BIGHEARTED MR. ROGERS' BRAVE LAST DAYS

Published on: March 12, 2003

As he battled a deadly stomach cancer, kids' TV legend Fred Rogers spent the last days of his life worrying more about the effects on kids of the looming war in Iraq than about his own suffering.

And when the Emmy Award winning creator and star of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" passed away on February 27, children everywhere lost one of their most outspoken and loving champions.

"Toward the end, Fred talked quite a bit about the impending war," a Rogers family confidante told The ENQUIRER. "Up until his last breath, he had a heavy heart about the state of world affairs. His heart was breaking for all the children in the world who grow up with war and hate."

The beloved 74-year-old television personality was diagnosed with an aggressive stomach cancer shortly after the holidays, but had kept news about his terminal illness from his adoring fans.

He was on medication for pain and suffered increasing weakness, but the family friend said he faced his fatal disease with courage and stoicism:

"Fred tried to keep his illness a secret because he didn't want people to feel sad. There was no question that the cancer was ravaging his body and creating excruciating pain, but he didn't want to wallow in self-pity and he never once complained.

"His wife Joanne had a hard time seeing Fred grow weak, lose his appetite and lose weight, and Fred could see that she was a wreck. He didn't want her to see him in terrible pain, so he tried to smile and stay upbeat for her sake."

Rogers spent his last weeks quietly. Because he believed current television programming was mindless at best, he didn't watch much TV.

Instead, the soft-spoken ordained Presbyterian minister occupied his time with a growing concern for the children he had worked for all his life.

Although he had taped his last show in December 2000, he had come out of retirement after the 9-11 terrorist attacks to record public service announcements for PBS, advising parents on how to comfort their children. The recent deepening crisis with Iraq left him worrying that once again kids would be confronted with horrifying images of death and destruction.

"Although he was in agony from the stomach cancer, what caused him the most pain was the fear that millions of children the world over are living on the brink of war," the confidante said.

"He wanted to come out of retirement again to speak to children to ease their fears, but he was too sick. I actually saw him weep while watching the news once."

When he died at his Pittsburgh home with his wife at his side, gentle Mr. Rogers left behind not only his physical agony, but his anguish over the fate of his beloved children as well.

"The world lost a great man in Mr. Rogers," the family confidante said, "but in a certain way, it's a blessing that he died before war began."

Fred Rogers' son John told The ENQUIRER:

"My father was exactly as he seemed -- loving, thought-ful and selfless. His family, and all those who grew up watching his show, will miss him terribly."