For more than a quarter century, Fred Rogers, the host of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, came into American homes every day. The beloved Mr. Rogers died Thursday morning of cancer at the age of 74.
Fred Rogers began his daily half hour with the children of America with this musical invitation to become his neighbor. Every day, Fred would enter his living room set, hang up his jacket, put on an old wool, zipper sweater, replace his leather oxfords with worn tennis shoes and settle in for a chat with his television audience. He talked directly to children about things of interest or concern to them. He spoke, calmly and slowly, using simple language that often sounded silly or boring to adults. But the secret of Mr. Rogers' deep and enduring appeal to young children was that they understood him and they believed that he understood and cared about them.
Fred Rogers was born in Latrobe, in the hills of Western Pennsylvania, in 1928. After graduating from college with a degree in music composition, he worked for several television stations before becoming a co-host of The Children's Corner, the first children's program on American public television, which originated at WQED in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During off-duty hours, Fred attended the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and studied child development at the University of Pittsburgh. He was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1962, with a charge to continue his work with children through the media. In 1966, he started the Mister Rogers' Neighborhood series. In 1968, the Public Broadcasting Service began to air it, nationally.
His study of child development influenced all his work. He shared the belief of most experts that the development of healthy self-esteem is the most critical task of growing up. Mr. Rogers supported a child's sense of self worth, as he told them in one of his most popular songs "You have made this day a special day just by being you."
"I think everybody longs to be loved and longs to know that he or she is lovable," Mr. Rogers said. " And, consequently, the greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they are loved and capable of loving."
In consultation with many prominent child psychologists, Fred Rogers developed ways of allowing children to acknowledge feelings, especially the emotions that frighten them. He helped them see that, while they might feel very angry, for example, they could control that emotion and channel it in healthy ways.
Fred dealt with the most painful experiences of childhood, such as death, disability, violence and divorce - in a reassuring and gentle way.
"Did you ever know any grownups who got married and then, later, they got a divorce? Well, it is something that people can talk about," he said. " And it is something important. I know a little girl and a little boy whose mother and father got a divorce, and those children cried and cried. You know why? Well, one reason was that they thought it was all their fault. But, of course, it wasn't their fault."
Fred Rogers' wisdom helped generations of children understand their world and their place in it. And, he helped them to feel valued.
Fred Rogers won many television and community service awards as well as honorary degrees from colleges and universities. When he was in his 60's, students at the prestigious Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, acknowledged their debt to the gentle mentor they grew up with - and their affection for him - by asking the university to award him an honorary degree at their graduation.
"Oh boy. Well, am I ever glad to be in this neighborhood," he said, after receiving the degree.
Fred Rogers "Mr. Rogers, " that is - dead at the age of 74.