Jewish World Review March 4, 2003 / 30 Adar I, 5763

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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Not an appreciation of Mr. Rogers | I'm not qualified to write an appreciation of Fred Rogers, so I won't even try.

I was going on 11 when "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" premiered in '68 -- probably a little older than his target audience -- and I never became a fan. So I have only distant knowledge of the program and its soft-spoken host, who died Thursday after a brief struggle with stomach cancer.

But it strikes me that the passing of Fred Rogers is a milestone in the passing of something else. He was, after all, an adult who spent his professional life on television talking to children. There aren't many of those people around anymore.

The landscape of children's television was once filled with them, though. They were -- before David Letterman got hold of the term and larded it with postmodern irony -- our "TV friends." There was Bozo the clown, of course, but also Captain Kangaroo, Bob McAllister on "Wonderama," Paul Winchell with his puppet, Jerry Mahoney, Shari Lewis with her Lamb Chop, Buffalo Bob with Howdy Doody and the various women who presided over "Romper Room." There were also dozens of regional performers. In Los Angeles, where I grew up, we had Hobo Kelly, Sheriff John, Engineer Bill.

They ran cartoons, they did skits, they told you to drink your milk and eat your spinach. And they had a way of making you feel they were speaking -- how naive we were! -- solely to you. How many times did I perk up when the "Romper Room" lady looked through the television using her "magic mirror"? How many Octobers did I wait for Sheriff John to call my name when he sang his birthday song?

Too many, man. Too many.

It's a form of entertainment that's all but gone now. Outside, perhaps, of a "Barney" here or a "Blues Clues" there, live action hosts have disappeared from children's programming. Small wonder. It's hard to imagine any self-respecting child of 2003 being callow enough to think the lady on television was directly addressing him. Children will never be that young again.

I'm not going to get off into a rant about how everything was better back then, because I'll sound like just another cranky boomer. And besides, "SpongeBob SquarePants" makes me laugh.

But I will say that things were different then. That when the adults around you were mysterious or harsh or just did not see you, it was nice to have these "places" you could go that were yours. These places that were safe, these places where you laughed, these places where the adults always saw you. And always seemed to find joy in what they saw.

Or, as Fred Rogers used to say, "I like you just the way you are."

It's a deceptively powerful message. So much so that many of those most sorrowful at his passing right now are not children but former children who grew up during his 33-year run. And who remember what a wonderful thing it was to have an adult's approval.

"Sad day in the neighborhood" read the subject line from an e-mail I received the day he died.

Consider something Rogers told "Nightline" when he retired from his program two years ago. He mentioned a letter he had received from a woman who had been abused and raped as a child. "She would find her solace," he said, "in going into a little room that had the television. And she said, "I really believed it when you said that people could like me exactly as I was, because I really didn't like myself that much at first. But I really came to believe you." '

The space between the television and the girl became, said Rogers, "holy ground." A place where she could believe she was seen. And that somebody cared.

So no, I won't do the boomer tirade. But I will say that Fred Rogers' death makes me wistful for a time when it was reasonable to think you might be seen through a magic mirror, when you waited for a friendly sheriff to wish you happy birthday. Or when you believed you were a good person simply because a gentle man said you were.

I'm glad I came of age back when children were young.

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