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Friends, relatives mourn death of Mr. Rogers

Sunday, March 02, 2003

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Fred Rogers, the beloved children's television icon who millions came to know as their neighbor Mister Rogers, was quietly laid to rest yesterday after a private funeral in a tiny Presbyterian chapel that his father had once restored.

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About 80 relatives, co-workers and a few close friends attended the service in Unity Chapel at Unity Cemetery outside Latrobe, said John Graziano of Hartman-Graziano Funeral Home in Latrobe, which handled the arrangements.

Mr. Rogers died Thursday of cancer at age 74.

His funeral was planned in great secrecy so that those closest to him could grieve in private. A public memorial service is planned for Pittsburgh in the near future, but plans are incomplete.

Mr. Rogers was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the service reflected his deep faith, said the Rev. John McCall, pastor of Sixth Presbyterian Church in Squirrel Hill, who gave the homily. Mr. Rogers attended the church with his family.

McCall reflected on the connection the Rogers family had with Unity Chapel, which was built in the 18th century. By the 20th century, it had fallen into disuse after it was eclipsed by its daughter-congregation, the Latrobe Presbyterian Church, in which Mr. Rogers was raised. But Mr. Rogers' father became enamored with the little chapel and worked to restore it.

Unity Chapel is a symbol that Mister Rogers neighborhood began long in the past and will extend far into the future, McCall said.

Since his death "we have all been just amazed at how extensive the neighborhood is, based on all the calls and e-mails coming into [Rogers' office] and to WQED from people who have been touched by Fred. We knew it ran extensively and deep, but it was even beyond what we anticipated," McCall said.

"I reflected on how that community that we call the neighborhood has its roots in history -- in people from that family who are buried in that cemetery and how, especially with Fred's grandchildren [at the service], it will extend into the future in ways we can't anticipate."

The Rev. William Barker, a retired Presbyterian minister who was a close friend of Mr. Rogers' and the voice of Mr. Platypus on his show, read several of Mr. Rogers' favorite Bible passages, beginning with Psalms 23 and 121.

"Fred knew many of the psalms by heart," McCall said. "He was an ardent student of the Bible."

Barker closed by reading another of Mr. Rogers' favorite passages, from the end of the eighth chapter of Romans:

"For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Mr. Rogers was interred in a mausoleum belonging to a branch of his mother's family that does not bear the Rogers name, McCall said.

Afterward, mourners gathered at the Latrobe Country Club for lunch. Another of Mr. Rogers' close friends, Archabbot Douglas Nowicki, of St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, gave "a very moving grace," McCall said.

Although it was a sorrowful and draining day, "it has also been a very good day in terms of renewing friendships and people supporting one another in Fred's memory," he said.

Ann Rodgers-Melnick can be reached at arodgersmelnick@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.

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