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“I can tell you that, except for some of the extraterrestrial devices in UFOs that I’ve seen, this is the most astounding material object I’ve ever seen in my life. And that’s saying something.” at 2003-02-05 16:00:27

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So Long, Fred

By Louie Estrada Washington Post Staff Writer Thursday, February 27, 2003; 3:30 PM Fred Rogers, the gentle, soft-spoken host of the children’s television show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” whose theme song “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” engaged toddlers for nearly four decades, died today of stomach cancer at his home in Pittsburgh. He was 74. As creator and host of the popular public television show, Mr. Rogers evolved into a pop icon of avuncular qualities with a cheerfulness and wholesomeness that was often calming to children, admired by parents and parodied by comedians. The show aired from 1968 to 2000, making it the longest running children’s program on public television and among its top-rated ever, reaching at its peak an estimated 8 million households each week. There were nearly 700 episodes in the series, and Mr. Rogers continued to write and produce several weeks of new programs each season at the Pittsburgh public television station WQED. Over the years, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” won four Emmy Awards. Mr. Rogers himself won a lifetime achievement Emmy award, a George Peabody Award in 1993 and received more than two dozen honorary degrees from the likes of Yale University, Hobart and William Smith, Carnegie Mellon University and Boston University. One of his sweaters, a red one, is part of the Smithsonian collection. In July, President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His announcement that the show would come to end drew headlines across the country. The final show was taped in December 2000 and broadcast in August 2001, although PBS affiliates continue to air reruns. In a slow, methodical reassuring tone and leisurely speech, Mr. Rogers preached to children about the virtues of civility, sharing, tolerance, obedience and self-worth. He was praised for an ability to talk to children in a pace they could absorb and with a consistency that created a calm and safe place for youngsters. He began his shows by walking through a front door of a tidy living room setting, cheerfully singing the words, “I’ve always wanted to have a neighbor just like YOU. Would you be mine? Please, won’t you be my neighbor?” While singing, he changed out of his sport coat for a zip-up cardigan and slipped off his dress shoes to put on a pair of sneakers. It was a symbolic transition from the work world to a comfortable visit with his pint-size audience. Reaching children with a positive message had been his goal since he first developed his revolutionary idea for an educational children’s program in the early 1950s, when he first worked for WQED. At the time, he developed and produced the show “The Children’s Corner,” a live, hour-long program with puppets and host Josie Carey. He first appeared on camera in the early 1960s while working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in Toronto. While there he produced 15-minute daily programs called “Misterogers.” By the mid-1960s, the shows were lengthened to 30 minutes and moved to Pittsburgh. Vastly different from the commercial animation shows created for children, the shows gained wide appeal among parents and they strongly objected to an announcement that the show was being canceled for lack of production funds. The show received a new lease on life through a grant from the Sears, Roebuck Foundation and matching funds from the National Educational Television. The show began airing nationally Feb. 19, 1968. At the core of each show was education. Sometimes it was showing children how crayons are made in a video field trip to a factory or explaining how a visit to the barbershop for a haircut doesn’t hurt. Moreover, he developed shows to help children who might be worried about a newborn infant in the house, the death of a family pet or enrolling in a new school. He often said his guiding mantra was listening to children, discovering who they were and what was important in their lives. By providing answers to childrens’ questions and addressing their uncertainties in their expanding world, he sought to aid their emotional development as individuals. “There is continuity that goes through the generations,” Mr. Rogers wrote in his book, “You Are Special.” “There has never been a time in our history when there have been so many changes. But we all have different gifts and different ways of saying to the world who we are. The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its people feeling they are worthwhile.” One of his early and few commercial ventures was his support of a life-size rendition of his “Neighborhood of Make-Believe,” at the Idlewild and Soak Zone amusement park in Ligonier, Pa. The ride features a trolley that takes passengers, old and young, through a patch of woods, where some of Mr. Rogers puppet creations from his show like Ana Platypus, Daniel Striped Tiger, Henrietta Pussycat and Lady Elaine talk of a party at the castle of King Friday XIII. “No other amusement ride encourages parents, children and other relatives to end with a hug and singing a song,” said Keith Hood, who was general manager of Idlewild Park when the Neighborhood of Make-Believe opened in 1989. “When you talked to Fred, what you saw is what you got. He was truly a genuine person with high ideals and values. The world needs more Fred Rogers.” Mr. Rogers was born Fred McFeely Rogers in Latrobe, Pa., a small industrial town about an hour’s drive east of Pittsburgh. A son of a successful businessman, he once said one of the most important people in his early years was his grandfather, who often told him, “I like you just the way you are.” It was a refrain he often repeated on his show. ——————————————- Fred Rogers always opened the TV show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” by changing from shoes to sneakers. (AP File)