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Published: Sunday, 3/2/2003

Sad day in the neighborhood

Comedians loved to parody him. But Mister Rogers would laugh along with the rest of us. Even though Fred Rogers, who died of cancer Thursday at 74, was a television personality known to millions of American children and their parents, he never considered himself a star and never took himself too seriously. He was just a neighbor who came over to visit.

Over 30 years of visits, the host of the public television show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood smiled, sang, donned his sneakers, zipped his cardigan, and left viewers with a simple message to love themselves and others. It was easy for adults to snicker about how corny and wimpy Mister Rogers was, but kids loved him and he loved them back. In a world of noise, his was a gentle voice.

Just as importantly, the ordained Presbyterian minister who'd take kids along on a magical trolley ride into the Neighborhood of Make Believe, respected his young audience. He gave validity to their feelings and direction to their emotions.

Through puppets and play, Mr. Rogers showed youngsters how to deal with anger, fear, sadness, and even death. He reminded his viewers that it was OK not to have all the answers about everything but “whatever is mentionable can be more manageable.”

He taught generations of American kids the value of honesty, openness, and sharing. He taught parents the importance of taking time to listen to their children.

Mr. Rogers felt so strongly about helping kids understand and express feelings that he briefly came out of retirement last year to talk with parents about how to help their children cope with the anniversary of 9/11.

The private Mr. Rogers was much like his television persona. Too bad if some adults have a problem with that, he once told an interviewer. “What you see is what you get. It's just who I happen to be.”

And to many, the late Mr. Rogers was too genuinely good to be true. But the gentle teacher who always opened his show singing “It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood” was the real thing.

New pint-sized viewers are learning that today through the continuing Mister Rogers' Neighborhood Programs on PBS. It is a lasting gift from Fred Rogers, whose legacy is obvious: He was a trusted resource for parents and an even better friend of children.

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