"All along, I felt that we should build a library of tapes
of various themes of childhood. And I felt that we had accomplished
that," says Rogers, 73.
"We have about a thousand programs on tape that can be used
over and over again," he says. "I mean, if people can
watch The Wizard of Oz once a year, they can watch the Neighborhood
once a day."
Children have been faithful to Rogers for years. The target audience
- 2- to 6-year-olds - just loves to watch their avuncular TV friend
change into a sweater and comfy shoes for a half-hour "visit,"
complete with his signature sign-on, "Won't you be my neighbor?"
The last new episode, taped in December, will air in August. But
the show will go on. Mister
Rogers' Neighborhood will continue in reruns from a rotating
library of more than 300 episodes.
But don't say the word "retirement." Rogers is vowing
to keep a steady agenda. Right now he's working on the narration
for a traveling planetarium show, The Sky Above Mister Rogers'
Neighborhood. Then there are several books and educational guides
for teachers and frequent speaking engagements to keep him busy.
Rogers is also turning to the Internet. He's working on one Web
site for children and another that doles out his wisdom, for adults.
"I have an idea of doing programs for people as they're going
to sleep," Rogers says. "You know, I would be able to
read stories and the children would be able to see the books right
on the computer. And I don't know another voice in America that
could put people to sleep better than this one."
One way or another, Mister Rogers might leave the neighborhood,
but the neighborhood isn't leaving him. He'll keep working with
children with that same voice, which is just as sweet and gentle
when he's off camera, speaking to adults.
That soothing demeanor has allowed him to take on subjects other
children's shows wouldn't dare.
In June of 1968, when Democratic presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy
was shot and killed, pictures of the carnage were broadcast over
and over, and Rogers knew that children would be watching. He and
the Neighborhood team scrambled to put together a program.
"Overnight, Fred wrote a script helping children understand
this word 'assassination,'" says longtime Neighborhood
associate producer Hedda Sharapan. "And we made a program that
aired Friday night, helping children and families, helping families
include their children some way in the mourning; that this was not
just an adult thing; that children realized something was going
on, let's help the children deal with it, in an appropriate way."
The show ended with Rogers on the couch, talking directly to the
viewer. The young Fred Rogers, still new to a national audience,
begged the viewers to think about what they had been seeing, and
feeling - and to talk about it.
"I have been terribly concerned about the graphic display
of violence which the mass media has been showing recently. And
I plead for your protection and support of your young children,"
he said in a calming tone. "There is just so much that a very
young child can take without it being overwhelming to him."
Set Out to Be Rich or Famous'
As he reflects on his career today, this TV giant remains humble.
"You don't set out to be rich or famous. What you set out to
do is to be helpful," he told Nightline during a recent
interview in Pittsburgh. "If the other comes along with it,
that's OK. But that's not what you set out to be."
Kids knew Rogers as a neighbor to whom they could always turn.
From the anxiety that comes with the first day of school, to the
death of a pet, the trauma of divorce, even global conflict, the
Neighborhood has been there. A few years ago, he worked on public
service announcements to help families understand the Gulf War.
"I've always thought of myself as a neighbor," he says,
"an uncle that came to visit and that just said, 'Hey, let's
spend a half an hour together,' you know, 'I accept you exactly
as you are. Let's just have some time together.'"
Nightline correspondent John Donvan interviewed Fred Rogers
and members of the Mister Rogers' Neighborhood production
team for a program that aired Friday, July 13 at 11:35 p.m. ET on