O Captain, My Captain: ROBERT J. (BOB) KEESHAN, 1927-2004

A children's television friend who created a safe place for growing up

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Unlike Fred Rogers, who worked in the relative cocoon of public TV, Keeshan spent most of his career in commercial television. (After nearly 30 years, CBS callously bumped Captain Kangaroo to expand its morning news show, and Keeshan took the program to PBS, where it died in 1993 for lack of underwriting.) Perhaps because it competed in the marketplace, the show evolved more conspicuously over the years than Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, which always seemed to exist in a kind of immortalized 1950s Pittsburgh, Pa. Different generations remember different Captains. Mine was the '70s version, with its Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings stories and the environmentalist, hippie-ish furry-creatures band the Wombles.

But there were constants as well. Mr. Green Jeans (Hugh Brannum) shared his love of animals with us. The greedy, bespectacled puppet Bunny Rabbit conned the Captain out of truckloads' worth of carrots. And wiseacre puppet Mr. Moose told jokes, punctuated by a rain of Ping-Pong balls that would drop on the Captain's head. (Captain Kangaroo may have been gentle, but it wasn't above a good slapstick bit.)

The greatest constant was Keeshan's bedrock goal, to give kids the tools they needed to thrive--even if those tools, too, changed with time. Early on, he taught vocabulary and skills like crossing the street. Later, as divorce rates and family instability grew, he taught self-love and confidence. And every day he stressed the simple power of two "magic" phrases, the first being "Please" and the second--and his most fitting farewell--being "Thank you." --By James Poniewozik

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