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Lasting connection his legacy: Children felt Mister Rogers was talking just to them

Friday, February 28, 2003

By Sally Kalson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

All over the country yesterday, grown children were getting calls from their parents with the sad news that Fred Rogers had died. Together they commiserated over the loss of the great good friend they used to watch together in a neighborhood that knew no boundaries and drew no distinctions.

After the ceremony in which he received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles, Fred Rogers, host of "Mister Rogers Neighborhood," took time to greet some of his young fans, Jan. 8, 1998. (Susan Goldman, Associated Press)

That pretty much summed up the legacy of the television pioneer, writer, composer, performer, puppeteer and minister who came into millions of homes every day, assuring children that he liked them just the way they were.

For all the knowledge, talent and work that went into "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," it all came down to that one transaction: Adults and children, talking about what mattered to them, listening to the feelings behind the words.

He made it look so easy, but no one else before or since has spoken with such direct simplicity to the hopes and fears of children.

"We tend to fit children into our notion of what's convenient for us," said Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund. "Fred didn't do that. He started with the child and built his programs around them.

"He respected them, made them feel valued and comforted. And he knew how to reach them where they lived."

Susan Linn, a psychologist and puppeteer at Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston who worked with Rogers on several projects, said, "He remembered on a visceral level what it was like to be a child.

"Fred wasn't afraid of the underside of childhood. He knew that children feel grief, pain and rage along with happiness and silliness. He created programming that helped them understand those feelings and helped adults understand that children have those feelings."

Peggy Charren, founder of Children's Action Television, said Rogers was unique in how he dealt with the medium.

"It wasn't just the soft voice in a world where everything is always getting louder. It was also a voice that cared about you, the individual, watching the screen," Charren said.

"This was the opposite of mass-market programming where the goal is to reach as many people as possible. Children felt Fred was talking just to them. It was a very intimate relationship."

Fred Rogers had a simple message for children: I like you just the way you are. His calm, reassuring presence made it easy for children to look up to him and connect with that message. (Post-Gazette Archives)

She recalled the day years ago when she overheard her young daughter talking to the television set in the next room.

"She was saying, 'Mr. Rogers, Mr. Rogers, I started school today!' His was the only face on TV who'd be interested in that."

Parents felt the connection, too, Charren said.

"Mister Rogers taught a lot of us how to talk to our children. When it's 5 or 6 o'clock and you're hassled over making dinner and everything that needs to be done, there's something wonderful about a quiet voice."

Child development expert and author T. Berry Brazelton said Rogers' influence was greatest on children from ages 3 to 6.

"That's when they're just beginning to realize they have an impact on their environment. He got inside their brains and helped them understand themselves as caring human beings, and that if they had feelings, maybe other people did, too.

"He also balanced the powerful impression TV has on a child with some positive things rather than just aggression, sexuality and violence that kids are exposed to."

Pat Mitchell, president of PBS, echoed that thought.

"When Fred Rogers was inducted into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame exactly four years ago on this day [Feb. 27]," she recalled, "he said to the television professionals gathered, 'We can either choose to use the powerful tool of television to demean human life, or we can use it to enrich it.' "

Rogers also understood that children were not empty vessels, said Hedda Sharapan, an associate producer at Family Communications Inc. who got a master's degree in child development at Rogers' suggestion.

"The important question was not so much what you can give children through the television set. The important question was what are they bringing to the set?

"Fred used to say, 'What are their inner dramas that we can address?' That was his gift, being able to take this vast body of knowledge of child development and reach into it and suck out the most important, essential human messages.

"Fred had the courage to be childlike. He always asked questions a typical child might ask when he was going through a factory or visiting with people like [cellist] Yo-Yo Ma. He also understood at the same time how important it was to remain the adult. That's an interesting balance. He was not childish, but he was childlike and he was Mister Rogers. That accentuated the fact he was the adult."

Rogers' guileless, gentle manner was easy to lampoon. Comedian Eddie Murphy did a ghetto spoof of the show on "Saturday Night Live," and Bob Garfield, now co-host of "On the Media" on National Public Radio, wrote a humor piece making note of the "wimp factor" for "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: Children, Television and Fred Rogers," published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.

"Saint that he was, Fred was also very difficult to watch for many adults, myself at the top of the list," Garfield said yesterday.

"Thirty years of soft-spokenness, purple cardigans and olive green trousers -- you questioned his masculinity and his spine.

"But as I came to discover by watching my own children watch him, this transcendent civility was just as advertised. Not only did it counterbalance the other vile media influences, it countered our own failings as parents.

"He was a totally dependable, comforting adult. I could never provide for my own children the safe harbor that Fred Rogers did, and I can only imagine the value he had in homes with real pathologies."

Puppets were a critical part of the mission, said puppeteer Linn.

"They were the voice of children on that show. They got to behave like children who sometimes stole things and worried and weren't always perfect. The adults got to behave like adults creating a safe environment."

Rogers' song-writing ability was another major reason he had such a direct connection with children.

"His songs were simple, but they were great," said local composer David Stock. That ability to combine accessible tunes with lyrics that addressed sometimes difficult subjects helped Rogers reach his audience without being scary or confusing.

Fred Rogers plays piano during a May 2001 interview at the WQED studio by John Don Van of ABC's Nightline news magazine. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

His music was even deemed worthy of orchestral arrangement. Some of the tunes, such as "You Are Special," "Look and Listen" and "It's Such a Good Feeling" were made into an orchestral work, "The Neighborhood Symphony," arranged by Richard Kaufman and Lee Holdridge. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra premiered it Jan. 19 in a children's concert. Rogers was to attend but wound up canceling, probably due to his illness.

Rogers' artistry was underestimated, said Roderick Townley, a poet and author of children's books.

"People thought he just came in and took off his shoes and talked about things in a corny way. But the shoes, the sweater, the trolley were all transitional devices that allowed children to move from one part of the show to the next.

"He was almost creating a neural pathway, as opposed to other shows with quick cuts, confusion, no transitions. Fred didn't care for that.

"His neighborhood was not a jungle. It was very orderly, and it brought children in as collaborators. He helped them see the world as a cosmos rather than chaos."

And they've never forgotten him for it.

Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York, recalled that Rogers came to see her in her office a couple of times when they were working on a series for parents.

"The young adults acted like I brought in Elvis or one of The Beatles," she said. "These are the kids who watched him growing up, and they still had the same respect for him that they did when they were little. That's says it all."

Just how much Fred Rogers mattered to people was evident by noon yesterday, when the World Wide Web was already full of appreciative pieces by writers, producers, viewers, parents and even a neighbor (in the literal sense) who'd trick-or-treated at his house as a child.

It's unlikely that any other figure in children's television will bring about the same outpouring upon passing from this life. The one consolation is that future generations will be able to know him in the way their predecessors did -- through the magic of television.

Post-Gazette staff writers Carrie Abels, Andrew Druckenbrod and Rob Owen contributed to this story.

Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.

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