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Fred Rogers, a Pittsburgh Hero...

...celebrated host of `Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,' dies at 74...

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Fred Rogers, celebrated host of `Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,' dies at 74

Thursday, February 27, 2003

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

Children's show host Fred Rogers, Pittsburgh's favorite neighbor whose cardigan sweaters and gentle voice and manner were his trademarks, died early today at home of stomach cancer. He was 74.

In July, President George W. Bush presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Fred Rogers in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, the nation's highest civilian honor. (Kenneth Lambert, Associated Press)

Mr. Rogers worked in broadcasting for more than 50 years, but he's best known for the 33 years he spent writing and starring in PBS's "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

On television he was ever tolerant and always understanding, and that carried over to his humble real-life demeanor. His persona was no act. There are no stories of him turning into a raging tyrant behind-the-scenes. By all accounts, he was the same soft-spoken person on the air and off.

"It's been a privilege to pass on the good stuff that was given to me, and television has really been a fine vehicle for that," Mr. Rogers said before recording his last episode of the "Neighborhood" in fall 2000. He pointed to a frame on the wall of his office: "Life Is for Service."

"Those of us in broadcasting have a special calling to give whatever we feel is the most nourishing that we can for our audience," Mr. Rogers said. "We are servants of those who watch and listen."

Nancy Curry, a former professor and director of child development at the University of Pittsburgh, met Mr. Rogers in the early 1960s at the Arsenal Family and Children's Center in Lawrenceville. She said he came to the center during his years in seminary to practice face-to-face interaction with children.

 
 

Highlights in the life and career of Fred Rogers.

Send your condolences and sign the guestbook for Mister Rogers.


Past stories

Fred Rogers' 'retirement' busy with books, songs, appearances.

Fred Rogers gets Presidential Medal of Freedom.

No. 1 in our neighborhood: Fred Rogers.

There goes the Neighborhood: Mister Rogers will make last episodes of show in December.

When Mister Rogers retired, famous and ordinary told how they would miss his show.

   
 

Curry recalled the way young people reacted to Mr. Rogers' puppets, talking to the puppets directly, ignoring the fact Mr. Rogers was controlling them.

"He had a way of encouraging them while still respecting them," she said. "One little girl had a pet bird that had died, and she had to tell every one of Fred's puppets. Each one had its own individuality in her eyes. He was always very respectful with children and didn't make fun of children. Some performers have their tongue in cheek. He did not have that."

She said children embraced him because he put up no facade.

"They responded to him so quickly," she said. "He tried out his songs with us and had the children dancing and participating with him. His creativity was breathtaking."

Arthur Greenwald, a California-based freelance producer who worked on Mr. Rogers' staff in the '70s, said Mr. Rogers' contributions are many.

"What Fred has brought to children's television and children's media is a deep understanding of how children look at the world," Greenwald said. "He is fiercely devoted to protecting children as they learn about the world -- not distancing them from it but giving them the tools to understand it and explore on their own. Fred has more integrity than the rest of the TV industry put together."

Fred McFeely Rogers was born in Latrobe in 1928. After graduating from college in 1951, Mr. Rogers landed a series of TV positions, with "NBC Opera Theater," "The Voice of Firestone," "Lucky Strike Hit Parade" and "The Kate Smith Hour." He did any number of jobs, from fetching coffee to working as a floor manager and orchestrating action behind the cameras.

It was the fledgling WQED and "The Children's Corner," which debuted in April 1954 with host Josie Carey, that brought him to Pittsburgh. He produced the program, performed the music and gave life to the puppets -- including Daniel Striped. Tiger and King Friday XIII.

Carey said she and Mr. Rogers asked to work together after realizing they shared a mutual interest in children's television.

"The puppets started almost by accident," Carey said. "Each one of them was needed to fill a little time. It was all serendipity. Everything happened right on the air and the children were aware of what we were doing."

Fred Rogers with King Friday XIII, one of a number of puppet characters he created. Earlier in his television career, Rogers was an unseen puppeteer in "The Children's Corner," a local show he and Josie Carey launched at WQED in 1954. (Post-Gazette archives)

That's how the character Daniel Striped Tiger came to live in a grandfather clock. Carey said the original idea was to have a cuckoo come out of the clock, but there was no time to make or buy a bird puppet. Daniel was already on Mr. Rogers' hand and got pushed into service.

After moving to Canada to create a 15-minute children's show called "Misterogers," he returned to WQED to develop a new half-hour format of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." PBS began distributing it nationally on Feb. 19, 1968.

In that landmark inaugural episode, Mr. Rogers walked through the front door of his television house, doffed his raincoat and suit jacket and donned a sweater -- button down, not zippered like the red one he would donate to the Smithsonian Institution. The routine established that day was designed to give children a sense of security. Rituals help them know what to expect and to settle in for Mr. Rogers' "television visit," as he called it.

Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, said Mr. Rogers is among those who shaped the medium, and educational children's television in particular.

"Along with a very small group of people -- Steve Allen from late night, Irna Phillips with soap operas, Ernie Kovacs with video art -- Fred Rogers really understood what the medium of television was all about, what it could do, how it was this intimate forum that talked to you in the privacy of your own living room, and he grasped that very early on," Thompson said. "There's something about [Mr. Rogers'] program, when you're in your little pajamas with feet attached to them and you're home in the comfort of your living room on the couch, that was so extraordinarily comforting and quiet. It went down like a nice hot bowl of soup."

Mr. Rogers, who was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1963, saw his PBS program as a form of ministry to children. Bill Fore, former executive director of the broadcasting and film division of the National Council of Churches, said seeing the church portrayed on TV was of little interest to him. But he liked Mr. Rogers' approach.

"I would much rather see portrayals of the actions of God in the world, which Mister Rogers does every day for kids," Fore said. "He is showing God's love in a real way to kids. That's far more valuable to me than most so-called 'religious' programs."

Production of the "Neighborhood" ceased in December 2000 and the last week of original episodes aired in August 2001. Since then, PBS has had "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" on a continuous loop of about 260 shows culled from more than 1,000 taped during Mr. Rogers' 33 years in national production.

"I didn't think it changed his status one bit," Carey said. "It gave him time to do what he wanted to do in retirement. They were only making five new programs a season before that. It isn't as though children lost the program. This year's batch grows beyond Mister Rogers and then there is another batch, so those programs are still worthwhile."

After production of the program ceased, Mr. Rogers devoted his time to working on the "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" Web site, writing books and speaking engagements. Even then Mr. Rogers often spent his mornings at his "writing office" away from the hustle and bustle of WQED, where Family Communications rents office space. The older he got, the more he cherished silence, he said in spring 2001.

"You're able to be much more mindful of what is deep and simple and how essential that is, in order to keep on growing. And whatever our expression of care might be, whether it be television or the Internet or all of these books that the people want us to write -- whatever that expression is -- it must come out of the depth of understanding that we continue to nourish.

"Otherwise, you know it could get superficial. That's not going to happen with us."

The "Neighborhood" never bombarded children with noise or cacophonous music; it was respectful that way. Mr. Rogers, after all, was a musician, as is his wife. "We can close our eyes but we can't close our ears," he said.

Recounting a rare lunch out, to Dick's Diner in Murrysville to celebrate a longtime friend's birthday, Mr. Rogers was gently mobbed by well-wishers. "The people who came to the table, the people who came to my car as I was leaving, all they say is, 'We just have to say thank you for what you've given to our families.' Invariably they'll say that."

Grateful viewers came from happy, secure households and ones where Mr. Rogers was a port in the storm. Talking about the volume of mail that poured into the Oakland office, he said, "It's the quality of the letters, it's the quality of the reaching out that is even more important than the quantity. The things that people want to share with you are just stunning. ... They knew we were a safe place to go."

Mr. Rogers' message was so simple and yet so life-affirming -- "to say that you can be lovable just the way you are. The overriding theme that people long to hear is that they're acceptable as they are. And as they grow, they will be capable of loving themselves."

He intended that last sentence to be interpreted two ways: That you can love yourself and that you are capable of loving others.

Over the years, Mr. Rogers' program hosted many celebrity guests, including Yo-Yo Ma, LeVar Burton, David Copperfield, Tony Bennett, Lynn Swann, Wynton Marsalis, Stomp, Margaret Hamilton, Julia Child and locals like Bill Strickland of the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild.

"He's one of my great heroes," said Yo-Yo Ma. "His mission is both his personal mission as well as his professional one."

"Fred Rogers is as sweet a man as they come," said Dennis Miller, comedian and Pittsburgh native. "In the world gone mad with what kids get to see nowadays, those calmative rhythms. ... He's one of the best things to come out of Pittsburgh. That and Bobby Clemente's arm."

Yet for all the celebrities, Mr. Rogers also remembered visits from unknowns. A disabled child who could hardly speak visited the "Neighborhood" in fall 2000 and sang with Mister Rogers.

"I was walking this far off the ground," Mr. Rogers said, holding his hand a foot above the floor. "You know, there are special times and there are extra special times. I feel that the real drama of life is never center stage, it's always in the wings. It's never with the spotlight on, it's usually something that you don't expect at all."

The list of awards presented to Mr. Rogers runs more than 25 single-spaced, typed pages and includes lifetime achievement awards from the Daytime Emmys and the Television Critics Association. Mr. Rogers was named one of the "50 greatest TV stars of all time" by TV Guide in 1996, got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1998 and was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1999.

Mr. Rogers, a man of great modesty, once acknowledged his contribution by repeating the words that LeVar Burton had told him. Talking about the people involved in children's programming such as "Reading Rainbow," "Arthur" (whose creator Marc Brown is a big fan) and other worthwhile ventures, Burton said, "Fred, you launched the ship that carried us all."

And Mister Rogers steered it with a steady hand and a generous heart.

Mr. Rogers is survived by his wife, Joanne, their two sons and two grandsons.

Rogers' Family Communications Inc. changed its Web site today to announce the death and to give advice on how to tell children about it.

Post-Gazette staff writers Andrew Druckenbrod and Ron Weiskind contributed to this article.

 


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