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All children would agree: Fred Rogers had soul

Friday, February 28, 2003

It was February 1981 when I got my first inkling that there was a guy named Fred Rogers wandering around the universe. I was visiting a very nice girl at her family's home in Sewickley. Alas, her very nice family was there, too. After a fine dinner and wholesome conversation, the grown-ups suggested that we retire en masse to the living room to watch "Saturday Night Live."

 
 
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Fred Rogers

1928-2003

   
 

There we sat: me, the girl, her mom, her stepfather, her brother and little sister in an elegant family room in Sewickley watching television. College had already taught me to be philosophical about these things.

I was puzzled when a previously unknown second-tier SNL cast member named Eddie Murphy burst onto the screen singing a sweet, child-like jingle and smiling obsequiously while shuffling around the set of a faux tenement apartment. But I soon grasped that something extraordinary was happening: The television audience's laughter was off the charts; my hosts were doubled over with very un-Sewickley-like guffawing.

The sketch was called "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood." I was prepared to take it literally as documentary -- his apartment looked like places I'd visited in Philly. When Murphy's character put on a cardigan sweater and a pair of sneakers, there was heavy applause in the living room as my friend and her siblings laughed with glee.

I chuckled occasionally, but was otherwise completely lost. Who was this Mister Robinson? I didn't get it.

"You've never heard of Mr. Rogers?" my friend asked when the sketch was over and her family had begun wiping the tears from their eyes. She was incredulous because, even then, I had cultivated a reputation for being a hipster of sorts. Suddenly, the yawning cultural gap between us got even wider. Because her family was listening, I had to move fast to maintain any semblance of street cred.

"Of course I've heard of him," I said, bluffing. "Who hasn't heard of Roger Robinson? I just didn't think Roger's skit was all that funny." Whatever chance we had for a romance died at that moment. Decades later, the memory of that night still puts my teeth on edge.

Assuming the show was syndicated in Philly when I was a kid, I don't know why "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" didn't catch on in my neighborhood. Of course, I knew about public television shows like "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company" and scrupulously avoided them, but I didn't learn who Fred Rogers was until college.

When I finally caught a couple of episodes, what came across immediately was Fred Rogers' calm and humane spirit. Eddie Murphy's long-running bit satirized and celebrated it to brilliant effect. I only wish I had discovered "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" when it would've done some good.

"I grew up wanting to be Mr. Rogers," said my friend Chris Welles, an associate manager at a CVS pharmacy Downtown, when I bumped into him yesterday morning. Welles grew up in Wilkinsburg where, I was surprised to learn, Mr. Rogers was an integral part of the black experience in the '70s.

"Fred Rogers had a universal appeal and was respected in every neighborhood because he loved children -- all children," Welles said, adding that it was precisely Mr. Rogers' indiscriminate love of humanity that prompted his decades-long admiration of the Pittsburgh icon. "There's never been anyone like him," he said.

So while I was busy absorbing the daily animated violence of "Wee Willy Webber's Colorful Cartoon Club" in West Philly, Mr. Rogers was educating the more attentive members of my generation about the efficacy of loving one's neighbor.

Decades later, my three boys got what lessons they were supposed to get from Fred Rogers before graduating to the cyber-terrorism of Sony PlayStation. Though they could have benefitted from a few more lessons about peace, love and understanding, I was secretly relieved that their flirtation with PBS was brief. I didn't want them falling into the clutches of "Barney and Friends" or "Teletubbies." Those shows are bastions of wimpy ideas.

Fortunately for our generation, Mr. Rogers was all about soul.


Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.

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