November 1987: Rogers sits down with Soviet citizen; Bankhead bust returned


I'm going to forgo my usual format for a few paragraphs and start off this week with a story about Fred Rogers.

More than 15 years after his death, Rogers is experiencing a surge in popularity. "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," which was released earlier this  month, stars Tom Hanks as Rogers. Last year, there was a highly acclaimed documentary, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" 

The show's 50th anniversary in 2018 was always going to generate some publicity, but the daily news cycle probably had more to do with people reaching back to connect to someone who represents love and decency. 

John McNamara, one of the victims of the Capital Gazette newsroom shooting, saw the Rogers documentary shortly before his death and posted on Facebook, "In these troubled times, when the forces of darkness seem to have gained the upper hand, it's nice to be reminded that there is still justice and kindness in the world."

Four months later, 11 people were killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue located in the neighborhood where Rogers lived. His widow, Joanne, spoke at the first Shabbat services held in Pittsburgh after the shooting.

The world wasn't simpler in Rogers' time, however. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated the year that Mister Rogers' Neighborhood debuted, and the latter inspired Rogers to film a special episode that he hoped would be a comfort to children.

The article that caught my attention for today's column was titled "Mister Rogers tapes children's TV show with Soviet counterpart." This was in November 1987, so the Soviet Union and the Cold War were things of the present, not of history books.

Rogers, then 59, had visited Moscow in September 1987 to appear on Good Night, Little Ones, the longest-running children's program in the Soviet Union. Rogers was the show's first guest.

Host Tatiana Vedeneeva then came to the United States to appear on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Vedeneeva gave Rogers a set of wooden Matrouska dolls and a VHS explaining how they were made. Rogers offered her his usual gift, a song.

Here in Walker County, the big news in late November 1987 was that a bust of Sen. John H. Bankhead had been returned to the school named in his honor.

The burning of Bankhead School in September 1976 was covered in one of my earliest columns generated by the archives. It had been the first accredited high school in Walker County but was only serving grades four through seven at the time that it burned.

The fire grew so quickly that there was no time to save the bust of Bankhead. It was pulled from the ashes by two high school students the following day.

According to the 1987 article, the bust was placed in a storage room at the Walker County Board of Education building until Superintendent of Education John Brown asked that John Oliver, president of First National Bank of Jasper, move it somewhere more secure.

Oliver took the bust to the basement of First National's Cordova branch. 

There it sat gathering dust again until Bankhead Middle School principal Steve Adkins was asked by his teachers to track it down.

By this time, the bust looked like it had gone through a fire and also sported a Magic Marker goatee.

It was restored at a cost of roughly $100 and an additional $90 was spent on a marble stand and brass plaque that read, "John Hollis Bankhead, patriot, Congressman and defender of public education."

In November 1987, the bust was moved to the atrium of Bankhead Middle School, which had been built in 1980. It remained on display outside the office for many years before it was moved one final time to the Bankhead House and Heritage Center in Jasper, where it can be viewed today.