Losing a neighbor

February 28, 2003

HE WAS special.

Fred Rogers, better known to generations of children by the far more civilized "Mister Rogers," got into television for the best of reasons: because he hated it.

It's hard to imagine the gentle giant of children's television hating anything - in his more than 30 years as host of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," aired on PBS stations across the country, his message to children was unfailingly about love: love of themselves, their lives, their family and friends. And about his love for them.

It sounds so mushy, so hopelessly out of date. But it worked - and Fred Rogers, who died Thursday of cancer at the age of 74, was loved in return.

He had hated television, he said on the eve of his final show, because of its failure to live up to its potential to nurture the human spirit. So he set about to change that. He thought "there was some way of using this fabulous instrument to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."

Watch and listen they did. His slow speech pattern, his unvarying routine of arriving at his "house," changing into his zippered cardigan and slipping into a pair of sneakers, comforted millions of children with its easy pace and sense of well-being.

While other children's shows grew more and more frenetic, attempting to hold young audiences with loud noise and exploding graphics, Mr. Rogers captured young hearts and minds with his intelligent, playful style. He didn't try to satisfy so-called short attention spans with rapid-fire delivery, he spoke like the kindly grown-up that he was - and children listened.

Who would have thought a Presbyterian minister with a talent for puppetry would wind up having the longest-running program on PBS? Who would have thought a geeky-looking guy who every day greeted millions of young viewers as he donned a cardigan his mother made for him would be hailed as a cultural icon?

Maybe only those who truly see through the eyes of children; those who know that a kind word, gently spoken, is a rare and valued treasure; those who know that kids learn about respect not by being told, but by being shown. Mr. Rogers knew that. Now that he is gone, parents will simply have to remember it.

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