Fred Rogers, whose gentle manner, self-esteem-boosting songs, and kingdom of puppets made him an icon to generations of kids, died Thursday at 74, his producer announced. The host of ''Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,'' the longest-running children's show on public television, Rogers had been diagnosed with stomach cancer in December and died at his home in Pittsburgh.
An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers began airing ''Neighborhood'' nationwide on PBS from Pittsburgh's WQED in 1968. For 32 years, he taped new episodes, each beginning with him singing ''It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood...'' and donning a cardigan sweater. (One of his sweaters is now at the Smithsonian.) Generations came to know Rogers' music, his TV neighbors (like courier Mr. McFeely), and his puppet land of Make Believe, ruled over by King Friday the 13th. The show earned four Emmys, plus a lifetime achievement Emmy for its host. Rogers retired in 2000, but his reruns continue to air on PBS.
In true Mr. Rogers fashion, his website accompanied word of his death with advice to parents on how to explain his passing to children who still see him on TV. ''Children have always known Mr. Rogers as their 'television friend,' and that relationship doesn't change with his death,'' the website said.