Mr. Rogers was a death penalty opponent

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Dear Friends:

As we go about the business of trying to make the world a kinder, gentler,
and more humane place in which to live, we mourn the loss of Fred Rogers,
better known as "Mr. Rogers," who for almost 50 years was about that
business. It may interest you to know that Mr. Rogers shared our view
regarding the death penalty. A letter from him hangs in the office of
Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty.

I called PA Abolitionist's executive director Jeff Garis this afternoon to
ask him to fax me that letter for use in introducing my forward of the NY
Times' obituary. Jeff had been planning to send out a note of his own, and
my call spurred him to sit down and write. But I didn't expect him to
write such a powerful (and powerfully connected) piece. Below is Jeff
Gariss' comments, with a surprise ending that makes it all worth
reading. And below that is one of those rare obituaries that begins on
page one of the NYTimes.

Thanks to John, Celeste, and Jeff, who contributed to the production of
this message. It's International Death Penalty Abolition Day this
weekend. Honor the memory of Fred Rogers, the Abolitionist.




The Passing of a Quiet Abolitionist in Pennsylvania

Fred Rogers, known to millions of us around the world as our "television
neighbor Mr. Rogers," died Thursday, February 27th, at the age of 74. He
was a native of western Pennsylvania, where his long-running television
program, "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," was produced.

My childhood friend and classmate for 15 years, Dan Crozier, knew him by a
different name: Uncle Fred. Dan's mother, Elaine, was the sister of Fred
Rogers, so I was often regaled with stories from Dan about family
gatherings with his Uncle Fred. When we were in nursery school, Dan was
absent from school for a week due to a visit to western Pennsylvania to
visit his uncle. This relatively minor detail is permanently imbedded in my
memory because, when Dan returned, he brought with him a photograph of his
uncle. On the photo, written in blue ball point pen were the words: "To
Jeff, From your television neighbor, Mr. Rogers." That photo has been on
my refrigerator for most of my adult life, to this very day in fact. Dan's
visit to his Uncle Fred was also memorable as he appeared as a featured
guest on "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" in an episode focused on
"families." Dan, a musical prodigy at age four, played piano on the
show. It was the first time I saw someone I knew on television.

When we graduated from high school, Dan's Uncle Fred was in attendance in
the bleachers. Following the ceremony, I was introduced to Fred and Joanne
Rogers as "Danny's friend since nursery school." I was struck by the fact
that Fred Rogers had the same gentle, unassuming manner in person that he
displayed on his program. "Mr. Rogers" was not a character created for
television; he was just Fred Rogers talking to children through the medium
of television.

More recently, I came to know Fred Rogers in another way - as a fellow
Pennsylvanian who opposed capital punishment. In my work with Pennsylvania
Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty, I am constantly in
brainstorming sessions where we discuss potential speakers for rallies or
fund raisers. In one such discussion, we were trying to think of prominent
Pennsylvanians who might be opponents of the death penalty and whose
presence at a rally might attract greater media coverage. Additionally, we
were trying to think of people who other Pennsylvanians would respect and
who were not necessarily thought of as "death penalty opponents." After
suggestions such as Will Smith, Joe Paterno, and "the guys in Live," I
asked the planning committee, "How about Mr. Rogers?"

They laughed and said, "Mr. Rogers? How do you know he opposes the death
penalty? How would we contact him?"

"Can you envision Fred Rogers supporting the death penalty?" I asked. "It
would be so completely incompatible with everything else I know about
him. He's a Presbyterian minister. And, I was close friends with his
nephew throughout my childhood, so there's our contact."

The discussion continued with other suggestions, and we never really came
back to it. The rally went forward, sans Rogers.

Several weeks later, however, when we were meeting with a legislator from
western Pennsylvania who had recently co-sponsored a bill calling for a
moratorium on executions, Fred Rogers' name came up again. We were
discussing influential Pennsylvanians who supported a suspension of
executions and abolition of the death penalty. One of my fellow activists
said, "Well, Jeff here keeps talking about Mr. Rogers." A few members of
our group chuckled.

The legislator said, "It's funny you mentioned his name. After the
moratorium bill was introduced, I received quite a few letters from people
in my region thanking me for co-sponsoring it. One of the most touching
was one that I received from Fred Rogers. He told me that he has always
opposed the death penalty, and he was pleased that I had introduced the

I, of course, gave my colleagues the look that says, "I told you so!"

Over the months following this confirmation of Fred Rogers' status as a
death penalty opponent, members of Pa. Abolitionists suggested another
approach. We sent him some information about our organization and invited
him to be the keynote speaker at our annual awards dinner in
Philadelphia. Shortly thereafter I received a call from his public
relations director, David Newell. Mr. Newell indicated that Fred Rogers
was still very busy working on projects despite the fact that he had
recently filmed the final installment of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." He
was working on developing educational resources and that most of his
limited time for public appearances was devoted to speaking on behalf of
nonprofit public broadcasting and the need for quality programming for
children. Mr. Newell also stated that Fred Rogers was very supportive of
our efforts and was strongly opposed to the death penalty.

"It just sends a horribly wrong message to children," Mr. Newell
stated. "For Fred a lot of it comes down to this: 'What are our children
learning from us when we model that this is an appropriate way of
responding to societal problems?'"

Our phone conversation continued for quite a while. Mr. Newell asked a lot
about what was going on politically in Pennsylvania around this issue. We
talked about my earlier introduction to Fred Rogers, and my connection with
his nephew, Dan. Mr. Newell struck me as a very friendly, likable
person. But, then again, can you imagine Mr. Rogers working with any other
type of person?

Pennsylvania, indeed the world, lost a truly decent, thoughtful, caring
human being with Fred Rogers' passing. In the mass-media era of crass
commercialism and excess, someone like Mr. Rogers was unique. Death
penalty abolitionists lost a fellow opponent of state-sponsored killing,
although many people were probably unaware of his deeply held beliefs.

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell was likely one of those who was unaware of
Mr. Rogers' opposition to the death penalty. Yesterday morning, Gov.
Rendell released a statement regarding "the passing of Pennsylvania's own
Fred Rogers." It said, in part:

"Today, our state has lost a great role model and our country has lost one
of history's greatest teachers. We should be mindful, though, that during
his seventy-four year life, Mr. Rogers helped instill values in America's
children that will affect our nation for decades to come."

That same morning Gov. Rendell released another statement. It began, "Gov.
Edward G. Rendell today signed a warrant for the execution by lethal
injection of Jose DeJesus of Philadelphia County."

I have two questions in my mind. I wonder if Gov. Rendell used the same
pen to sign Jose DeJesus' death warrant that he used to pay tribute to Mr.
Rogers. I'll probably never know the answer to this. The second is, "What
would Mr. Rogers say to the governor about the death warrant for Jose
DeJesus?" To this question, I have at least a suspicion.

"What are our children learning from us when we model that this is an
appropriate way of responding to societal problems?"

While I strongly disagree with Gov. Rendell's continued support for the
death penalty, I join him in his hope that the values that Mr. Rogers
helped instill in America's children truly will affect our nation for
decades to come.

Jeff Garis
Executive Director
Pa. Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty


Fred Rogers, Host of 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,' Dies at 74

February 28, 2003

Fred Rogers, the thoughtful television neighbor whose
songs, stories and heart-to-heart talks taught generations
of children how to get along in the world, died yesterday
at his home in Pittsburgh. He was 74.

The cause was stomach cancer, said David Newell, a family
spokesman who also portrayed Mr. McFeely, of the Speedy
Delivery Messenger Service, one of the regulars on "Mister
Rogers' Neighborhood."

Mr. Rogers entered the realm of children's television with
a local show in Pittsburgh in 1954. But it was the daily
half-hour "Neighborhood" show, which began nationally on
public television in 1968 with homemade puppets and a
cardboard castle, that caught on as a haven from the
hyperactivity of most children's television. Let morphing
monsters rampage elsewhere, or educational programs jump up
and down for attention; "Mister Rogers" stayed the same
year after year, a low-key affair without animation or
special effects. Fred Rogers was its producer, host and
chief puppeteer. He wrote the scripts and songs. Above all
he supplied wisdom; and such was the need for it that he
became the longest-running attraction on public television
and an enduring influence on America's everyday life.

For all its reassuring familiarity, "Mister Rogers'
Neighborhood" was a revolutionary idea at the outset and it
remained a thing apart through all its decades on
television. Others would also entertain the young or give
them a leg up on their studies. But it was Fred Rogers, the
composer, Protestant minister and student of behavior who
ventured to deal head-on with the emotional life of

"The world is not always a kind place," he said. "That's
something all children learn for themselves, whether we
want them to or not, but it's something they really need
our help to understand." He believed that even the worst
fears had to be "manageable and mentionable," one way or
another, and because of this he did not shy away from
topics like war, death, poverty and disability.

In one classic episode he sat down at the kitchen table,
looked straight into the camera and calmly began talking
about divorce: "Did you ever know any grown-ups who got
married and then later they got a divorce?" he asked. And
then, after pausing to let that sink in: "Well, it is
something people can talk about, and it's something
important. I know a little boy and a little girl whose
mother and father got divorced, and those children cried
and cried. And you know why? Well, one reason was that they
thought it was all their fault. But, of course, it wasn't
their fault."

When the Smithsonian Institution put one of Mr. Rogers's
zippered sweaters on exhibit in 1984, no one who had grown
up with American television would have needed an
explanation. He had about two dozen of those cardigans.
Many had been knitted by his mother. He wore one every day
as part of the comforting ritual that opened the show: Mr.
Rogers would come home to his living room - a set at
WQED-TV in Pittsburgh - and change from a sports coat and
loafers into sweater and sneakers as he sang the words of
his theme, "It's a beaut-i-ful day in this neighborhood . .
. won't you be my neighbor?"

This would be followed by a talk about something that Mr.
Rogers wanted people to consider - maybe the obligations of
friendship, or the pleasures of music, or how to handle
jealousy. Then would come a trip into the Neighborhood of
Make-Believe, where an odd little repertory company of
human actors and hand puppets like King Friday XIII and
Daniel Striped Tiger might dramatize the day's theme with a
skit or occasionally stage an opera.

The show had guests, too, often musicians like Wynton
Marsalis or Yo-Yo Ma, and field trips. Mr. Rogers would
venture out to show what adults did for a living and the
objects made in factories, passing along useful information
along the way. Visiting a restaurant for a cheese, lettuce
and tomato sandwich, he would stop to demonstrate the right
way to set a table. And the sign that said restroom? It
just meant bathroom, and most restaurants had them, "if you
have to go."

Among his dozens of awards for excellence and public
service, he won four daytime Emmys as a writer or performer
between 1979 and 1999, as well as the lifetime achievement
award of the National Academy of Television Arts and
Sciences in 1997. Last year President George W. Bush gave
him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

No visit to the Neighborhood was complete without the
counsel and comfort to be found in his easy-to-follow
songs, which covered everything from the beauty of nature
to the common childhood fear of being sucked down the
bathtub drain with the water. He wrote about 200 songs and
repeated many of them so regularly that his viewers, most
of them between 2 1/2 and 5 1/2 years old, knew them by

"What Do You Do," about controlling anger, began this way:

What do you do with the mad that you feel

When you feel so mad you could bite?

When the whole wide
world seems oh, so wrong

And nothing you do seems very right?

What do you do? Do
you punch a bag?

Do you pound some clay or some dough?

Do you round up friends for a game of tag?

Or see how
fast you can go?

It's great to be able to stop

When you've planned a thing that's wrong.

Long ago, in
the days before grown-ups learned how say to "mission
statement," Mr. Rogers wrote down the things he wanted to
encourage in his audience. Self-esteem, self-control,
imagination, creativity, curiosity, appreciation of
diversity, cooperation, tolerance for waiting, and

It was no coincidence that his list reflected the
child-rearing principles gaining wide acceptance at the
time; he worked closely with people like Margaret
McFarland, a leading child psychologist, who was until her
death in 1988 the principal adviser for "Mister Rogers'

Like any good storyteller, he believed in the power of
make-believe to reveal truth, and he trusted children to
sort out the obvious inconsistencies according to their own
imaginations, as when the puppet X the Owl's cousin, for
example, turned out to be the human Lady Aberlin in a bird

His flights of fantasy probably reached their apex in his
extended comic operas; "trippy productions," as the
television critic Joyce Millman called them, that were "a
cross between the innocently disjointed imaginings of a
preschooler and some avant-garde opus by John Adams." At
least one of these works, "Spoon Mountain," was adapted for
the stage. It was presented at the Vineyard Theater in New
York in 1984.

Those who knew Mr. Rogers best, including his wife, said he
was exactly the same man on-camera and off. That man had a
much more complex personality than the mild, deliberate,
somewhat stooped fellow in the zippered sweater might let
on. One got glimpses of this in film clips of him behind
the scenes, especially when working his hand puppets: here
he wore a black shirt to blend into the background, became
lithe and intense, and changed his voice and attitude like
lightning as he switched back and forth between characters.

He was Henrietta Pussycat, who spoke mostly in meow-meows;
the frequently clueless X the Owl; Queen Sara; the pompous
and pedantic King Friday XIII; Lady Elaine Fairchilde,
heavily rouged and evidently battle-tested in the theater
of life; and others.

He inhabited his characters so artfully that Josie Carey,
the host of an earlier children's series in which Mr.
Rogers did not appear on camera, said that she would find
herself confiding in his puppets and completely forgetting
he was behind them.

He had known everything about puppets for a long time,
since his solitary childhood in the 1930's. The story of
how he and they came to appear together on television is a
good one.

Fred McFeely Rogers was born in Latrobe, Pa., on March 20,
1928, the son of Nancy Rogers and James H. Rogers, a brick
manufacturer. An only child until his parents adopted a
baby girl when he was 11, and sometimes on the chubby side,
he spent many hours inventing adventures for his puppets
and finding emotional release in playing the piano. He
could, he said, "laugh or cry or be very angry through the
ends of my fingers."

He graduated from Latrobe High School, attended Dartmouth
College for a year, and then transferred to Rollins College
in Winter Park, Fla., graduating magna cum laude in 1951
with a music composition degree. From there he intended to
study at a seminary. But his timetable changed in his
senior year when he visited his parents at home and saw
something new to him. It was television.

Something "horrible" was on, he remembered - people
throwing pies at one another. Still, he understood at once
that television was something important for better or
worse, and he decided on the spot to be part of it. "You've
never even seen television!" was his parents' reaction. But
right after graduating from Rollins he got work at the NBC
studios in New York, first as a gofer and eventually as a
floor director for shows like "The Kate Smith Evening Hour"
and "Your Hit Parade."

In 1953 he was invited to help with programming at WQED in
Pittsburgh, which was just starting up as this country's
first community-supported public television station. The
next year he began producing and writing "The Children's
Corner," the show with Ms. Carey, and he simply brought
some puppets from home and put them on the air. In its
seven-year run, the show won a Sylvania Award for the best
locally produced children's program in the country, and NBC
picked up and telecast 30 segments of it in 1955-56.

Meanwhile, Mr. Rogers had not given up his other big goal.
Studying part-time, he earned a divinity degree from the
Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1962. The Presbyterian
Church ordained him and charged him with a special mission:
in effect, to keep on doing what he was doing on

He first showed his own face as Mister Rogers in 1963 on a
show called "Misterogers" when the Canadian Broadcasting
Corporation asked him to start a show with himself as the
on-camera host. The CBC-designed sets and other details
became part of the permanent look of Rogers productions.
But as for Canada, Mr. Rogers and his wife, Joanne, a
pianist he had met while at Rollins, soon decided they
should be raising their two young sons back in western

He is survived by his wife, their sons and two

Mr. Rogers returned to WQED where, in 1966, "Misterogers'
Neighborhood" had its premiere in its fully developed form.
It was distributed regionally in the East, and then, in
1968, what became PBS stations began showing it across the

In their own way, the shows and Mr. Rogers's production
company, Family Communications, constituted one of the
country's more stable little industries. Underwriting by
the Sears, Roebuck Foundation provided long-term financial
security. Technicians, collaborators and cast members like
Mr. McFeely, the deliveryman, enjoyed virtual lifetime
employment. (Did anyone not know that McFeely was Mr.
Rogers's middle name, which came from his maternal

The unlikelihood of such an institution, along with Mr.
Rogers's mannerisms - that gleaming straight-ahead stare,
for instance, which could be a little unnerving if you
really thought about it - made parody inevitable. Perhaps
the most famous sendup was on "Saturday Night Live," with
Eddie Murphy as a black "Mr. Robinson" who lamented: "I
hope I get to move into your neighborhood some day. The
problem is that when I move in, y'all move away." When Mr.
Murphy later met Mr. Rogers, it was reported, he did what
most everyone else did. He gave him a hug.

Mr. Rogers was a vegetarian and a dedicated lap swimmer. He
did not smoke or drink. He never carried more than about
150 pounds on his six-foot frame, and his good health
permitted him to continue taping shows.

But two years ago he decided to leave the daily grind. "I
really respect opera singers who stop when they feel that
they're doing their best work," he said at the time,
expressing relief. The last episode was taped in December
2000 and was shown in August 2001, though roughly 300 of
the 1,700 shows that Mr. Rogers made will continue to be
shown. (In the New York area the show is on Channel 13,
WNET, at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays; on Channel
50, WNJN, at 2 p.m. weekdays; and on Channel 49, CPTV, at 1
p.m. weekdays.)

He took a few years off from production in the late 1970's,
and later, toward the end of his long career, he cut back
to taping 12 or 15 episodes a year. Although his show ran
daily throughout those years, what his latter-day viewers
saw was a mix of new material and reruns, the differences
between them softened by a bit of black dye in Mr. Rogers's
gray hair. As a spokesman for Mr. Rogers said, it didn't
matter so much that the shows were repeated: the audience
was always new.

Mr. Rogers kept a busy schedule outside the Neighborhood.
He was the chairman of a White House forum on child
development and the mass media in 1968, and from then on
was frequently consulted as an expert or witness on such
issues. He produced several specials for live television
and videotape. Many of his regular show's themes and songs
were worked into audiotapes. There were more than a dozen
books, with titles like "You Are Special" and "How Families

He was also one of the country's most sought-after
commencement speakers, and if college seniors were not
always bowled over by his pronouncements, they often cried
tears of joy just to see him, an old friend of their

When he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in
1999, he began his formal acceptance speech by saying,
"Fame is a four-letter word." And now that he had gotten
the attention of a house full of the industry's most
powerful and glamorous names, he asked them to think about
their responsibilities as people "chosen to help meet the
deeper needs of those who watch and listen, day and night."
He instructed them to be silent for 10 seconds and think
about someone who had had a good influence on them.

Yesterday, Mr. Rogers's Web site,,
provided a link to help parents discuss his death with
their children.

"Children have always known Mister Rogers as their
`television friend,' and that relationship doesn't change
with his death," the site says.

"Remember," it added, "that Fred Rogers has always helped
children know that feelings are natural and normal, and
that happy times and sad times are part of everyone's

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company


Abraham J. Bonowitz
Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty

"Talk is cheap. It's the way we organize and use our lives
every day that tells what we believe in."
-- Cesar E. Chavez


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