Everybody's Next-Door Neighbor

Though word of his death had hit the morning news shows a few hours earlier, Fred Rogers looked as chipper as ever last Thursday as he strolled in the familiar front door. Judging from the grayness of his hair, this was one of PBS's late-vintage episodes, circa 1999. On this day he chose the purple cardigan and welcomed a marine biologist into his televisual neighborhood. The two of them stood by an aquarium talking in quiet tones while a piano periodically trilled. In a video clip within the video, Rogers dons a wet suit and snorkels among tropical fish. "It seems so peaceful down there," he says.

Peacefulness isn't the first attribute you think of when you consider what makes great television. But it's the essence of the ritualized world of make-believe that Rogers crafted for children over the course of four decades in the studio. Word of his death last week, from stomach cancer, briefly crowded out news of terror alerts and impending war. He would have liked that. Mister Rogers was 74, but he seemed older, having served as an idealized national grandparent ever since the Nixon era.

Raised in a wealthy Pennsylvania family during the pretelevision era, the pre-Mister Rogers was often kept indoors by illnesses and forced to rely on his imagination for entertainment. He studied music and planned to attend a seminary, but instead found work at NBC's studio in 1951. (He was ordained as a Presbyterian minister later in life.) By the mid-1950s he was writing and performing a puppet show on Pittsburgh's public television station. That work evolved into "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," which began airing nationally on PBS in 1968. He taped the last of his nearly 1,000 episodes two years ago. Reruns still air each weekday in 94 percent of the country.

To 21st-century adult eyes, conditioned by slam-bang editing and nonstop irony, his program may seem surreally dated. Rarely have the rules of set design been so cruelly violated. Unlike many of today's kids' shows, his was never designed--nor ever proved--to boost your child's SAT scores. And Mister Rogers's face never sold diapers or juice boxes or toys as effectively as Elmo's or Barney's. Among viewers from the ages of 2 to 5, "Neighborhood" recently ranked just 13th out of PBS's 16 weekday kids' programs. But Nielsen numbers underestimate the loyalty Rogers maintained through his gentleness, his ability to appear utterly amazed by the workings of a bulldozer and his reassuring calm amid a cacophony of cartoons. As long as the parents who grew up with him retain some control over the remote (and over PBS funding), Mister Rogers will remain a part of children's lives. Last week his Web site gave parents advice on how to talk to their kids about his death. "You may be surprised to find that you're more upset than your child," it noted. It was a good guess.

Talking with NEWSWEEK last fall--always in that slow, measured cadence that made you want to buy the man a double espresso and remind him you're not 4 years old anymore--Rogers claimed limited knowledge of today's children's TV. He spent his time swimming, praying, reading and writing. Still, he defended quality shows as "building blocks" for play. "The most important time for a child and a television program is when it's turned off," Rogers said. "I've always felt our 'Neighborhood' programs are a springboard for play and creativity." Then he gently steered the conversation, as he did with nearly everyone he met, to you, your childhood, your own children, your own specialness.

Whenever critics pointed out that "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" didn't change with the times, his defenders would note that good parenting doesn't change much, either. As last Thursday's show wound down, Mister Rogers talked about how kids can avoid being frightened by TV. "Some television programs are loud and scary, with people shooting each other," he said, unveiling that deep stare that makes you think he can really see you through the glass. "When you see scary television, you can turn it off." Then the music started, he desneakered, unsweatered and began his up-tempo closing. Can you sing along? "It's such a goo-ood feeling, to know you're alive..." Fred Rogers will stay alive, for a time at least, in his changeless neighborhood. And the good feelings will last even longer.