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Pittsburgh bids farewell to Fred Rogers with moving public tribute

Sunday, May 04, 2003

By Barbara Vancheri and Rob Owen, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Fred Rogers would have loved it.

Fred Rogers' widow, Joanne, left, greets friend and writer Jeanne Marie Laskas before yesterday's memorial service at Heinz Hall. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

There, near the stage of Heinz Hall, was a friend of a half-century cradling Rogers' infant grandson, sleeping peacefully despite the 2,700 people slipping out of the sun into the cool concert hall. In the lobby were suede-covered books and colored pencils for friends to write or draw messages, such as the one under a rainbow of hearts: "I hope you are happy in heaven. I love you." It was signed Juliana.

On stage yesterday afternoon was surprise guest, violinist Itzhak Perlman, who played a gavotte by Bach in memory of Rogers. On video, in a red sweater, was cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who is overseas on a concert tour but recalled his first meeting with Rogers and performed two musical favorites. One was Rogers' "Tree, Tree, Tree." Also performing was organist Alan Morrison, a second-generation musician whose mother, Jeannine Morrison, met Fred and Joanne Rogers at Rollins College.

What was billed as a "gathering in memory of Fred M. Rogers" was a celebration of his family, friends, faith, fondness for music and even his quirks, such as bestowing the name "Elvira" on a squawking seagull near his "Crooked House" in Nantucket. And his uttering the Mister Rogers version of exasperation -- "Mercy" -- when confronted with a mound of photos, notes and other papers to sign at Family Communications Inc., which produced "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

Before the service, concert pianist Joanne Rogers greeted well-wishers who stood in line to offer a hug or a kiss or a favorite story about her husband of 50 years. Toward the end, John Rogers, one of Fred and Joanne's two sons, thanked the Heinz Hall and television audience for their support since his father's death on Feb. 27 from stomach cancer.

 
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"Dad was a very special family member," John Rogers said. "He was a dad, a grandfather, a husband and, of course, he was a son. It shows how full-circle life is: 12 days after my father passed away, I had a son come into the world, and it's been so special."

He and his wife, Mary, named their boy Ian McFeely Rogers. The infant joins two other grandsons, Alexander and Douglas, sons of James Rogers.

The Rev. William P. Barker, long a friend of Rogers and a fellow Presbyterian minister, welcomed the near-capacity crowd, a mix of the famous such as Teresa Heinz, former "Good Morning America" host David Hartman, Elsie Hillman, Allegheny County Chief Executive James Roddey, PBS President Pat Mitchell, "Arthur" creator Marc Brown and "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" author-illustrator Eric Carle, and the not so famous, who only knew Rogers from television.

Heinz, a member of the board of Family Communications Inc. and a Nantucket neighbor of Rogers, choked down tears early in her remarks.

She talked about the noisy bird Rogers christened Elvira and said, "This summer I will bicycle to Madaket to the Crooked House where Fred wrote and composed so much, and there at water's edge on Nantucket Sound, I will sit on the warm sand with seagulls squawking and let Fred's song envelop me in a reverie that will never go away. Somewhere, each of us has that place, so let us remember him there."

After the service, Heinz said the memorial made parts of the past come to life. "It's kind of the end of a time of innocence," she said. "When you see innocence go, you feel sad, but I'm glad the show goes on."

No one appreciates that more than PBS's Mitchell, whose now 30-year-old son, Mark, adopted Rogers' fashion sense as a boy. He snipped logos off sweaters because Rogers' cardigans had none.

Mitchell said in watching "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," her son and millions of children "found a safe haven, a place of unconditional love and found in Fred Rogers an admiring, calm, comforting and admirable role model."

Katheryn Sitter from North Point Breeze and her daughter, Kyra Bingham, 4, attend the memorial service for Fred Rogers yesterday. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Saleem Ghubril, executive director of The Pittsburgh Project, remembered the night Fred and Joanne Rogers attended a play put on by students at the faith-based outreach program. The children knew Rogers planned to attend, and one child got so excited by the prospect of meeting the TV host, he blurted out in mid-performance, "Where you at, Mister Rogers? Where you at?"

"Today, I have absolutely no question as to Mister Rogers' whereabouts," Ghubril said. "He is in the heavenly neighborhood after which he modeled his television neighborhood, and he is with the architect of that neighborhood, the one who gave shape to Mister Rogers' vision and fueled his passion."

Ghubril, inspired by Christian author Max Lucado, moved many guests to tears with a fanciful rendition of what happened the day Rogers died. Like a weary traveler who cannot wait to get off a plane and head home, Rogers had one hand on his sweater and one on his seatbelt. He heard the captain's bell releasing the passengers, bolted through the jetway and headed for the crowded waiting area.

"There was his father, James, and his mother, Nancy. His grandfather and grandmother, Mr. and Mrs. Fred McFeely, and there were other family and friends and neighbors," and God embraced him and told him how special he was. "Well done, well done. .... I was lonely and you visited me. I was scared and you reassured me...

"Fred, when you did it to any one of the least of these, my children, you did it for me. Come now to your new home, your eternal neighborhood."

Joel Dulberg, who retired two years ago as a sound mixer for CBS's "60 Minutes," traveled to the service from his home in Poland, Maine. He started in television at age 16 as the first cameraman for WQED's "The Children's Corner," for which Rogers was the puppeteer. After the memorial, Dulberg shared with "Children's Corner" host Josie Carey photos of himself at WQED as a teen.

Carey remembered the many little things Rogers taught her, "little words in French, an appreciation for something I wouldn't have noticed." She was pleased the service included examples of Rogers' interaction with children.

"You always think of people on television as just being there on television, you don't see them going out to schools or hospitals and actually giving," Carey said, "and that's what he did."

Before the service, actor Chuck Aber knelt in the lobby to chat with young fans who recognized him as "Neighbor Aber" on Rogers' program. It was exactly what Rogers would have done.

Eileen Ford, 31, of Sewickley, brought her son, 9-year-old Donovan Uden-Ford, to the service. "Fred is my personal hero," she said, beginning to cry. "See," she said to her son, "I told you I'd do this."

Rogers, of course, wouldn't mind. He encouraged the sharing of emotions. "There's just nobody else like him," Ford said.

Matthew Laver, a 13-year-old who attends the School for Blind Children in Oakland, had met Rogers whenever he visited his dad, Mike, an engineer at WQED, who was working yesterday at Heinz Hall. Rogers typically sang to Matthew, especially the song "You Are Special," said Terri Laver, who escorted Matthew and 10-year-old daughter Emily.

Margaret Gowaty, 34, of East McKeesport, attended the memorial with her mother, Gertrude. Afterward, Gowaty said the service struck the right tone.

"It was like Fred," she said. "He had an elegance to him. It's a simple elegance, not anything extra fancy."

The warmth and good feelings inside the hall sharply contrasted with the occasionally circus-like atmosphere outside.

A group of about a half dozen members of an anti-gay organization gathered at the intersection of Penn Avenue and Sixth Street to protest what they called Rogers' failure to condemn homosexuality. The group, which included an 8-year-old girl, held signs expressing their hatred of gays and, while standing on a torn American flag, their hatred of America.

They were met by about 150 counter-demonstrators, members of gay rights and peace groups, who marched along the sidewalks and sang songs from Rogers' program while holding signs calling for love and tolerance. While there were some heated exchanges, there were no arrests either there or at three other sites -- the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the University of Pittsburgh and Chatham College.

The anti-gay group, members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, has a history of picketing at funerals of gays and those they accuse of being supportive of gays. It is led by Fred Phelps, a self-proclaimed minister and disbarred attorney. He was not present at the demonstration yesterday.

The protesters were no match for the thankful sentiments, solemn and cheerful music and occasional bouts of hearty laughter inside Heinz Hall.

"Fred gave so many people similar gifts, and he did it merely by speaking to them in an open, honest, non-threatening way," Teresa Heinz said. "He never condescended, just invited us into his conversation. He spoke to us as the people we were, not as the people others wished we were."


Post-Gazette staff writer Mackenzie Carpenter contributed to this report.

Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582.

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