Gray Watson Personal Thoughts 2003.02.27
Goodbye Fred

In the shower this morning my wife runs in to tell me that Fred Rogers, the host of the famous US children's show "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood", died early this morning from stomach cancer. The news puts a pall on the day for sure. All the news sites that I watch have his death notice and obituary at the top of the page: NY Times, Wired.com, CNN, Salon.com, Boston Globe. I thought I'd take a moment and share my few memories of the man.

One of the nice things about growing up in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania was that I lived in Mr. Rogers' real neighborhood. He lived 4 or 5 blocks from my parents' house in the Squirrel Hill area. My parents and the Rogers knew each other and once and a while we'd run into them in the market or at a movie and they'd exchange greetings. According to all accounts, Fred was the same person on and off the screen. He was a kind and gentle man who was very committed to children.

The first time I and my mother met Mr. Rogers was soon after we moved from Boston to Pittsburgh in the late 60s. My mother had taken me to a local park and was talking to another mother while I ran around. Suddenly she got a tap on her shoulder and turned around to see Mr. Rogers. "I think your son would like me to meet you" he said as I danced around in the background with excitement. Although my memory is awful, I remember with some clarity the adults who, when I was young, really wanted to talk (more listen) to me -- especially the men. Mr. Rogers certainly was one of those. He would get down on he knees when talking to small children to put himself on our level.

Another story that my mother tells is the time we went over to a friend's house for a small party that Mr. Rogers, his wife, and at least one of his children were attending. The hostess had called earlier and warned my mother that Mr. Rogers would be there and probably didn't want any special attention or fuss. My mother sat my brother and I down and told us that Mr. Rogers would be there but was only going as a dad and not a TV star or anything. When we went to the party, Andrew and I were good and after being introduced we had a good time playing with the local toys. In the middle of the party however, after nothing more had happened, the hostess pulled my mom aside and asked her what was wrong with us. "Don't they know that it's Mr. Rogers?" So much for her warnings. My mother is still amused by the memory.

If you have ever seen a Mr. Rogers' show, which if you live in the US is almost a certainty, they you know that each by themselves is nothing astounding. Even his last show was not spectacular in any way -- no goodbyes, no special guests, no awards or applause. He took off his famous sweater, put on his jacket, gave a wave, and simply went out the door. Mr. Rogers' legacy was that each and every show was simple, fun, and wonderful. His life seemed not to be punctuated with peaks of glory but with the continual glow of work which is so very familiar to his fans -- old and young alike. To this respect he reminds me much of my father who built a level of respect and admiration from friends, patients, employees, and colleagues through a lifetime of consistency and hard work.

Fred Rogers composed the music and wrote the lyrics for most of music on the show. He did the puppetry and voices of many of the fabulous characters he created in the Land of Make Believe. He produced the show and and wrote many of the episodes. The show was very much his complete creation.

At work this morning I hear the occasional conversation about his death and I'm sure similar talk is being heard in a large majority of offices and homes across the US. People are recalling their favorite memories and lamenting that generations of children to come will not be able to delight in his program. "Barnie", "Sponge Bob", the "Powerpuff Girls", or their replacements will most likely be what the children of the future will be exposed.

Mr. Rogers, thanks much for your program, your almost larger-than-life but very down-to-earth persona, and your lifetime of work. You will be missed and will be remembered.

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