Jeff Erlanger, best known to fans of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" for an episode of the children's show in which he chatted with Fred Rogers about why he used an electric wheelchair, died Sunday in Madison, Wis.Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press
Jeffrey Erlanger of Madison, Wis., takes part in a public memorial to the late children's television pioneer Fred Rogers of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," Saturday, May 3, 2003, in Pittsburgh. On the screen is Erlanger in 1980 as he appeared during a visit with Rogers on the show.
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Jeffrey Clay Erlanger, 36, was in a coma for several weeks after choking on food.
A quadriplegic from a young age following surgery for a spinal tumor, Mr. Erlanger appeared on the "Neighborhood" at age 10, but his relationship with Fred Rogers continued through the years. In 1999, he appeared at a Television Academy Hall of Fame induction ceremony as a guest, to surprise Mr. Rogers.
When Mr. Rogers saw him, the children's show host leaped out of his seat and rushed to greet him on stage. The moment is included in the DVD, "Fred Rogers: America's Favorite Neighbor."
Mr. Erlanger, who became involved in politics in Madison and once chaired the city's Commission on People with Disabilities, returned to Pittsburgh in May 2003 to remember his friendship with the TV host at Mr. Rogers' public memorial service at Heinz Hall.
Even after Mr. Rogers' death, Mr. Erlanger stayed in touch with the staff at Fred Rogers' Oakland-based Family Communications Inc., including Hedda Sharapan, director of early childhood initiatives. She remembered Mr. Erlanger for "his buoyant personality, his spirit, his sense of humor. He was fun to be with and he wanted to help do good things in this world."
The impression he made on Mr. Rogers was lasting.
"Anytime Fred was asked, 'What was a moment that stands out?' Over all those years, that was the one he pointed to," Ms. Sharapan said of the unrehearsed, unscripted scene from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." "It was so authentic, just a conversation between two people who care about each other."
Mr. Erlanger's funeral was held in Madison yesterday. He is survived by his parents, Pam and Howard Erlanger of Madison and his sister, Lisa Erlanger of Seattle.
The family suggests donations to the Olin Sang Ruby Summer Camp, 555 Skokie Blvd., Northbrook, IL 60062, for the Jeffrey Erlanger Memorial Fund, which will be used to enhance the camp experience of children with special needs.
TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-2582.