PITTSBURGH (AP) – Fred Rogers, 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, died of cancer early Thursday. He was 74.
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."
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.
"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.
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.
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."
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. 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 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.
One of Rogers' red sweaters hangs in the Smithsonian Institution.
As other children's programming opted for slick action cartoons, Rogers stayed the same and stuck to his soothing message.
Rogers was born in Latrobe, 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. He was ordained in 1962 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.
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.
Rogers accepted an offer to develop his own 15-minute show in Canada. He brought the show, called "Misterogers," back to Pittsburgh and in February 1968 began its public broadcasting debut.
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.
Copyright © 2003 The Associated Press
Published in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Mar. 2, 2003.