Neighborhoods may change, but not Mr. Rogers PBS honors host for 25 years on TV

January 14, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

After 25 years, it's still a beautiful day in the neighborhood for Fred Rogers.

And he's probably the only one who isn't surprised.

The world has changed considerably -- sometimes dreadfully -- since he launched "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" on PBS in the late 1960s, but he hasn't.

Sure, he's a little grayer; he's 64 now. But he isn't any less enthusiastic or astonished by the wonders of the world around him. And he can turn a room of jaded, ambitious, cynical adults into grinning, respectful curiosity seekers.

That's just the way he is -- apparently, wherever he goes. The kids who grew up with him for the past quarter-century are now disguised under business suits, but he can find them with a single question:

"Do you want to sing with me?"

The invitation is irresistible.

Just ask the hundreds of Boston University students who broke into, "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood," at their graduation ceremonies, where he had been invited to give the invocation.

And just ask members of the Television Critics Association, who gathered quietly and respectfully to watch PBS honor Mr. Rogers for 25 years of being a host, guide, teacher, friend and confidant to countless kids.

PBS President Bruce Christensen presented Mr. Rogers with a crystal apple inscribed, "For 25 years of planting the seeds to help children grow."

The genial, methodical Mr. Rogers returned the compliment when he described PBS as "the place where kids are safe, the place where they are important."

Afterward, Mr. Rogers looked back over the years and noted that the insights of the Neighborhood haven't changed.

"Human beings don't evolve that quickly," he said. "We still have the need to know that we are lovable and capable of loving. We need to know that we don't have to be perfect to be of value."

And, he says, we still need to know that play is valuable: "Socio-dramatic play is one of the best ways kids grow into problem-solving adults."

When you talk with Mr. Rogers, you discover that he doesn't give interviews. He has "conversations."

"The ancient meaning is 'an abiding,' something that lasts," Mr. Rogers said. "I don't want just quick questions and pat responses."

He speaks slowly and graciously, refusing to be hurried. The world is already spinning far too fast for his tastes, and he's not about to contribute to that velocity.

Does he ever tire of being Mr. Rogers and all that it implies?

"It would be [tiring] if I were playing a part. My wife says what you see is what you get. It's not hard for me to be me. This program is not a show. How can I explain? It's a gift. And I'm privileged to offer that gift."

Does he ever lose his temper?

"I have a very modulated way of dealing with anger," he said in probably the biggest understatement of the conversation. "Yes, I do get angry when I see people demeaned. I deal with it by playing the piano. I can be mad or glad through the tips of my fingers."

While children haven't changed much in the past 25 years, the circumstances surrounding them have, he says.

"Twenty-five years ago, we would never have produced a week of shows about divorce, for instance. Now, nearly every child is affected either directly or indirectly through friends."

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