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Rogers' company continues his life's work

Thursday, February 26, 2004

By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It's been a difficult year for employees at Family Communications Inc., the company founded in 1971 by the late Fred Rogers. But it's also been a busy and successful year, particularly with Hyperion Books' publication of "The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember," which has sold 580,000 copies and is now in its ninth printing.

"Obviously, going through the first year without somebody we all worked with anywhere from 10 years to 37 years and somebody who was usually in the office seven days a week, that part of it is going to be tough," said FCI president Bill Isler. "He was a phenomenal leader. On the other hand, we have had a really great year in terms of people continuing to recognize his body of work, people wanting access to that in many ways."

In addition to the print edition of "The World According to Mister Rogers," compiled in large part by FCI employees, an audio book was released by Simon & Schuster earlier this month on CD for $14. Joanne Rogers, Fred's widow, reads her foreword while actors Tyne Daly, John Lithgow and Lily Tomlin and pianist Andre Watts read Rogers' words of wisdom.

Last week Hyperion announced plans for two more Rogers books. A book for graduates, culled from Rogers' graduation speeches over the years, will be published in May 2005. A book for parents is due out in fall 2006.

"[The current book] is just doing so well, we don't want to pile on," said Hyperion Books president Bob Miller, explaining the delay in publishing a follow-up.

In addition to American readers' warm feelings for Rogers, Miller attributes the success of the book, in part, to the efforts of Joanne Rogers to promote it.

"It turned out she was such an incredibly persuasive spokesperson for Fred's legacy and the book," Miller said. "We originally had 60,000 copies in print, and she went on the 'Today' show and within three days, they were all gone and we had 180,000 more on back order."

In addition to her work on the book, Joanne Rogers was elected chairwoman of FCI's board of directors last fall.

"It doesn't feel like a business at all," she said. "It feels like I'm taking a course in child development or education, at least. It's fascinating to be around these people who are so marvelous and doing these fantastic projects."

She said her late husband, who never "went overboard with superlatives," would be pleased with FCI's progress in the past year.

"I often wonder if he's not up there making things happen," she said.

Much of FCI's work is not visible to the public. Projects completed since Rogers' death include:

Challenging Behavior Workshop: Training for preschool teachers on how to help children with challenging behavior. This project was an outgrowth of the Mad Feelings Workshop FCI developed. Details are available at www.fci.org.

Connecting Cops and Kids: Another workshop program designed to help police officers understand the importance of their relationship with children. It grew out of FCI's "Safe Havens" project, which was designed to help teachers and child care providers support children and families who witness violence.

One Kind Word: FCI is working with Family Resources, an East Liberty-based child abuse prevention and treatment organization, to train retail employees on how to help parents who experience difficulty with their children while in stores.

FCI also is developing materials for PNC Bank employees who volunteer in preschool centers. FCI continues to update its Web site and develop new materials for the "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" section of the PBS Web site, www.pbs.org.

"Fred was very forward-thinking," FCI president Isler said. "Even after he decided not to produce more 'Neighborhoods' [in 2000], he still had a full agenda of projects he wanted to work on. I think that spirit really transferred to all of the staff here at FCI."

Isler said the tribute by the Academy of Television Arts & Science in Hollywood last year and the announcement by St. Vincent College of the establishment of The Fred M. Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media show that his legacy will continue.

"We see it all as a tribute to a man's body of work rather than a memorial to the fact a man has died," Isler said. "It's the continuation of his work."

FCI employs about a dozen people full time and a half-dozen part time, he said.

Upcoming projects that will be more visible to the public include:

A home video release of episodes of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

New children's books.

The continued presence of the "Neighborhood" on PBS, where it's been renewed for at least two more years.

Isler said FCI will continue to approach any consumer products with the same care and concern as Rogers. "It was never Fred's intent to just sell product, but to develop materials that would really be helpful to children and families. That's still the guiding principle."

Tomorrow, on the first anniversary of Rogers' death, there will be no FCI public memorial. Instead, Isler said, the company will continue to promote his ideas.

"We are ever mindful of Fred's contributions to Family Communications and to society," Isler said. "What we are doing and what we will continue to do is nurture and enhance that legacy. What we will be reminded of on the 27th, as a group of people who worked with him, is the continuing importance of that body of work for children and families in our country."


Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@ post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.

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