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Memorable guest: It's you, Fred, that I like

Sunday, May 04, 2003

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Fred Rogers spent decades in front of TV cameras, slipping off sweaters, lacing up sneakers, listening to the trill of the trolley and welcoming players from the world stage, but two of his most memorable moments were shared with a Midwesterner whose face, laugh and wheelchair are better known than his name. It's Jeff Erlanger.

Under a video projection of an appearance he made on Mr Rogers in 1980, Jeff Erlanger is introduced during the memorial service. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

As a 10-year-old boy, Erlanger visited "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and articulately chatted about why he used an electric wheelchair. The two sang "It's You I Like," and the TV host changed the lyrics slightly to say it wasn't Jeff's "fancy chair" he liked -- but the boy occupying it. The impromptu rewrite made Jeff smile in a display of spontaneous delight.

It's no wonder Hedda Sharapan, associate producer of the show, calls it the "treasured moment," the one everyone remembers.

In 1999, when Rogers was ushered into the TV Academy Hall of Fame, a surprise guest introduced him in Hollywood. It was Erlanger, and when Rogers saw him, he bounded to the stage in yet another moment of instinctive joy. It was a testament to the bond forged long ago and nurtured out of the limelight of cameras.

Yesterday, Erlanger was back in Pittsburgh, for the first time since 1980, to glide onto the stage of Heinz Hall to remember his friend. He recalled that cable TV and access to multiple PBS stations enabled him to watch "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" three or four times a day, and the message that he was special was particularly important for a child with a disability.

Erlanger still uses a fancy chair but he's a 32-year-old who recently campaigned for city council in Madison, Wis., with the slogan: "Standing Up for Students," appealing to his district's youthful population. He lost the race but relished the experience. He holds a degree in political science from Edgewood College in Madison, is chairman of the local Commission on People With Disabilities and recently coordinated a summer camp for senior adults.

Erlanger, still as personable and bright as in that moment frozen in time, said on Friday that it was his older sister, Lisa, who wrote a "Dear Mister Rogers" letter (their parents rewrote it) on her 5-year-old brother's behalf. Jeff, diagnosed with a tumor on his spinal cord when he was an infant, was about to undergo a risky operation to fuse his spinal cord.

It turned out Rogers was heading to Milwaukee, and he met the Erlangers, had breakfast with the family -- there are pictures of the TV host cutting Jeff's food and then, to mollify his sister, Lisa's food. Jeff's trip here came a few years later.

He said yesterday that people often ask how long it took to film his 10-minute "Neighborhood" segment and he replies, "Ten minutes." Rogers wanted the two to simply talk as old friends, without the artificial tone a rehearsal might introduce. And then, borrowing a line from Rogers, he told the crowd at Heinz Hall: "It's you, Fred, that I like."

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