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Appreciation: Mister Rogers will always be part of our neighborhood

Saturday, May 03, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Not even death can extinguish the simple goodness and kind caring that Fred Rogers brought to this world. It's possible that his influence grows stronger, more pervasive.

Fred Rogers, host of "Mister Rogers 'Neighborhood, "is surrounded by some of his "neighbors."

Related information:

'Farewell, Neighbor': Fred Rogers, 1928 - 2003
A guide to coverage by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Stations to cover Rogers memorial

Perhaps that will prove temporary, but the collective grief multiple generations of TV viewers felt at his passing on Feb. 27 led them to do something he would surely approve of: They reached out to share their feelings, memories and stories of what "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and its host meant to them.

Thousands are expected to gather today to share some more, celebrating Mister Rogers' life in a public memorial at Heinz Hall that will be broadcast at 2:30 p.m. on WQED-TV, WPXI-TV, WQED-FM (89.3) and www.wqed.org/fm. The service will be replayed at 6 and 10 tonight on WQED and at 7 tonight on PCNC. The Pennsylvania Cable Network also will carry the memorial live with repeats at 10:30 tonight and 11 p.m. tomorrow.

At his death, on Web sites, in e-mails, in phone calls, fans of all ages who were connected by this gentlest of gentlemen sought to assuage their sense of loss by sharing with others.

WQED's "AgeWise" host Eleanor Schano recalled seeing Rogers at the Shadyside Giant Eagle on a Saturday morning this past December.

"Hello, Eleanor, how are you?" Mister Rogers said. Rogers' wife of 50 years, Joanne, was at home still asleep, and he discovered "our little kitty doesn't have any cat food. I'm going to buy her something special today."

"You mean, Joanne?" Schano replied.

"No, the kitty," Mister Rogers said.

That's typical of a Mister Rogers story. At the center, it's about doing something special for someone else, or in this case, a pet.

A world devoid of a living Fred Rogers easily conjures tears of sadness, but the way he touched so many transforms them into tears of joy.

Bill Joyce, a teacher in Berkeley, Calif., once taught a 10-year-old autistic student who was incredibly fond of Mister Rogers.

"It was the avenue for me to enter his world to teach reading," Joyce recalled in an e-mail. "We sent Fred a fan letter. The young man literally collapsed on the floor when he got the reply -- a letter and photos. Fred wrote me a letter, too."

Barbara White of Squirrel Hill said her 17-year-old son, Jeff, attends Central Catholic, located next to the WQED building in Oakland that houses the office of Rogers' Family Communications Inc. Jeff and his friends occasionally saw Mister Rogers entering or exiting the station and would always call out to him and wave.

"The surprising thing about this is not that Mister Rogers returned the wave and the smile; he was just that way," Barbara White wrote in an e-mail. "But what is amazing is the other side of it -- that teenagers would call out to Mister Rogers to say hello. Teens just don't do stuff like that unless it's in jest. That they did this in earnest with Mister Rogers shows that he reached and continues to reach out to teenagers, a notoriously unreachable group of people. ... That's just about the highest compliment a teenager can pay, and it's a profound tribute to Mister Rogers."

On the day of Rogers' death, White talked about his passing with her son, who was visibly saddened by the news.

"I asked Jeff if it embarrassed him to call out to Mister Rogers in front of his friends," White wrote. "He said, 'No' but looked at me as if to say, 'Why in the world would it?' "

That Rogers had this effect on children is undeniable, as was his impact on adults, whether they were parents who watched the "Neighborhood" growing up or adults unschooled in the Trolley, Daniel Striped Tiger or Lady Elaine Fairchilde.

Sam Newbury of Family Communications Inc., the company founded by Fred Rogers, spoke about the importance of forgiveness at a memorial service at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in East Liberty yesterday. Rogers graduated from the seminary in 1962 after taking classes there during his lunch hour for eight years. Seminary president Samuel Calian called Rogers "a pioneer in the theology of hospitality" at the service, which attracted about 160 people, many of them graduates of the school who were visiting for Alumni Days. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

The Sunday after Mister Rogers' death, my aunt called from Missouri to say the minister at Warrensburg First United Methodist Church led the congregation in singing "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" as the youth of the congregation came to the front of the church for a children's sermon.

The Rev. Scott Moon removed his robe, put on a cardigan sweater and changed his shoes, lacing up his sneakers. He spoke to the children about the importance of Mister Rogers' work and how his teachings echoed those of the church.

When the children's sermon concluded, Moon removed the sweater, folded it neatly and placed it on the altar before offering a prayer.

News of Mister Rogers' death came as a shock to many. My own thoughts turned to religion, and a refrain that's repeated by millions of Christians each week. In the liturgy of many churches, there's a prayer before Holy Communion that includes the promise that all who believe and partake in the Lord's Supper "will live to the praise of your glory and receive our inheritance with all your saints in light."

I've always found the phrase "saints in light" beautiful and awkward. It's evocative, but, taking it too literally, the notion that when I die I might be counted as one of the "saints in light" gives me and perhaps other believers more credit then we deserve. How many among us are worthy of being called saints?

Even as I grieve that I'll never have another visit or interview with the comforting television friend I grew up watching, my faith is secure. I know a name and can picture the smiling face of Fred Rogers, a man who is surely worthy of being called one of the saints in light.

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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