April 10, 2001

'Mister Rogers' Ends Production, but Mr. Rogers Keeps Busy

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Now Mr. Rogers's days are divided between dreaming up new projects and executing them. He is also a regular speaker on the college circuit, where he has received so many honorary degrees that two quilts have been made with the colorful sashes given to honorees. 

The son of a businessman and a housewife, Mr. Rogers grew up in Latrobe, about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh. There his grandfather, Fred McFeely, started and presided over a collection of businesses like a silica-brick factory and a chicken farm. Mr. Rogers said he drew inspiration from old Mr. McFeely, who never retired even into his 80's.

He has taken to wearing the bow ties that his grandfather favored. And he harbors ambitions that his new projects will multiply like his grandfather's Latrobe businesses, he said, solidifying his legacy along with his archive of shows. 

Mr. Rogers said he was convinced that those shows would endure in popularity even in the face of competition from children's programming that is faster, louder, snappier: a pace that he abhors. "If people can watch `The Wizard of Oz' for 20 years, I think they can watch the `Neighborhood' every day," Mr. Rogers said. "There always needs to be a place for somebody who wants to offer some deep and simple and personal communication because I don't think that the human being is going to change that much."

In person Mr. Rogers is surprisingly reticent with a habit of responding to questions about himself with his own gentle questions. ("You'll catch me in this. If you weren't doing what you do, what would you do? I can't help it.")

His routine, said friends, is almost monklike in its simplicity. Mr. Rogers swims every day at a public pool and heads to another office for writing before appearing at the headquarters of Family Communications, where as chief executive he draws a $139,000 annual salary. A vegetarian, he lunches daily on yogurt and crackers.

His direct, simple television manner, his wife said, is exactly who he is. When their two sons were growing up, Mrs. Rogers remembered, her husband maintained the stoic patience that was his television hallmark.

"I didn't have his patience," she said, laughing. "And I was just like a fishwife yelling and screaming. Sometimes I would wait for him to say something, and it didn't happen. And so I always ended up being the one to discipline, the ogre."

When asked why he devoted his life to children, Mr. Rogers's answer is typically direct and simple. "Well, the children become adults," he said. "That's the most important time with which we can nourish the future."

He paused and then proffered a framed photo of two young men that sits beside his office couch.

Last summer these students, Casey McNerthney, 20, a sophomore at Western Washington University, and Morgan Marshall, 19, a Stanford University sophomore, traveled from Seattle in a borrowed van, steering toward Pittsburgh, sleeping in 7- Eleven parking lots and drawing inexorably closer to their Holy Grail: the real "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

Mr. McNerthney was already the host of a weekly breakfast in his dorm room to watch the show, which he and a dozen friends dubbed "Mister Rogers Fridays." Then he and Mr. Marshall, his childhood friend, came up with the idea of a road trip to visit Mr. Rogers.

"If you grow up watching `Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,' you can really connect it with your childhood," Mr. McNerthney said. "The topics that Fred takes on are themes that only come up after a long car ride or after a discussion real late at night. And I think those lessons of trust and appreciation for other people can be applied to your everyday life."

When they arrived in the summer, Mr. Rogers didn't disappoint them. And the students in turn gave him another concrete reason for continuing in the latest stage of his career. 

"These kids give you such hope," he said, still holding the wooden frame. "Maybe they realize that you don't have to be macho to be acceptable, and that everybody longs to be loved and feel that he or she is capable of loving. I would hope that is one of the major influences of the Neighborhood."