PITTSBURGH – Day after day for more than three decades, Fred Rogers put on a zip-up cardigan and sneakers and gently invited millions of children to be his neighbor.
He never wavered in his mission -- using Mister Rogers' Neighborhood as a way to persuade young television viewers to love and feel more secure in their world.
Rogers died Thursday after a bout with stomach cancer at his Pittsburgh home, leaving generations of people who grew up watching him in mourning. He was 74.
His low-key, low-tech public television show refused to follow its louder, more animated competition. It presented Rogers as one adult in an increasingly busy world who always had time to listen to children.
"What a loss to the world. He talked to kids at the ages of 4 to 6 about feelings. That's the age when they begin to realize they have an effect on their world," said Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, an author and child development specialist.
An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers produced the show at Pittsburgh public television station WQED beginning in 1966, going national two years later. The final episode was taped in December 2000 and aired in August 2001, though PBS affiliates continued to broadcast old episodes.
Rogers opened each episode in a set made to look like a comfortable living room, singing, "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood." He composed his own songs for the show.
One of his sweaters hangs in the Smithsonian Institution.
He would talk to viewers in a slow, quiet voice and introduce them to other characters and to guests such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Then he would take his audience on a magical trolley ride into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, where puppet creations -- including X the Owl, King Friday XIII and Daniel Striped Tiger -- would interact with each other and adults.
Rogers did much of the puppet work.
On Thursday, staff at Family Communications Inc., which produced the show, brought bouquets of flowers left outside WQED and placed them on the set next to King Friday's castle.
"He was not an actor. People would ask us, 'What is Mr. Rogers really like?' The thing was, he was the same," said family spokesman David Newell, who played Mr. McFeely on the show.
The show won four Emmys, and Rogers won another for lifetime achievement. He received a Peabody Award in 1993 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in July 2002.
In April 2002, President Bush invited Rogers to help launch a reading program. When Rogers entered the room with no introduction, spontaneous applause erupted.
Rogers hushed the audience, asking for 10 seconds of silence to "think about anyone who has loved you and wanted the best for you."
Rogers was born in Latrobe, 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Early in his career, he was an unseen puppeteer in The Children's Corner, a local show he helped start at WQED in 1954. In seven years of unscripted, live television, he developed many of the puppets he used later.
He studied early childhood development at the University of Pittsburgh and was ordained in 1963 with a charge to continue his work with children and families through television. That same year, Rogers accepted an offer to develop Misterogers, his own 15-minute show, for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
He brought the show back to Pittsburgh in 1966, incorporating segments of the CBC show into a new series distributed by the Eastern Educational Network to cities including Boston, Philadelphia and Washington.
In 1968, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood began distribution across the country through National Educational Television, which later became the Public Broadcasting Service.
Through the years, Rogers dealt with topics ranging from anger and anxiety to death and divorce. He taught children how to share and even why they shouldn't fear taking a bath by assuring them they would never go down the drain.
"Mister Rogers was the father who was available. He was the unhurried guy who always had time for the kids," said Alan Hilfer, a child psychologist at Maimonides Medical Center in New York.
Joe Negri, who played the royal handyman in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and owner of Negri's Music Shop, said Rogers demanded perfection, refusing to accept shoddy ad-libbing by guests who may have thought they could slack off during a kids' show.
The show's ratings peaked in 1985-86 when about 8 percent of all U.S. households with televisions tuned in. By the 1999-2000 season, viewership had dropped to about 2.7 percent, or 3.6 million people.
Bob Keeshan, who appeared on television as "Captain Kangaroo," said he and Rogers often spoke of how children's programming had become increasingly violent.
"I don't think it's any secret that Fred and I were not very happy with the way children's television had gone," Keeshan said.
Bill Kelly, a professor who specializes in popular culture and television at Penn State University, said, "Some of the shows today are simply the vehicle to market goods, which is really sinister. Fred never did that. He had a clear interest in kids, he was concerned about them and there was no ulterior motive."
Rogers never stopped trying to make a difference.
He came out of broadcasting retirement last year to record public service announcements telling parents how to help children deal with the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"If they see the tragedy replayed on television, they might think it's happening at that moment," Rogers said.
In January, Rogers served as a grand marshal of the Rose Parade with Bill Cosby and Art Linkletter. "More times than I could count I heard the people yelling, 'Welcome to the neighborhood, Mr. Rogers,'" Cosby said.
Off the set, Rogers swam daily, read voraciously and listened to Beethoven.
His gentle manner was the butt of some comedians' jokes. Eddie Murphy parodied him on Saturday Night Live with his "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood," a routine Rogers found funny and affectionate.
Rogers was diagnosed with cancer last December and had surgery in early January, but his health declined in the past two weeks, said Bill Isler, head of Family Communications. Funeral arrangements were incomplete, but Isler said a private service for the family and a public memorial would be scheduled soon.
Rogers is survived by his wife, Joanne, a concert pianist; two sons; and two grandsons.