For generations, the loss of an icon

by Charles Gardner | 2/28/03 6:00am

Fred Rogers, the beloved children's television icon who was a friend and neighbor to generations of American children as "Mister Rogers," died yesterday at the age of 74.

Rogers, who attended Dartmouth for two years in the 1940s and was the keynote speaker at the 2002 Commencement ceremonies, succumbed to stomach cancer at his home in Pittsburgh, Penn.

During a career in television that spanned half a century, he became best known for "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," which first appeared on PBS in 1969 and continued uninterrupted until 2001, when the last original episode aired.

David Newell, a spokesman for the Rogers family who played the character of Mr. McFeely on the show, told The Associated Press that Rogers was the same as he appeared on TV.

"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."

In an interview with The Dartmouth last June, Rogers said he was attracted to the medium of television because of its potential for good, a potential that he thought was being wasted.

Television "is neither good nor bad, it's what we do with it that makes it that way," he said. "I think once you've established a bond of trust, it's just endless what you can impart in a positive way."

And while he has been best known for his role in television, Rogers' career spanned a wide array of interests.

Rogers, who was born in 1928 in the town of Latrobe, Penn., arrived at Dartmouth in 1946, living in a two-room triple in Massachusetts Hall as a freshman. During his sophomore year, he began to pursue a growing interest in music, shifting his focus away from foreign languages to practice hours each day on the piano.

When Rogers decided to switch to a music major, one of his teachers suggested he transfer to Rollins College, as Dartmouth's own music department was still under development.

Rogers remembered his time at the College as an entirely new experience for him.

"I was really just a kid ," Rogers said. "I had never been away from home before."

Still, Rogers said, he received a "good grounding in music" while at Dartmouth before entering the conservatory at Rollins, where he majored in music composition -- a skill that would serve him well later in life when he wrote the music for his own show.

Following his graduation from Rollins in 1951, Rogers married fellow pianist Joanne Byrd and moved to New York City to work in the emerging field of television.

In 1953, Rogers helped with the production of the show "The Children's Corner" at WQED in Pittsburgh, where he worked as a puppeteer, musician and producer for seven years.

Several years later, in 1963, Rogers was ordained as a Presbyterian minister after attending the Graduate School of Child Development and the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

His own show, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," first appeared in an early form on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and was picked up by PBS in 1969.

The show, which featured a single television camera seamlessly following Rogers around his home, was free of rapid-fire images and special effects, offering a slow-paced and intimate experience that connected deeply with viewers.

With the "inordinate amount" of violence currently on television, Rogers emphasized the importance of "how absolutely important and essential it is to make goodness attractive."

"We've got to respect children and their feelings," he said. "A disruption of trust can last for a whole lifetime."

Throughout the roughly 900 episodes of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," Rogers entertained guests ranging from Yo Yo Ma and Tony Bennett to David Copperfield and Julia Child. The show garnered numerous awards, including four Emmys, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Despite the acclaim, Rogers said he always strove to present himself on television just as he was in person.

"I think children can spot a phony a mile away," he said. "You had better be yourself."

Even after he ceased filming new episodes of his show in 2001, Rogers remained active, writing books and working on a new website, among other activities. Episodes of the show will continue to run in syndication, allowing another generation of children to watch Rogers and the familiar cast of characters, from Mr. McFeely to King Friday and X the Owl, who populate the show.

When Rogers returned to the Dartmouth campus in June 2002 to deliver the keynote address at Commencement, he concluded his speech by reciting the lines of one his songs, "It's You I Like."

What the song "ultimately means, of course, is that you don't ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you. When I say it's you I like, I'm talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch," Rogers said.

Rogers is survived by his wife Joanne Rogers, two sons and two grandsons.