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Family Communications keeps Rogers' spirit alive

Friday, February 28, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

The staff of Family Communications Inc., the company founded in 1971 by Fred Rogers, has always been fiercely protective of their boss, and that loyalty extended into his final days.

David Newell, who played Mr. McFeely in “Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,” somberly reaches down to remove the wireless microphone after appearing on NBC’s "Today" show this morning. He did the interview live in front of the WQED offices in Oakland. He said later that he had been fielding calls about the death of Fred Rogers from reporters since 3 a.m. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

FCI public relations director David Newell said the dozen or so FCI staffers began preparing for Rogers' death about a week ago, putting together press kits and preparing material for the company's Web site -- www.fci.org -- that was posted early yesterday.

"We did as much as we could in as little time as we had," Newell said yesterday morning, taking a break in WQED's lobby after a spree of live television interviews, including one with Katie Couric of NBC's "Today" show. "We wanted to get together and have materials ready as best we could. We wanted to prepare in some way for the worst."

It was not an easy task.

"I don't know if it has totally sunk in yet," said Newell, who also played "Neighborhood" regular Mr. McFeely on TV and still puts on the "Speedy Delivery" outfit for public appearances. "If you stopped and thought about what you were putting together ... I had to divorce myself of that and had to go about it as if this is another announcement we're doing about one of Fred's special events, like the opening of the exhibit at the Children's Museum."

Newell said "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" will continue to air on PBS, and FCI will continue its work, carrying on Rogers' legacy.

"It stays," he said. "We are slowly transitioning to other projects that reflect Fred's philosophy and certainly have him in them in spirit."

FCI President Bill Isler called Rogers "a composer, a minister, an author, a puppeteer, a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a neighbor and a friend to every child and to the entire human family. His was an extraordinary example of a life well-lived.

"Those of us who had the pleasure to work with Fred Rogers have the privilege and responsibility of continuing his work," Isler said, "so no child anywhere grows up without being told, 'You are special.' "

Rogers' last book, a parenting guide, was published in the fall. Current FCI projects, many produced in conjunction with partner organizations, include:

Safe Havens -- Materials for police training about the impact of violent situations on young children.

Training workshops -- Several have been developed, including a three-hour program for early educators on how to deal with children who exhibit challenging behaviors.

One Kind Word -- A project for retail store personnel to support parents during difficult shopping experiences with young children.

Explanatoids -- The second stage of a project to encourage math and science literacy among girls.

Early childhood education DVD -- For use in college-level classrooms.

Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582.

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