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There was always something "magical" about Jeff Erlanger.

From his childhood appearance on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" to the night he saved a Boston woman's life over the Internet, strange and wonderful things seemed to happen to him, said his father, Howard Erlanger.

Or rather, Jeff Erlanger was able to make them happen.

The Madison civic activist who sat on a number of commissions representing the disabled died Sunday. He was 36.

The fact that a spinal tumor cost Erlanger the use of his arms and legs as an infant was probably the least remarkable thing about him.

"He never once said, 'I wish I wasn't disabled,'" Howard Erlanger said. "That just wasn't something that was an issue."

Jeff Erlanger's philosophy, summarized in an award-winning ad he filmed in 2002 for Wisconsin Public Television, was: "It doesn't matter what I can't do - what matters is what I can do."

That attitude impressed Fred Rogers, who Erlanger wanted to meet before undergoing spinal surgery when he was 5. Five years after meeting Erlanger, Rogers invited him to appear on his show.

The eight-minute segment was shot in one take and was one of Rogers' favorite moments, said David Newell, a spokesman for Family Communications, Rogers' production company. "Fred would use it in speeches that he did for many years, about overcoming obstacles and feeling comfortable about yourself," said Newell, who played Mr. McFeely, the postman, on the show.

Erlanger surprised Rogers in 1999 when he spoke at his induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. He also spoke at a memorial service for Rogers when he died in 2003.

That same year Erlanger ran for Madison City Council in the 8th District, but lost to Austin King, who described Erlanger as "a huge asset to the civic life of Madison."

After noticing taxis were wheelchair accessible on a visit to Jamaica, Erlanger worked with the council to introduce the first such taxis here. He also helped organize an accessible housing conference.

In 2000, Erlanger made national headlines when he met a woman online who confessed she'd cut her wrists. Erlanger contacted Boston police, who found her and took her to a hospital.

In addition to traveling and computers, Erlanger loved baseball and politics, his dad said.

In 2004, he boarded a plane to attend the Democratic National Convention in Boston - without a ticket to the event.

But on the flight there, he bumped into Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, on whose campaign he had worked. She got him in.

"One of the reasons I so admired Jeff was he was passionate about our nation on a big-scale level and equally passionate about our community," Falk said. "This is a man who devoted so many countless hours to making things better for other people."

Erlanger died after spending three weeks in a coma caused by choking on food, his father said. His organs were donated.

His funeral is set for 9:45 a.m. Thursday at Temple Beth El, 2702 Arbor Drive. Jewish folk singer Debbie Friedman, whom Erlanger met as a child and struck up a lifelong friendship, cleared her schedule to sing at it, Howard Erlanger said. He said Friedman has "a solo voice of such spirit and engagement that it just creates a sense of community."

"That's probably why they liked each other," he said.


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