Mr. Rogers takes rightful place at riverside tribute
Family and friends applaud after the unveiling of the Fred Rogers statue on Pittsburgh's North Shore.
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It was, in the end, a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
As a gloomy drizzle gave way to sunshine yesterday morning, hundreds of friends, family members and colleagues of Fred Rogers gathered on the North Shore for the unveiling of a 7,000-pound tribute to the children's television icon.
The nearly 11-foot bronze statue of Mr. Rogers, surrounded by a circular walkway and framed by a keyhole opening in the old Manchester Bridge pier, is officially named the "Tribute to Children."
The project -- more than six years in the making -- began when philanthropist and Rogers family friend Cordelia May decided to fund a public memorial to Mr. Rogers, who died in 2003 at age 74.
Mrs. May, who died in 2005, commissioned sculptor Robert Berks, who also created the statues of Mayor Richard Caliguiri on Grant Street and of Albert Einstein in Washington, D.C. The Einstein statue was one of Mr. Rogers' favorites, said his widow, Joanne Rogers, and he would make a point to visit it when he was nearby.
The feeling, ultimately, was mutual. Mr. Berks, of Long Island, N.Y., hadn't watched the show when Mr. Rogers was alive, but became enchanted with it while doing research for the statue.
"His basic feeling was that he regretted they never knew each other," said Mr. Berks' wife, Dorothy, speaking by phone for her 87-year-old husband because he is ill. "He felt tremendously connected to the way Fred Rogers felt and thought. He considered him a great artist."
The location of the statue was the brainchild of architect Lou Astorino, who noticed the old pier one day looking down from Mount Washington. The riverfront spot reminded him of Mr. Rogers both because he was an avid swimmer and because of the skyline view of the city that he loved.
When Mrs. Rogers heard the idea for a statue of her notoriously modest husband, "My first thought was, 'Oh, Fred would be horrified,' " she said. "But the way in which it's been done, part of a site [that is] a tribute to children, would have been all the difference. It's not all about him, it's about the children."
Mrs. Rogers envisions children crawling on the lap of the bronze statue, which depicts Mr. Rogers sitting down and tying his sneakers, as he did at the beginning of each episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
"It's the only pose my husband would consider," said Mrs. Berks, the sculptor's wife. "It's the pose that everyone identifies with him."
"I can't think of a better symbol to promote Pittsburgh to the world than Fred Rogers," said Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato.
He complimented Mr. Astorino's vision in taking "an eyesore off of this waterfront and turning it into an asset," referring to the blackened pier that had been useless since the opening of the Fort Duquesne Bridge in 1970.
Mrs. May ensured that the site would not be funded with taxpayer dollars. The Colcom Foundation, which she founded, has permanently endowed maintenance costs for the site. It is a gift from the Colcom Foundation to Family Communications, Inc., which then gave it to the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.
Mrs. Rogers said that both her husband and Mrs. May "would be happy for us to have this place, which will be a place of remembrance.
"It's a place for families in the best sort of way."
First Published November 6, 2009 12:00 am