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Fred Rogers kept it simple, and elegantly so

Saturday, March 01, 2003

Among the forgotten details about Fred Rogers is that he was so colorblind he could not distinguish between tomato soup and pea soup.

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Fred Rogers



He liked both, but at lunch one day 50 years ago, he asked his television partner Josie Carey to taste it for him and tell him which it was.

Why did he need her to do this, Carey asked him. Rogers liked both, so why not just dip in?

"If it's tomato soup, I'll put sugar in it," he told her.

There was also the time Rogers was to meet her for dinner and showed up in a limousine. It was only then that Carey discovered Fred Rogers, a young man indistinguishable from the clerk in a savings and loan, came from money.

"But he could get away with it," Carey said.

And he could. He was, for a time, the only student at the Latrobe elementary schools to be dropped off by a family chauffeur. A few years earlier, the Lindbergh baby had been kidnapped. He was edged into the world, somewhat fragile, somewhat awkward. Leaving Latrobe, he would improvise a life.

Before there was "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," there was "The Children's Corner" -- a homey little spot on the dial where Carey fronted for puppets run by Fred Rogers. So many imaginary celebrities were born in that spot, back in 1955: Daniel Striped Tiger, King Friday XIII, Henrietta Pussycat.

"I had no idea what any one of the puppets was going to say to me and he didn't know how I was going to respond," Carey said. The show cut across age groups and went for an audience from toddler to teen.

Visiting dignitaries passing through Pittsburgh clamored to be on: Shirley Jones, Charles Schulz, Johnny Carson.

Fred Rogers was a child-like jester on the set, a man who loved the early years on television when nobody bothered with a script. In those days, before it occurred to anyone not to do so, he and Carey could close with the song "Good Night, God."

    Keep us safe and happy God
    Tell us what to do
    Good Night God, and thank you God
    For letting us love you

Carey found it hard to believe Rogers died of cancer. He didn't smoke or drink. He swam every day. Nervous, energetic, he developed an ulcer as a young man, but "he took such good care of himself. I said I would have expected he might have had a heart attack, he drank so much milk."

She departed for KDKA, and Rogers went on to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He returned with a specific ministry: children's television. The man who started out a decade earlier without a script came toting a corpus of beliefs, not the least of them being that the most profound things are done simply.

Rogers did not talk down to children. Nor did he speak past them. His programs possessed not code words, hidden sermons nor dual tracks by which children and grown ups would obtain separate messages. Watching "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," a parent got the same message as the child and if it was simple, it was an elegant simplicity: Be yourself, love each other, be patient, be kind. He defied interpretation because he required none.

"There was a point in every child's life where he was the nicest person on television," Carey said.

Long after he had become an icon and, to some extent, an educational industry, Fred Rogers could still say good night to God and mean it.

That, I suspect, is what he did in the early hours of Thursday. And in the intervening years, believing in big ideas writ small on the heart, he did God's work, keeping us safe and happy.

Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.

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