February 27, 2003 11:06 AM

It’s a very sad day in the neighborhood.

Fred Rogers, the soft-spoken, sneakers- and cardigan-wearing TV personality who for 32 years invited millions of children to be his friend on his PBS show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” is dead. He was 74.

The small-screen icon, who worked to enhance the human spirit, succumbed to cancer at his Pittsburgh home early Thursday, family spokesman David Newell (who played Mr. McFeely on the show) tells the Associated Press.

Rogers had been diagnosed with stomach cancer sometime after the holidays.

“He was so genuinely, genuinely kind, a wonderful person,” Newell said of Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister who in 1954 started on TV as an unseen puppeteer on a local Pittsburgh show.

In 1968, Rogers began producing his show at Pittsburgh public television station WQED.

The show’s ratings peaked in 1985-86, when approximately 8 percent of all U.S. households with TVs tuned in. The final episode was taped in December 2000 and aired in August 2001, though some PBS affiliates continue to air repeats.

“His mission was to work with families and children for television. He produced not only these thousands of programs, but these books and records. That was his passion, his mission, and he did it from day one,” Newell added.

Off the set, reports AP, the TV personality was the same loving and soft-spoken guy that he projected on his show. He daily routine tended to consist of swimming, reading and listening to Beethoven.

And practicing what he preached, he once volunteered at a state prison in Pittsburgh and helped set up a playroom there for children visiting their parents.

“I have really never considered myself a TV star,” Rogers said in a 1995 interview. “I always thought I was a neighbor who just came in for a visit.”

He is survived by his concert pianist wife, Joanne, two sons and two grandsons.

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