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Appreciating his efforts: Teens lament the passing of their childhood hero

Friday, February 28, 2003

By Carmen J. Lee, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Having an icon from your childhood die can be disorienting when you're a teenager.

But as half a dozen Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts students sat informally on desks and chairs in an empty classroom yesterday, the memories of Fred Rogers and the feelings of loss at his death flowed freely.

"I was devastated. I thought, 'Wow, a man I watched for the first 10 years of my life is dead,' " said senior Ben Czajkowski, 17, a literary arts major.

"Mister Rogers was my childhood hero. I'd spend every afternoon with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a bag of chips watching him on television. He was a fatherly presence. My father was hardly ever around. Mister Rogers would teach life lessons. He helped my imagination grow."

Senior dance major Susan Foley recalled having her mother videotape "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" when she was between 8 and 10 years old because her four older brothers thought the show "wasn't cool."

"So I'd watch it in another room and close the door," Foley, 18, said. "Coming home from school and entering that magical world was important for me. ... I don't know if I'd be as open to letting my imagination out now if it wasn't for him taking his train into that world."

For sophomore Gillian Goldberg, Rogers' warm, reassuring presence was the main attraction.

"I liked Mister Rogers so much that when they went to make-believe land -- when they left him -- I lost interest," said the 15-year-old literary arts major. "When we moved to Pittsburgh three years ago, my Mom said, 'We're moving to Mister Rogers' neighborhood.' I was so excited. I was bragging to my friends in Philadelphia, 'Mister Rogers is my neighbor.' "

All the teenagers acknowledged that the day came when cartoons, friends and movies drew their attention away from Rogers and his show.

But as junior literary arts major Mya Green and senior vocal major Brittany Brown began singing the program's theme song, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?," the group recalled episodes such as the guest appearance by Yo-Yo Ma and the field trips to places like a crayon factory.

"Everyone remembers the crayon factory episodes. It's a unifying memory. He was a very unifying person," said Maura Jacob, 18, a senior voice major.

After learning of Rogers' death yesterday, Green, 16, regretted she had stopped watching his program.

"To leave him and now find out that he's dead is upsetting," she said.

Jacob added that she felt like she had lost a relative. "Maybe not someone I knew well, but someone I had an appreciation for."

Czajkowski described Rogers as "the remembrance of our childhood."

"He was what our childhood stood for -- fun, innocence and imagination."

Carmen Lee can be reached at clee@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1884.

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