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Fred and me: An appreciation

By Henry Schuster
CNN Senior Producer

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- "Why don't you ever do a story that I'd like?" my first-grade son asked.

"Such as ..." I responded.

"I don't know, how about Mr. Rogers?" he said.

I told him if he could write Mr. Rogers a letter, I'd see if my bosses would agree to the story.

Never had motivation worked so well. Five minutes later, with the words scrawled haphazardly across a sheet of paper, he came back. "Dear Mr. Rogers," it read, "can my Papa interview you for CNN? Can I come? Love, Ben."

Convincing my boss at the time turned out to be easy. And convincing Jeff Greenfield to be the correspondent was something I didn't need to do; his teenage son took care of that.

I sent off that letter and one of my own to Fred's dear friend, Dave Newell, aka Mr. McFeely. Rogers couldn't have been more delighted, he told me. Fred had lots he wanted to talk about. As for my son, Fred was looking forward to meeting him, too.

Still, my frame of reference was the sing-song voice -- and Eddie Murphy's brilliant parody on "Saturday Night Live."

A pioneer

I was surprised to find out that Fred was one of television's pioneers, working at the first PBS station; that he was a skilled composer with over 200 songs to his credit and still had a live band play during his programs. That he had once been Kate Smith's floor manager. That Michael Keaton had once been one of the stagehands on his show.

Researching the story meant watching the show and watching my children watch the show. They were captivated by Fred's easy, slow voice and by the lack of gimmicks. The program seemed paced to give them time to listen and absorb.

I learned a lot, too, about how things work. One show had a feature on a factory that made graham crackers; another on how musical instruments are made.

When I finally went to Pittsburgh, I was bit nervous, in a way that I usually don't get before doing a story. I first met Fred up in his office where he was wearing an undershirt and a big smile, putting on make-up as he prepared for a day's taping.

Fred wrote every word of every show and he was also the executive producer, so he was a busy man. But he couldn't have been more welcoming. Within minutes, after he genially but effectively interviewed me, I felt like I was a kid in the company of a kindly older relative.

"The whole idea is to look into the television camera and present as much love as you possibly could to a person who might feel that he or she needs it," he would tell us.

Immediate and unconditional love

That was Fred's gift, especially to children: total attention, complete respect, immediate and unconditional love. During the taping, he and the rest of the cast had a smooth, easy rhythm as they went about their business. Many of them had worked with Fred on his show for much of its 30-plus year run on PBS.

During the lunch break, when I was able to bring my children in to meet him, I saw Fred's gift in person.

He took my boys around the set and showed them his closet full of sweaters -- all made by his mother. He taught them how to run the trolley. He made them feel special (not surprisingly, the name of one of his best-loved songs) and he made them feel like he was their good friend.

It was remarkable the way that Fred was able to make that gift of respect and attention work on television. The same Fred Rogers you met was who you saw on the screen.

He told us how those few feet between the screen and where children were sitting, watching, was a "sacred space" (Fred had a degree in divinity as well as music) and he was passionate about the responsibility he had as a broadcaster.

"I got into television because I hated it so," he told Jeff Greenfield. "And I thought ... there's some way of using this fabulous instrument to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."

And in his quiet, precise and, yes, sing-song voice he sketched out an old-fashioned, and too often ignored, vision of broadcasting and public responsibility.

"I believe that those of us who are the producers and purveyors of television -- or video games or newspapers or any mass media -- I believe that we are the servants of this nation," he said.

A piano sing-along

He knew he was a figure of fun to some, and he took it in good humor. "I remember when Eddie Murphy met me for the first time, he just put his arms around me and said 'the real Mr. Rogers.' "

But he was slightly astonished, if not a little pleased, that he was such a figure of veneration on college campuses, where it seemed that each year brought him to more commencements to get more honorary degrees.

By the time we were done -- including meeting Mrs. Rogers (who, with her white hair, dimpled cheek and smile, looked exactly as you would imagine her to be) -- Fred had Jeff joining him for a sing-along at Fred's beloved piano.

My children are older now and have different tastes, but each morning when they go out the hall they pass a poster of Fred that he sent to them. Sometimes I would find my oldest son talking to the poster, just as if he was talking to Fred.

This morning, I had to break the news of Fred's death to them. As I did, I remembered that when we met him three years ago, he was already thinking of life beyond television. He was preparing himself for the inevitable in his own quiet, honest fashion.

"The nearer I get to the end of life on this earth," he said, "the simpler I want to become."

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