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Native Leaves Mark on Hometown

PUBLICATION: Pittsburgh Tribune Review
AUTHOR: Angel Brownawell
DATE: February 28, 2003

By Angel Brownawell

Long before Fred Rogers first brought children into his make-believe television neighborhood, his family and their foundation devoted time and money to make their real-life neighborhood of Latrobe a special place to live.

There’s the pool, funded by his parents after a child drowned while swimming in a creek.

There’s the bookmobile, paid for by the McFeely-Rogers Foundation, when it became clear that hundreds of readers from Derry to Donegal needed easier access to books. “Your Neighborhood Library” in a design reminiscent of the logo for the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” TV show.

There’s the parklet with summertime fountain near the senior citizen high-rises. There also were contributions to the high school’s Center for Student Creativity, a multipurpose fine and performing arts facility.

Most of all, he gave his good name to a hometown in Westmoreland County he never forgot.

“To have Fred Rogers born here – to have a man with that kind of talent and years of television programming – it’s meant quite a bit to the community,” said Andy Stofan, director of the Greater Latrobe Chamber of Commerce. “When talking to people outside of Latrobe, many know of Fred Rogers being from Latrobe.”

Rogers grew up in a house on Weldon Street and graduated from Latrobe High School in 1946. He moved away to go to college in Florida and returned to Pittsburgh in 1953. He lived the remainder of his life in Pittsburgh, but he visited the old neighborhood and maintained his ties there.

As news of his death spread, signs sprouted offering condolences and remembrances.

“We will miss you, neighbor,” read the sign Shawn and Nikole Lazor placed outside their furniture store along Route 30.

“When he moved away, he never forgot his hometown,” said Jeanne Ashley, director of Latrobe’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Through the McFeely-Rogers Foundation – a family charity established in 1953 by Rogers’ parents, James and Nancy McFeely Rogers – the city has a high-quality swimming pool and can sell season passes to children for $25, Ashley said.

Rogers lent his vision to Idlewild Park in Ligonier Township, where a trolley ride takes visitors through the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. The ride was unique when it opened in 1989 and captured nationwide recognition, General Manager Jerome Gibas said.

Rogers helped design the ride, making sure it remained true to the TV show. Each year he’d bring his employees to the park for a picnic and ride on the trolley.

He was a frequent visitor and guest lecturer at St. Vincent College and often invited classes to tour his studio. His wife, Joanne, gave piano concerts.

Rogers spoke twice at St. Vincent’s commencement ceremonies. He received an honorary doctorate from the college in 1973 and the St. Vincent Presidential Medal of Honor in 2000.

Archabbot Douglas Nowicki, the school’s chancellor and longtime friend, was one of the few people who knew about Rogers’ battle with cancer.

The men met while both were working on childhood development programs. Nowicki is a former clinical child psychologist. In 1985, Nowicki accepted an invitation to serve as a McFeely-Rogers Foundation trustee.

“He was not an actor,” Nowicki said. “He was the same person you encountered in everyday life, an man who was very concerned about the important things in life. The primary lesson is that the important things in life don’t appear on center stage.”

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