Fred Rogers, and I don’t think Fred would make a show like this.”

“Well, Fred didn’t make this show. Jennifer and Billy made this show,” Siefken replied. “It’s their vision.”

The person who knew Fred the best—his widow, Joanne Rogers—believes that Siefken is the right man for the job.

“He’s almost as nice as Fred,” she says. “He’s kind to old ladies. He was brought up well.” During the crush of media attention over the fiftieth anniversary, the ninety-one-year-old Mrs. Rogers has been bombarded with interview requests, and Siefken, protective of her, tells her she doesn’t have to do them all.

Though Siefken never met his company’s namesake, Joanne says, “I think Fred would have liked Paul. I think Fred would be proud.”  

Rouvalis is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Parade, AARP the Magazine,, and other magazines.

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