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Fred Rogers dies at 74

Through talk, song and make-believe, he gave generations of children the welcome message: 'I like you just the way you are'

Friday, February 28, 2003

By Rob Owen and Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

The first time Marc Brown, creator of the animated PBS series "Arthur," met Fred Rogers, they talked about loss. "He never used the word death, he always used the words 'going to heaven.' Boy, if anyone deserves to be in heaven, it's Fred Rogers," Brown said yesterday.

Fred Rogers' low-key, simple message of acceptance over 30 years of broadcasting earned the trust of youngsters and adults alike.

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Send your own condolences and read the public's remembrances of "Mister Rogers."

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Past stories

Fred Rogers' 'retirement' busy with books, songs, appearances.

Fred Rogers gets Presidential Medal of Freedom.

No. 1 in our neighborhood: Fred Rogers.

There goes the Neighborhood: Mister Rogers will make last episodes of show in December.

When Mister Rogers retired, famous and ordinary told how they would miss his show.


"Gosh, when you die, the one thing you want is to feel that your life is worth something. Think of the millions of families and children he's touched and made their lives better and easier in some way," said Brown

Like one of his signature zippered cardigans, Mr. Rogers symbolized warmth, comfort and reassurance for TV viewers in Pittsburgh and beyond. And yesterday, the world felt just a little colder, emptier and less gentle after Mr. Rogers' distinctive voice was silenced by a brief, lethal bout with cancer.

Mr. Rogers was diagnosed with stomach cancer in December, underwent surgery Jan. 6 and ultimately chose to die at his Squirrel Hill home. At his side was his wife of 50 years, Joanne.

The 74-year-old icon, mimicked with affection and showered with awards, had a polished star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and instant international name recognition, but he never failed to greet a stranger with the same warmth he would offer a Barbara Bush or a Bill Cosby.

"In real life, as in the 'Neighborhood,' Mister Rogers was an extraordinary man," Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist and sometime guest on "Neighborhood" said yesterday in a faxed statement. "Through music and stories, his caring and wisdom transcended every barrier; his advocacy for children was truly an advocacy for the human race. My family and I are incredibly grateful to have enjoyed his friendship and we will miss him."

Mr. Rogers worked in broadcasting for more than 50 years, but he's best known for the 33 years he spent writing and starring in PBS's "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

Children always came first

In a world where children's TV has increasingly become a noisy, commercial, product-driven place, Mr. Rogers represented a haven of old-fashioned values and a philosophy that put children first. Always.

"It's been a privilege to pass on the good stuff that was given to me, and television has really been a fine vehicle for that," Mr. Rogers said before recording his last episode of the "Neighborhood" in the fall of 2000. He pointed to a framed reminder on his office wall: "Life Is for Service."

"Those of us in broadcasting have a special calling to give whatever we feel is the most nourishing that we can for our audience," Mr. Rogers said. "We are servants of those who watch and listen."

On television he was ever tolerant and always understanding, and that carried over to his humble real-life demeanor. His persona was no act. There are no stories of him turning into a raging tyrant behind the scenes. By all accounts, he was the same soft-spoken person on the air and off.

Yesterday, Mr. Rogers' close colleagues, David Newell and Hedda Sharapan, stepped into the chilly morning air outside WQED's headquarters to do what Mr. Rogers himself had done so well: Look into the TV camera and celebrate the best in life. They talked about Mr. Rogers' legacy, his friendship, sly sense of humor and ever-more-timely message about liking children "just the way you are."

Off camera, Sharapan said, "One of the most beautiful things about Fred's work is his courage to be himself on camera."

Inside the Oakland offices of Family Communications Inc. the phones were jammed with calls of shock and condolence and respectful requests from reporters for interviews. Friends and strangers alike turned the radio and TV airwaves into a communal forum for mourning and remembrance.

WQED-FM, located in the same building where the "Neighborhood" castle set always delighted visitors, concluded a news story about his death with Mr. Rogers singing, "It's You I Like."

Mayor Tom Murphy called it a "sad day for all of us, as our country lost a national treasure and Pittsburgh lost a close friend and neighbor. Pittsburgh was Mister Rogers' neighborhood, making our sense of loss today all the more profound. He will be missed but certainly not forgotten."

Last night, WQED pre-empted its lineup for four hours of remembrance devoted to Mr. Rogers. PBS stations nationwide had the option to carry part or all of the tribute.

Actor Michael Keaton, a Pittsburgh native who once worked on the "Neighborhood," said Mr. Rogers was "one of the truly great guys, a really, really good person. And the thing about Fred ... was how consistently decent he was. He was a nice man and if it were only that, at the end of the day, that would be enough. But he was a lot more than that."

Brown, creator of the books and TV series "Arthur," which once featured an animated Mr. Rogers, acknowledged in a call from Boston yesterday, "I think I'm just feeling very helpless, like a lot of people" and he thought talking might help. It sounded like something Mr. Rogers would say as he ushered a visitor into his surprisingly small but cozy office and invited them to take the chair to his left as he sank into the couch.

Knack for respecting children

Nancy Curry, a former professor and director of child development at the University of Pittsburgh, met Mr. Rogers in the early 1960s at the Arsenal Family and Children's Center in Lawrenceville. He came to the center during his years in Pittsburgh Theological Seminary to practice face-to-face interaction with children.

Curry recalled the way young people reacted to Mr. Rogers' puppets, talking to the puppets directly, ignoring the man who was controlling them.

"He had a way of encouraging them while still respecting them," she said. "One little girl had a pet bird that had died and she had to tell every one of Fred's puppets. Each one had its own individuality in her eyes. He was always very respectful with children and didn't make fun of children. Some performers have their tongue in cheek. He did not have that."

She said children embraced him because he put up no facade.

"They responded to him so quickly," Curry said. "He tried out his songs with us and had the children dancing and participating with him. His creativity was breathtaking."

Fred McFeely Rogers was born on March 20, 1928, in Latrobe. He spent a year at Dartmouth College before transferring to Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., where he graduated with a degree in music in 1951. Instead of going on to seminary as he had planned, he landed a series of positions in the brand-new medium of television, with "NBC Opera Theater," "The Voice of Firestone," "Lucky Strike Hit Parade" and "The Kate Smith Hour." He did any number of jobs, from fetching coffee to serving as a floor manager and orchestrating action behind the cameras.

It was the fledgling WQED and "The Children's Corner," which debuted in April 1954 with host Josie Carey, that brought him to Pittsburgh. He produced the program, performed the music and gave life to the puppets -- including Daniel S. Tiger and King Friday XIII.

Carey said she and Mr. Rogers asked to work together after realizing they shared a mutual interest in children's television.

"He was probably the most creative person I ever worked with," Carey said yesterday. And just as Mr. Rogers taught children to accept feelings, their feelings of affection for him could not be extinguished, even as they grew.

"You didn't stay a fan for all your childhood. Once you passed the years when you really loved him, you pretended you didn't watch. All of sudden you were too sophisticated -- too grown up for Mr. Rogers. But there was a point in every child's life where he was the nicest person on television," said Carey, who had learned Mr. Rogers was near death in a phone call Wednesday.

After moving to Canada to create a 15-minute children's show called "Misterogers," he returned to WQED to develop a new half-hour format of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." PBS began distributing it nationally Feb. 19, 1968.

In that landmark inaugural episode, Mr. Rogers walked through the front door of his television house, doffed his raincoat and suit jacket and donned a sweater -- button down, not zippered like the red one he would donate to the Smithsonian Institution.

The routine established that day was designed to give children a sense of security. Rituals help them know what to expect and to settle in for Mr. Rogers' "television visit," as he called it. Songs composed by Mr. Rogers also allowed him to connect with children and were a clever way to deliver messages about, for instance, "What do you do with the mad that you feel when you feel so mad you could bite?"

Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, said Mr. Rogers is among those who shaped the medium, and educational children's television in particular.

"Along with a very small group of people -- Steve Allen from late night, Irna Phillips with soap operas, Ernie Kovacs with video art -- Fred Rogers really understood what the medium of television was all about, what it could do, how it was this intimate forum that talked to you in the privacy of your own living room, and he grasped that very early on," Thompson said.

"There's something about [Mr. Rogers'] program, when you're in your little pajamas with feet attached to them and you're home in the comfort of your living room on the couch, that was so extraordinarily comforting and quiet. It went down like a nice hot bowl of soup."

Mr. Rogers, who was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1963, saw his PBS program as a form of ministry to children.

In 2000, the Religion Communicators Council gave him the Lifetime Wilbur Award for supporting religious values in the public media. The Rev. Dennis C. Benson accepted the honor on his behalf and recalled how a friend and Mr. Rogers were walking together in a Pittsburgh neighborhood when the TV host spotted an infant's pacifier on the sidewalk.

"He said, 'Someone lost something very important.' He walked up to a nearby house and knocked on the door. When a woman answered the door, Fred asked, 'Did someone here lose this?' She said, 'Why, yes, thank you.' "

It was classic Mr. Rogers.

Pittsburgh Theological Seminary yesterday mourned its most well-known graduate and recalled what he said during the 1994 commencement:

"You know, it's not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It's the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that ultimately there is someone who loves our very being."

Production of the "Neighborhood" ceased in December 2000, and the last week of original episodes aired in August 2001. Since then, PBS has had "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" on a continuous loop of about 260 shows culled from more than 1,000 taped during Rogers' 33 years in national production.

Nancy Polinsky, who co-hosts WQED's cooking marathons, recalled standing in New York's Times Square in December 2000 when an image of Fred Rogers flickered onto a Jumbotron. The news ticker announced that he had taped his last episode of the PBS series.

Polinsky, husband David Johnson of WPXI-TV and their two sons were suddenly surrounded by a babble of languages from around the world. The only recognizable phrase was "Mister Rogers," she recalled yesterday.

"And in this rather spontaneous display, somebody started singing 'It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood' and everybody within earshot of that joined in. ... I turned to my children and said, 'Look at the international impact this man has had.' "

In that same spirit, a kindergarten teacher in the Bronx told a friend in Pittsburgh that she led her charges yesterday in a rousing round of "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"

After production of the program ceased, Mr. Rogers devoted his time to working on the "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" Web site, writing books and fulfilling long-booked speaking engagements. Even then Mr. Rogers often spent his mornings at his "writing office" away from the hustle and bustle of his Family Communications office. The older he got, the more he cherished silence, he said in spring 2001.

"You're able to be much more mindful of what is deep and simple and how essential that is, in order to keep on growing," he said. "And whatever our expression of care might be, whether it be television or the Internet or all of these books that the people want us to write -- whatever that expression is -- it must come out of the depth of understanding that we continue to nourish.

"Otherwise, you know it could get superficial. That's not going to happen with us."

Calming voice in stormy lives

Grateful viewers came from happy, secure households and ones where Mr. Rogers was a port in the storm. Talking about the volume of mail that poured into the Oakland office, he said, "It's the quality of the letters, it's the quality of the reaching out that is even more important than the quantity. The things that people want to share with you are just stunning. ... They knew we were a safe place to go."

Mr. Rogers' message was so simple and yet so life-affirming -- "to say that you can be lovable just the way you are. The overriding theme that people long to hear is that they're acceptable as they are. And as they grow, they will be capable of loving themselves."

Like other residents of Mr. Rogers' real-life neighborhood, the executive director of the Pittsburgh Children's Museum got choked up yesterday while trying to explain how important Mr. Rogers was to children -- and the world at large.

"He was our moral compass, our guiding force," Jane Werner said. "He teaches everyone how to talk to children, how to listen to children, how to love one another. ... He teaches kindness and to be kind to one another is one of the most amazing things, one of the most important lessons you can teach children."

The museum has the original puppets on display and will feature the 2,500-square-foot "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" exhibit in its new expanded space when it opens in September. Werner last saw Mr. Rogers in the fall, when she stopped into his office at WQED to say hello and fondly recalled spending time with him at the Family Communications picnic at Idlewild Park, where the "Neighborhood" has been re-created as a children's attraction.

As the Children's Museum staff considered ways to honor Mr. Rogers' legacy yesterday, they decided on a plan that would have pleased the TV icon: They will open their doors to the public, for free, on what would have been Mr. Rogers' birthday on March 20. And they will try to maintain a sense of normalcy for their young visitors.

Over the years, Mr. Rogers' program hosted many celebrity guests, including Yo-Yo Ma, LeVar Burton, David Copperfield, Tony Bennett, Lynn Swann, Wynton Marsalis, Stomp, Margaret Hamilton, Julia Child and locals like Bill Strickland of the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild.

"Fred Rogers is as sweet a man as they come," Dennis Miller, comedian and Pittsburgh native, once said. "In the world gone mad with what kids get to see nowadays, those calmative rhythms.... He's one of the best things to come out of Pittsburgh. That and Bobby Clemente's arm."

Yet for all the celebrities, Mr. Rogers also remembered visits from unknowns. A disabled child who could hardly speak visited the "Neighborhood" in fall 2000 and sang with Mr. Rogers.

"I was walking this far off the ground," Mr. Rogers said, holding his hand a foot above the floor. "You know, there are special times and there are extra special times. I feel that the real drama of life is never center stage, it's always in the wings. It's never with the spotlight on, it's usually something that you don't expect at all."

He never sought the spotlight, but the list of awards presented to Mr. Rogers ran more than 25 single-spaced, typed pages and included the Presidential Medal of Freedom, two Peabody Awards, four Emmys and a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. He was named one of the "50 greatest TV stars of all time" by TV Guide in 1996, got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1998 and was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1999.

Mr. Rogers, a man of great modesty, once acknowledged his contribution to the next generation of children's programs, such as "Arthur" and "Reading Rainbow," by repeating the words of LeVar Burton: "Fred, you launched the ship that carried us all."

And Mister Rogers steered it with a steady hand and a generous heart.

He is survived by his wife, Joanne Rogers; their two sons, John Rogers of Winter Park, Fla., and James Rogers of Edgewood; and two grandsons. He also has a sister, Elaine Crozier of Latrobe.

There will be a small, private memorial for family members with a public memorial at a later date. The family suggests memorial contributions to the "Fred Rogers Fund" of Family Communications Inc., 4802 Fifth Ave., Pittsburgh 15213. Cards for the family may also be directed there.

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. You can reach Barbara Vancheri at 412-263-1632 or bvancheri@post-gazette.com.

Staff writers Andrew Druckenbrod and Dennis Roddy contributed to this report.

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