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Thursday, February 27, 2003

An Ordained Presbyterian Minister, Rogers Dies Of Cancer Aged 74, Believed In The Power Of Television For Good

By Michael Ireland
Chief Correspondent, ASSIST News Service

PITTSBURGH, PA  (ANS) -- Fred Rogers, who became a nurturing television friend to millions of children as host of the public television program "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," died of cancer on Thursday at 74, his producer said. (Pictured: Mr. Rogers in his famous red sweater).

According to a report circulated by Reuters, Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister who believed the television airwaves should be used to enhance the human spirit. Rogers died at his home in Pittsburgh. He had been diagnosed with stomach cancer.

"Rogers, who began his career in children's television doing puppet voices for a local show on PBS affiliate WQED in Pittsburgh, became a national personality in 1968 when 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' became available to PBS stations across the country," the Reuters report said.

"Each episode opened with the gentle Mr. Rogers entering a comfortable living room, singing 'It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood' and donning a cardigan sweater and pair of comfortable shoes," said Reuters.

One of the red sweaters is now at the Smithsonian Institution, Reuters said.

"The show was quickly embraced by both children and parents for an imaginative but simple approach that came with his own songs and puppet voices, and the ongoing message: 'There's only one person in the whole world like you.' "

Reuters said it became the longest running children's program on public television. He taped his last program in December 2000. The final episode aired in August 2001, but earlier program continues to run on PBS.

Rogers also tackled important subjects for children, including death and violence on television, including the TV news, the news agency reported.

During the Gulf crisis a decade ago, he made a public service announcement that told parents: "Children aren't responsible for wars. The least, and the best, we adults can do is to let our children know that we'll take good care of them, no matter what," Reuters reported.

Characteristically, the Web site of his production company Family Entertainment Inc. announced his death with advice on how to relay the sad news to children who will continue to see him on television.

"Children have always known Mr. Rogers as their 'television friend,' and that relationship doesn't change with his death," the message said.

Born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, he studied early child development at the University of Pittsburgh and received a charge to continue his work with families and children through television when he was ordained a minister.


Fred Rogers will be remembered as the man in the red sweater who gently invited millions of children to be his neighbor as host of the public television show ``Mister Rogers' Neighborhood'' for more than 30 years.

According to an Associated Press (AP) report by Todd Spangler, Rogers died at his Pittsburgh home, said family spokesman David Newell, who played Mr. McFeely on the show. Rogers had been diagnosed with stomach cancer sometime after the holidays, Newell said.

``He was so genuinely, genuinely kind, a wonderful person,'' Newell said. ``His mission was to work with families and children for television. ... That was his passion, his mission, and he did it from day one.''

The Associated Press reported that from 1968 to 2000, Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, produced the show at Pittsburgh public television station WQED. The final new episode, which was taped in December 2000, aired in August 2001, though PBS affiliates continued to air back episodes.

Rogers composed his own songs for the show and began each episode in a set made to look like a comfortable living room, singing ``It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood,'' as he donned sneakers and a zip-up cardigan, the AP said.

``I have really never considered myself a TV star,'' Rogers said in a 1995 interview. ``I always thought I was a neighbor who just came in for a visit.''

His message remained simple: telling his viewers to love themselves and others. On each show, he would take his audience on a magical trolley ride into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, where his puppet creations would interact with each other and adults, the AP said.

Rogers did much of the puppet work and voices himself.

"Rogers taught children how to share, deal with anger and even why they shouldn't fear the bathtub by assuring them they'll never go down the drain," the AP reported.

During the Persian Gulf War, Rogers told youngsters that ``all children shall be well taken care of in this neighborhood and beyond -- in times of war and in times of peace,'' and he asked parents to promise their children they would always be safe.

``We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility,'' he said in 1994. ``It's easy to say 'It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.'

``Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.''

The AP report said Rogers came out of broadcasting retirement last year to record four public service announcements for the Public Broadcasting Service telling parents how to help their children deal with the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

``They don't understand what an anniversary is, and if they see the tragedy replayed on television, they might think it's happening at that moment,'' he said.

Rogers' show won four Emmy Awards, plus one for lifetime achievement, the AP said. He was given a George Foster Peabody Award in 1993, ``in recognition of 25 years of beautiful days in the neighborhood.''

At a ceremony marking the show's 25th anniversary in 1993, Rogers said, ``It's not the honors and not the titles and not the power that is of ultimate importance. It's what resides inside.''

The AP said the show's ratings peaked in 1985-86 when about 8 percent of all U.S. households with televisions tuned in. By the 1999-2000 season, viewership had dropped to about 2.7 percent, or 3.6 million people.

"As other children's programming opted for slick action cartoons, Rogers stayed the same and stuck to his soothing message," AP reported.

Rogers was born in Latrobe, 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. He was ordained in 1963 with a charge to continue his work with children and families through television.

He studied early childhood development at the University of Pittsburgh's graduate school and consulted for decades with the late Dr. Margaret McFarland, an eminent child development expert at the university. The show examined the tribulations of childhood, including anger, fear, even a visit to the dentist.

Off the set, Rogers was much like his television persona. He swam daily, read voraciously and listened to Beethoven. He once volunteered at a state prison in Pittsburgh and helped set up a playroom there for children visiting their parents, the AP report said.

Rogers was an unseen puppeteer in ``The Children's Corner,'' a local show he and Josie Carey launched at WQED in 1954. In seven years of unscripted, live television on the show, he developed many of the puppets used in ``Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,'' including King Friday XIII, Daniel Striped Tiger and Curious X the Owl.

In 1963, Rogers accepted an offer to develop ``Misterogers,'' his own 15-minute show, for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. He brought the show back to Pittsburgh in 1966, incorporating segments of the CBC show into a new series being distributed by the Eastern Educational Network.

In 1968, ``Misterogers' Neighborhood'' was distributed through National Educational Television, which later became Public Broadcasting Service.

Rogers' gentle manner was the butt of some comedian's jokes. Eddie Murphy parodied him on ``Saturday Night Live'' in the 80's with his ``Mister Robinson's Neighborhood,'' a routine Rogers found funny and affectionate.

Rogers is survived by his wife, Joanne, a concert pianist; two sons and two grandsons.

** Michael Ireland is an international British freelance journalist. A former reporter with a London newspaper, Michael is the Chief Correspondent for ASSIST News Service of Garden Grove, CA. Michael immigrated to the United States in 1982 and became a US citizen in Sept., 1995. He is married with two children. Michael has also been a frequent contributor to UCB Europe, a British Christian radio station.

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