Fred Rogers was a gentle giant of public television who encouraged children's imaginations, confronted their fears and assured them in every episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" that "I like you just the way you are."
Produced from 1968 to 2001, "Mister Rogers" was the Public Broadcasting Service's longest-running program. It has been analyzed by social scientists, who praise its ability to calm children and stimulate creativity, and satirized by such comics as Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams, whose spoofs confirmed its influence.
In 1951, after graduating magna cum laude from Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., Rogers was hired by NBC in New York as an assistant producer of "The Voice of Firestone" and the "NBC Television Opera." He later became floor director of "Your Lucky Strike Hit Parade" and the "Kate Smith Hour."
In 1953 he made a decision that astounded his NBC colleagues: He was quitting the network for a job in Pittsburgh to launch WQED, the first community-sponsored public television station.
Within a year, he was writing and producing the hourlong "Children's Corner" in partnership with a friend, Josie Carey, the show's host. Rogers remained behind the camera to work a handful of homely puppets — including boastful King Friday, troublesome Lady Elaine and timid Daniel Tiger, the same ones that would inhabit his later show.
Rogers was ordained by the United Presbyterian Church in 1963 and charged with the mission of using the media to help families and children. The result put Rogers in front of the camera in a 15-minute daily program for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Called "Misterogers," it was picked up in Pittsburgh in 1964; the next year, the Eastern Educational Network bought 100 shows.
When Sears agreed to finance a half-hour version of the program for public television in the U.S., the show became "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
After the program premiered Feb. 19, 1968, Rogers became a celebrity. When he came to Los Angeles to make an appearance at KCET, the station had room for 200 people; 6,000 clamored for tickets.
The kudos streamed in — and never stopped.
In 2000, after five Emmys and three decades of writing nearly 1,000 scripts and doing the puppet voices, he decided to tape the last new episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
The last original installment of the show aired in August 2001, with no special fanfare.
He hung up his sweater at the end, as he always did, saying, "I like being your television neighbor." With a wave and a gentle smile, he went out the door.