There was only one person like Mr. Rogers

March 03, 2003|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - I met Mr. Rogers long after the children in my family had left his neighborhood. Long after they'd crossed the media highway into a much more treacherous and indifferent culture.

One morning in Pittsburgh, I was invited to his TV studio. There was a worn sofa, a chair or two, a pile of puppets. It might have been a humble cul-de-sac in his fanciful TV world.

I felt like a parent squeezing into a kindergarten seat at a parent-teacher conference. And when he told me to call him Fred, I couldn't. To me, he would always be Mr. Rogers.

This was the thing I learned about the man who understood children: He didn't play Mr. Rogers on TV; he was Mr. Rogers. The character was his character. He had the same gentle voice that willed the world to slow down and listen up, to live at child-speed. And he wore civility as lightly and easily as a cardigan sweater.

Before I left, he rustled through a bunch of boxes in search of a Mr. Rogers T-shirt to give me as if I were a young fan - which I was. When we said goodbye, I half expected him to change shoes, put on his sweater and deliver his closing line, "See you next time."

Now there will be no "next time."

Fred McFeely Rogers died Thursday. The obits described it as a death in the neighborhood, and so it was. "I have really never considered myself a TV star," Mr. Rogers once said, "I always thought I was a neighbor who just came in for a visit." But he came into our homes for one visit and returned for hundreds more.

Born 74 years ago, Mr. Rogers grew up spending Sunday afternoons with his grandfather on a sprawling Pennsylvania farm. His grandfather used to tell him, "You made this day a special day, just because you were here and you are you. I like you just the way you are." This phrase, this gift, became his inheritance from the old man. And he passed it along to our children.

Mr. Rogers' television career began half a century ago as an unseen puppeteer. He left broadcasting to study child development, became a Presbyterian minister and then embarked on a unique ministry. For 30 years, using a blue marking pen on yellow-lined paper, he scripted the songs and scenes of a preschool village. With "speedy delivery" and a trolley to Make-Believe, he designed the emotional streets and fanciful front lawns of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

Mr. Rogers always seemed like a traveler from some other, gentler world. But even in 1964, when he first asked children to be his neighbor, the world had begun to grow out of out of sync with the pace and needs of childhood.

One of his early programs in 1968 was to help parents explain the death of Robert Kennedy. One of his last programs - out of retirement - was to help explain Sept. 11.

Over the years, in 900 episodes, he created a safe, open place where children mattered. Day by day, he honed a television counterculture, an alternative universe to mainstream media. In one of the longest-running series on television, he offered his vision of a child-friendly village in a child-hostile broadcast world.

Outside of the neighborhood, a Disney World of media moguls gradually defined childhood as a market. Now, small viewers can't tell the Pokemon program from the product. Cartoons are inseparable from the commercials. But Mr. Rogers treated his viewers like preschoolers, not consumers. He said, "I want children to know that there is far more to their lives than the latest fad."

Outside of the neighborhood, a cable spectrum of cartoons became populated with "action figures" and driven by violence. But Mr. Rogers' plots revolved around the whole emotional life of children - from the fear of a bathtub drain to the pain of divorce. "It's important," he once said, "for us to give them words for their feelings."

For most of us these days, the media are not a visitor but an intruder. Parents often feel like helpless bystanders, unable to screen the information that beams directly - through and around us - to our children, whether it's a pitch for Big Macs or the image of a plane crashing into a tower. But for 30 years, we had Fred Rogers on our side. Even now, his Web site carries a message on how to explain his death to children.

Mr. Rogers' red cardigan has gone to the Smithsonian. But how do we say goodbye to our neighbor? With one of his favored lines, the sort that garnered so many affectionate parodies? "There's only one person in the whole world like you."

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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