The little voice of a 4-year-old girl came from the next room: "Mister Rogers, I went to school today."
Peggy Charren remembers cooking in her kitchen in the late 1960s and hearing her daughter talking to the TV set.
"I said to myself, 'Does she really think he's there?' because we had talked about television and how people are not really in your living room. Then I realized that she knew, in her heart, that Mister Rogers cared that she went to school that day."
Children's television advocates such as Charren and others who worked alongside Fred Rogers reminisced yesterday about the three decades of his singular, trailblazing work.
As Charren talked to a reporter another phone rang. It was her daughter, who had just heard the news of Rogers's death at 74 and was calling, filled with sadness.
"It is a very personal thing," says Charren. "It's like a member of our family died."
Joan Ganz Cooney, a co-founder of "Sesame Street" and the Children's Television Workshop, recalled how she and Rogers worked together even though their shows initially could have been seen as competitors.
"The press just wanted to create a rivalry between us," she says. "He and I just made up our minds that we would lock arms and that no one was going to do that to us."
Both shows, she says, benefited from the increased audiences that "Sesame Street" brought to public television, laboring in its early years on many hard-to-find UHF stations with small audiences. They appeared on each other's programs: Big Bird visited Mister Rogers and Mister Rogers strolled down Sesame Street.
"I remember being up in Harlem with a bunch of construction workers, and one of them brought their 5-year-old son to meet me. I asked what his favorite show was and he said 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,' and I knew that public television had made it."
Hedda Sharapan, who worked with Rogers from the beginning of his show 35 years ago, says it was his honesty about himself that was most remarkable.
"There was one time we had Ella Jenkins, an African American folk singer on the show," she recalls. "She was trying to teach him the hand motions to this head-and-shoulders song. And she would go up and he would go down and he just couldn't get it. On any other show that would have been an outtake. But he wanted kids to know that adults are not perfect. 'You are special' does not mean 'you are perfect.' "
Charren had a special connection to Mister Rogers. In 1968, she founded the grass-roots advocacy organization Action for Children's Television, which spearheaded the drive that led to the 1990 Children's Television Act.
In that role, Charren and Mister Rogers ("I can't call him Fred, even as well as I knew him," she says, laughing) were co-conspirators. He used to testify at hearings with Charren or speak at conferences she had arranged.
"He was such a child-centered person that when he came to testify, he just talked in this very soft voice," she recalls. "And once he was testifying before a telecommunications subcommittee and he got very emotional. And Senator John Pastore, this big congressman who looked like Groucho Marx, got very emotional. They both started to tear up. It was quite a scene.
"When Mister Rogers went before Congress, he was never abrasive. He always told them, 'You can do better.' "
Doing better by children seemed always foremost in his mind, colleagues recall, no matter the issue.
He brought culture to the toddler set. He talked with musicians such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, asking questions from a child's perspective, like how he learned to play and if the cello had been too big for him.
In the early days, Charren says, recalls, Mister Rogers would focus his shows on concerns of the very small -- Would they go down the drain with the bath water? Would their parents return when they went out for the evening?
Later, he focused on heavier issues. A child in a leg brace was on his show, she remembers. And there was the week-long show on divorce, another series on diversity, programs that became classics.
"He talked to kids like people," she says. "He never talked down to them."
And that may be one of Fred Rogers's strongest legacies.
PBS has decided to continue airing "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
"Fred Rogers enriched our lives for three decades on PBS, and gratefully, through 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' programs, he will continue to do so," Pat Mitchell, president and CEO of PBS, told the Associated Press.
There were few people like Fred Rogers, says Charren, fewer still talking to kids on television. "There are only three times my phone has rung off the hook the way it has today," she says. "That was when Jim Henson died, when Shari Lewis died and now with Fred Rogers. And isn't it amazing that with all the talk about its limited audience, they were all public broadcasting shows. They all managed to reach the country with heroes for children."
The news of Mister Rogers's death led many morning newscasts yesterday.
Says Sharapan: "What I'm hearing from people is that what he's offering the world is even more important that it has ever been."