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Mister Rogers is as he seems to be

He answers the door himself, dressed in a plain white shirt and gray slacks.

He's wearing shoes! Not sneakers. And there's not a sweater in sight, not one with buttons or with a zipper. His hair is grayer. He wears glasses.

Then, the voice.

"So good to meet you. Welcome."

Yes, it's he after all. That calm greeting even in a high-rise hotel assures us that this is Fred Rogers and he takes his neighborhood with him.

He walks across the room, gives his guest first choice of seats, then settles down in a chair that looks out on the Mississippi River. "I've been having such a good time looking at these boats," he says.

Mister Rogers _ can you possibly call him anything else but Mister? _ talks like this, walks like this. He is exactly who he appears to be on television, where he is seen by millions of children daily on his PBS series Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

Exactly the same. Slow, steady, smart. Mister Rogers has always been like this and always will.

Fred Rogers, the executive producer, likes it this way. After 25 years in front of the camera, he says the biggest gift he gives his preschool audience is a sense of continuity, a sense of place. A feeling of safety in a world that changes too much for little souls. His set _ and sweaters _ have hardly changed in all this time, even as high-tech dominates the TV landscape.

"Children like to know what's going to happen," Rogers, 65, says, launching into a song he wrote: "I like to be told when you are going away, when you are going to come back and how long you'll stay," Rogers sings in his gentle voice. "It helps me get ready for all those things that are new. I trust you more and more each time I'm finding these things to be true."

If Rogers' style has not altered an iota, his messages have. A lot has changed since Rogers moved into his neighborhood. "If you had told me I would be doing a special on divorce 25 years ago, I wouldn't have believed you," he says. Similarly, he never imagined a week dedicated to day care, because "back then" kids stayed home with mommies.

Now, not only does he discuss child care, he also produces special literature to help caregivers and parents work with the show to teach children.

What hasn't changed over the years is the "invisible essence" that binds the show and the love he feels for his young viewers. This man who was ordained a Presbyterian minister sees TV as his ministry.

"The space between the television and the viewer is holy ground," says Rogers, who never has allowed his name or show products to be licensed. His ultimate goal every day is to give children role models and the belief they can do anything they want to.

"Underneath that calm is a drive and concern for kids," says Rogers' longtime publicist, David Newell, who plays Mr. McFeely, the speedy delivery man. "I think it's children that interest him. Not television."

Or as PBS president Bruce Christensen said Tuesday afternoon during a 25th birthday toasting Rogers, "He's soft-spoken, but millions of children and their parents hear him because his mission is so strong and filled with such compassion."

Rogers agrees. Kids matter. When he visits Congress, it's not unusual for him to turn his back on a group of senators to talk to a child. "I figure the senators can wait," he says smiling.

Although teased by comedians, he's almost a national icon. PBS executives cried when he spoke Tuesday. Arsenio Hall hugged him when Rogers visited his show. And sexy star Kim Basinger recently asked for a meeting with him.

Rogers, who has little sense of his own celebrity, didn't even know who Basinger was.

"Oh," he said somewhat sheepishly, acknowledging the story was true. "But I would hate for her to know that." That wouldn't be nice. And it wouldn't be like Mister Rogers.

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