TV's Mr. Rogers dies at 74

Feb. 27, 2003 at 5:27 AM
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PITTSBURGH, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- Fred Rogers, who as "Mr. Rogers" delivered life's lessons to children for more than 30 years in quiet soothing tones, has died at age 74.

Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister who became one of the most recognizable and beloved figures on television, was the host of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" on PBS from 1968-2000. He died Thursday of stomach cancer.

Rogers opened every program of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" with a gentle song -- written by Rogers -- asking the viewer "Won't you be my neighbor?" as he donned a sweater and sneakers. His easy manners, gentle conversation, puppet plays and soothing songs dealt with matters as crucial to a child as a dentist appointment, a death in the family or even the complexities of the Gulf War.

Typically, as the first anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks neared, Rogers -- even though he had stopped making original episodes of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" -- offered advice for parents handling children's questions about the events. "Our mission has always been to help families grow in healthy, nurturing ways, and now more than ever, we hope our messages can be of services to you," he wrote.

"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" grew from 15-minute programs produced in Toronto begun in 1963 into the 30-minute style that survived from 1967 until its final original episode in December 2000. PBS distributed original episodes of the program to as many as 300 stations from 1968-2001.

His messages were often delivered in puppet shows and in skits performed after taking his viewers on a trolley ride to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

Careful never to call his programs "shows," Rogers maintained he was doing minister's work to a congregation of children through television. He wrote every script and each song. He was not an actor, he said, although he was the voice of an entire cast of puppets and chatted easily with popular actors and performers who were guests in the neighborhood.

No matter what Rogers chose as the subject for each program's theme, the overriding message coming from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was always to same: "You are special. You are worthwhile, no matter what you are on the outside. Your insides are what matter."

In 1992, nearly 25 years after he began his programs, Rogers was scheduled to give an invocation to graduates at Boston University, where his appearance was met by cheers, whistles and shouts of welcome from the 5,400 students who immediately recognized Rogers as their very first teacher. Flustered momentarily by the din, Rogers was unable to offer the invocation, but spoke quietly into the microphone, asking "Will you sing with me?"

"It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, ..." he began, singing the familiar words of his theme song. In a minute, the audience joined him, linking arms throughout the entire stadium, singing the song they learned by heart when they were visitors to "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood."

"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was a low-key series that took place primarily on a set that represented Mr. Rogers' home. There, after introducing himself by singing his opening song, Rogers would take a comfortable sweater -- the original of which is on display at the Smithsonian Institution -- from his closet and deal with matters that likely were of concern to children up at age 5 that could be as common as nightfall, or, as he did in 1992, as complex as the Gulf War.

Rogers planned to be a musician and was interested in the ministry after he graduated in 1951 from Rollins College with a degree in music. Instead he went into the fledgling television industry, working his way up to floor manager for such pioneering network programs as "Your Lucky Strike Hit Parade," and "The Kate Smith Show." But two years later, Rogers quit his job to join a Pittsburgh public television station, telling his superiors, "Something tells me that's what I'm supposed to do."

At WQED-TV, Rogers hosted a 15-minute program produced for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., called "Misterogers," the prototype of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." He enrolled at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary where his education included training in child psychology at Pittsburgh's Arsenal Family and Children Center, the famed child development center founded by Dr. Benjamin Spock. Blending his child training, his ministerial teaching and his beloved music, Rogers wrote and produced "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," targeted for children between 2 and 5. The program was hailed by educators and television analysts as perhaps the healthiest fare for children on television, citing the programs unique ability to enroll its audiences in imaginative play activities.

When Rogers suspended production of the program after eight seasons because he thought he had covered every possible theme, he was inundated with overwhelming demand from the public, as well as the television and educational communities and brought the program back in 1979.

Fred McFeeley Rogers was born March 20, 1928, in Latrobe, a small industrial town in western Pennsylvania, the son of a wealthy brick maker James Hill and Nancy Rogers. He married Sara Joanne Byrd, a concert pianist on July 9, 1952, and had two children.

Rogers was an only child, and because he was sickly, he was confined to a specially air-conditioned room. His only childhood "friend" was his grandfather, Fred McFeeley, for whom he was named, who amused the boy with things to do or to look at and who said to him one day: "You know, you made this day a really special day. Just by being yourself. There's only one person in the world like you. And I happen to like you just the way you are."

Years later, Fred McFeeley would be a character in "Mister Rogers Neighborhood," and the profound message his grandfather told him as a child, would be the on-going theme upon which Rogers would base his program.

Among Rogers' numerous awards are Emmy nominations in 1968 and 1969 and Emmy Awards in 1980 and 1985, the George Foster Peabody Radio and Television Award from the University of Georgia and a National Educational Television Award for Excellence in Children's Programming in 1985.

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