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The Nation | FRED ROGERS: 1928-2003

It's a Sad Day in This Neighborhood

February 28, 2003|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Fred Rogers, a gentle giant of public television who encouraged children's imaginations, confronted their fears and assured them in every episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" that "I like you just the way you are," has died. He was 74.

Rogers died early Thursday at his Pittsburgh home after a brief bout with stomach cancer.

Produced from 1968 to 2001 and still on the air in reruns on more than 300 Public Broadcasting Service stations across the country, "Mister Rogers" is public television's longest-running program. It has been analyzed by social scientists, who praise its ability to calm children and stimulate creativity, and satirized by comics such as Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams, whose spoofs confirmed its influence.

Rogers understood how powerfully intimate television could be. He talked directly to the camera and eschewed the whiz-bang of animation and fast cuts for a pace so deliberate that it allowed for moments of silence -- unthinkable nearly anywhere else on the tube.

He stuck to a small cast, the same few simple sets and an unwavering message of love and respect for children's innermost thoughts.

"He made a mass medium personal," said David Kleeman, executive director of the American Center for Children and Media in Des Plaines, Ill. "He had a way of talking to the camera as though there was just one child there. And he made every child feel he was speaking directly to them."

"Our goal," Rogers once told Newsweek magazine, "is to confront children with what bothers them. It is good to re-evoke their fears and teach them to deal with them. That's why children are held by the program.... [I]t deals with their inner dramas."

In keeping with his philosophy, Rogers' production company issued a special message to parents Thursday about how to talk to their children about his death -- why he died and why they'll still see him on TV. It also warned that as parents who grew up watching him "you may be surprised to find you're more upset than your child." And, of course, that it's OK to cry "and smile again later on." (The message is at www.misterrogers.org under "Helpful Hints for Parents.")

"Remember that Fred Rogers has always helped children know that feelings are natural and normal, and that happy times and sad times are part of everyone's life," the message on the Web site of Family Communications read.

Rogers' achievements were recognized with two Peabody Awards, four Emmys, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. When the Rose Parade chose "Children's Dreams, Wishes and Imagination" as this year's theme, Rogers was one of the grand marshals, along with Bill Cosby and Art Linkletter.

An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers made television his pulpit and pint-sized viewers and their parents his congregation. He preached many messages, but the overriding one had to do with self-worth, a lesson he learned from his beloved grandfather.

Fred McFeely Rogers was born in the small industrial town of Latrobe in western Pennsylvania. He was a sickly, overweight child with a very protective mother who did not like him to play outside by himself and once made him spend an entire summer inside an air-conditioned room because of his hay fever. His father prospered as president of the McFeely Brick Co., one of Latrobe's largest businesses.

Having grown up in an era when good children were seen and not heard, Rogers said he was expected to be perfect. An only child until he was 11, when his parents adopted a baby girl, he spent many hours alone, often working out anxieties and frustrations by playing with puppets. He also immersed himself in music, tinkling the keys on a toy piano and later on an electric organ. He began to compose and eventually had more than 150 songs to his credit.

He spent winters in Florida with his grandfather, Fred Brooks McFeely, after whom he was named (and after whom Rogers named a character on his show). An entrepreneur, McFeely tried to imbue his grandson with his can-do spirit, teaching him how to ride a horse and freeing him to try things he might not ordinarily have been allowed to do, such as climb a wall.

"I climbed that wall. And then I ran on it. I will never forget that day," Rogers recalled many years later. His grandfather modeled the trusting, patient behavior that became a hallmark of Mister Rogers.

His signature line -- "I like you just the way you are" -- was taken nearly verbatim from Grandfather McFeely.

"I think it was when I was leaving one time to go home after our time together that my grandfather said to me, '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.'

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