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First Person: Not just kid stuff

It wasn't until I grew up that Mr. Rogers' appeal became clear

Saturday, March 01, 2003

By Chris Zurawsky

Mr. Rogers helped me move back to Pittsburgh. No, he didn't drive the truck or pack the boxes, but he was there.

   Christopher Zurawsky (zurawsky@pitt.edu) lives in Squirrel Hill. 

In 1998 we were living in Inwood, a hilly neighborhood at Manhattan's northern tip, bounded by rivers on three sides with city steps snaking between narrow streets. Like Pittsburgh, in some ways, but in the middle of it all.

After eight good years in New York, I wasn't ready to leave. No way. But we were being reeled in by the usual Pittsburgh and hometown lures -- a job prospect for my wife, cheap housing, four grandparents in town, a 2-year-old in tow and plans for another baby.

Brooding around Broadway and the bodegas one winter evening, I dropped in at our branch library. Flipping through the 25-cent used book bin, I stumbled across a ragged, crinkled copy of "Moving," by Fred Rogers, one of a series of "first experiences" books for children, published in the 1980s by Mr. Rogers' company, Family Communications Inc.

I bought the book for my son, Nicholas, thinking it would help him handle the stress of our pending departure from his birthplace. Of course, he wasn't the one with the relocation problem.

"Moving" chronicles the events surrounding a change of residence for a mom and dad and a little boy about Nick's age. By the second or third reading, I started to notice the pictures.

Looming in the background of one page was the blue-glass Parklane apartment tower near the Highland Park reservoir. Another shot featured a moving van stenciled with the words "South Hills Movers" -- a local company near my suburban Pittsburgh childhood home. Sycamore trees are everywhere in the book, and the family's new house looks just like one that I'd seen on Wightman Street, in Squirrel Hill, the same neighborhood we were headed for.

In my conflicted frame of mind, I took the book as a friendly omen. Mr. Rogers was calling me home, easing me back to the 'Burgh. I relaxed a little, and a light came on: Mr. Rogers isn't just for kids.

I was 6 when Mr. Rogers went on the air in 1968. It was a time when 6 was still very young.

In those early years of the show, I collected three Mr. Rogers phonograph albums and three autographed photos -- one for entering a King Friday XIII flag design contest, one from an Easter egg hunt at the old WQED studios at Fifth and Bellefield, in Oakland, and one for a pencil drawing that I sent to him. It was a childish rendering, on lined Goldenrod Paper, of him dressed in business suit covered with dollar signs, and his wife sporting a skirt decorated with cent symbols. It didn't mean anything, I think, but I'll leave that to the psychiatrists.

Despite the fan paraphernalia, I can't say that I liked him very much. I knew I was supposed to, but game shows and Saturday cartoons were more fun to watch.

As I grew up, Mr. Rogers seemed to shrink, becoming more uncool, too much like a parent, the butt of late night comedians' jokes. He became otherworldly, too, like another inscrutable Pittsburgh icon, Andy Warhol; both famous, but both sort of strange.

Today, however, daily life has stripped away some of Mr. Rogers' aura. I can see his apartment building from my office, and my kids swim where he used to splash.

I recently discovered where his business office was. I was leaving my doctor's office one morning when just down the hall, Mr. Rogers popped out of a doorway. He wore a red bow tie and a crisp blue blazer. I followed him out of the building, resisting the urge to approach a celebrity, like I learned in New York.

Anyway, there was no need to talk to the great, hovering spirit of my childhood. My sometimes prosaic adult world of work and family had taught me to like Fred just the way he was. A video father figure, perhaps, but in real life, nothing more or less than a man who cared.

Now history might be repeating itself.

The other day, my second little boy, Peter, slid off the couch after watching "Dragon Tales," a PBS cartoon. He ran to the television and turned it off before "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" came on.

"Don't you want to watch Mr. Rogers?" I asked.

"I don't like Mr. Rogers," he said.

I know the feeling, Pete. But you will.

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