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Editorial: Fred Rogers / The eternal friend of children passes into the ages

Friday, February 28, 2003

Television cameras have a way of staring into the soul, and plenty of those who make their living under the harsh lights are practiced at diverting that gaze. They emote, they preen, they fill the screen with false sincerity and overbearing ego. Not Fred Rogers. Never Mister Rogers.

The cameras could be as harsh and piercing as possible, and what the viewer saw was what the man was -- gentle, kind, humble, sincere. No hi-tech diversions for him, no gimmicks more complicated than a little streetcar and some hand puppets, all interspersed with soothing ritual and soft voice.

Early yesterday, that friendly voice was stilled by cancer, although fortunately it will live on whenever "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" charms a fresh audience through reruns. And, of course, the man himself will live on in fond memory for tens of millions of Americans for whom he was the very voice and presence of childhood.

There is something wonderful to contemplate in the fact that Fred Rogers, from his little Neighborhood of Make-Believe kingdom and owl's tree, achieved the status of American icon in his 74 years.

In this big, brash land where the loudest voices often seem to dominate the airwaves, Fred Rogers conquered in his distinctively quiet way. His sweater and sneakers were the stuff of parody, but those who made fun of them were unwittingly acknowledging his enduring place in the culture.

Honors were not what he sought, but he and his show won a countless number of them, including four Emmys and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was presented to him last July by President Bush at a White House ceremony. Mr. Bush observed correctly at the time: "Fred Rogers has proven that television can soothe the soul and nurture the spirit and teach the very young." It could stand as an epitaph.

Because he was born in Latrobe, and his more than 30-year run on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" unfolded locally at WQED, this area will mark his death with special emotion and attention. But this friend of Western Pennsylvania was more importantly the friend of children everywhere.

That was his triumph and his legacy. He understood children and they understood him. He brought childlike grace to what he did, and for that people everywhere -- young and old -- will justly mourn him.

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