MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – François Clemmons, an actor perhaps best known for his role as Officer Clemmons on ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’, received the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts at the annual Vermont Arts Awards on Wednesday.
Clemmons held the role for 25 years, and was one of the first African Americans to have a recurring role on a kids’ television series.
The 74 year-old actor was born in Alabama and raised in Ohio, but has spent the last few decades in Vermont. He was director of the Martin Luther King Spiritual Choir at Middlebury College until his retirement in 2013, and was well known for his renditions of the Star Spangled Banner at men’s basketball games. He’s been described by the college as a “professor, choirmaster, resident vocal soloist, advisor, confidant, and community cheerleader.”
Governor Phil Scott presented Clemmons with the award.
“His impact on students, his larger-than-life presence in Middlebury’s community, and his lifelong passion for the arts make this award especially meaningful and well-deserved,” Scott said.
A community choir that included dozens of people close to Clemmons performed at the beginning and end of the ceremony. Clemmons, a Grammy-winning opera singer, joined them after his acceptance remarks.
“I’ve been looking at my myriad of friends here, I’ve had a personal, memorable experience with almost every single person,” Clemmons said. “I just wanted to take a moment to say thank you.”
Of course, he also reflected on the two decades he spent as Officer Clemmons on ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’. When he spoke of his close bond with the late Fred Rogers, who he first met over fifty years ago, the memories were still fresh in his mind.
“He was the first man who told me that he loved me,” Clemmons said. “And he told me that after I said I’d be very happy to be on his program as long as it didn’t interfere with my singing. I was pretty naive, don’t you think?”
Other award winners included Douglas Anderson of Middlebury, James Lockridge and Joan Robinson of Burlington, and Castle Freeman of Newfane.
The Vermont Arts Awards are presented annually by the Vermont Arts Council to recognize outstanding individual and organizational contributions to the arts. This year, they were hosted at the Mahaney Arts Center on the campus of Middlebury College.