LOS ANGELES, Feb. 28 (UPI) -- Family Communications Inc. announced the death of Fred Rogers at his home in Pittsburgh gently and calmly, the way he lived in "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
"We are very sorry to deliver the sad news that Fred Rogers died on Feb. 27, 2003 after a brief battle with stomach cancer," the company said. "We hope that you'll join us in celebrating his life by reflecting on his messages and taking them into your everyday lives."
Rogers' company pledged to "continue his work of helping children, their families, and those who support them."
The first order of business, then, was to help young viewers cope with the news that their friend was dead.
"In this time of great sadness about Fred Rogers' death," said Family Communications, "we understand that parents may be concerned about how to approach the 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' series with their children. We ... have given this a great deal of thought and have talked with our colleagues in child development and mental health."
In a message posted on its Web site (fci.org), the company suggested that parents remember that children and adults experience death differently.
"Young children have a limited understanding of death," said the posting. "Some children may cry. Some may seem callous. You may be surprised to find that you're more upset than your child."
The posting emphasized that Rogers always insisted that children accept that feelings are "natural and normal, and that happy times and sad times are part of everyone's life."
When the Peabody Board awarded Rogers with a Peabody Award in 1992, it cited in particular his philosophy of television as a reason for honoring him.
"Just like a refrigerator or stove," Rogers said, "television is seen by children as something their parents provide. In a young child's mind, then, parents condone what's on the television set, just like they choose what's in the refrigerator or on the stove! That's why we who make television for children must be especially careful with what we produce, with the people we present and with the attitudes we show in television relationships -- attitudes of respect, kindness, healthy curiosity, determination, and love ... just as parents would want for their children."
Rogers was especially careful about his work, receiving 59 Emmy nominations for the show between 1967 and 2000.
He won the Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a Children's Series in 1999 and 1996. The show won for Outstanding Writing in a Children's Series in 1984 and Individual Achievement in a Children's Series in 1979.
"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" received a Peabody Award in 1968 and Rogers received the nation's highest civilian honor -- the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- in 2002.
The show is still a staple of early childhood development in millions of American households, even though Rogers stopped producing new episodes in 2001 -- more than 33 years after he first slipped on his famous cardigan sweater and welcomed America's children into his home, reminding them day after day that, "You are special."
When Rogers announced in November 2000 that he would stop making new episodes, a public TV executive in Los Angeles told United Press International that "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" would probably play on public TV for some time to come.
"They can use the same shows from different years because his messages never change," said Don Youpa, executive vice president of public television station KCET, Los Angeles.
Youpa said TV shows, including "Sesame Street," change all the time, but "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" has been a constant, because "it's always the same caring and love and affection."
The neighborhood where Mister Rogers lives is a safe place for young children to gain some of their earliest exposure to the world outside their home, and to begin what -- for most of them -- will be a lifelong relationship with the dominant mass communication medium in the world.
And Rogers made a point of talking frankly, if gently, to his young TV friends about such serious matters as divorce, death, adoption and hospitalization.
Youpa fondly recalled "Mister Rogers Day" at KCET in the '70s, when families lined up around the block to see their TV friend. When Rogers received a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame in 1998, the event attracted thousands of fans. His visits to college campuses routinely drew enthusiastic crowds of students who eagerly joined in singing the songs they knew from watching him on TV when they were children.
In a media environment dominated by high-tech visual effects, elaborate costumes and slickly produced music, Rogers got the job done with hand-made puppets, home-made music, an abiding faith in the power of imagination and a total commitment to the dignity of the individual.