Mrs. Rogers (And Me)

August 18th, 2006

I emailed Mrs. Rogers on Monday. I asked her if she’d be in Nantucket over Labor day weekend, and if she’d join us for a slice of birthday cake. She wrote back last night.

Fred McFeely Rogers met Sara Joanne Byrd in the spring of 1948 at the Orlando train station. She was one of a handful of students who took him on a tour of Rollins College’s campus. Mister Rogers transferred from Yale that fall. After graduating in 1951, the couple moved to New York City where they were married on July 9, 1952.

Mrs. Rogers seems to have managed her marriage to one of television’s most-beloved elders really well. She is a classically trained concert pianist with a master’s degree, and — in contrast to many of her generation — an independent woman. Where many women might defer to their husband’s success, Mrs. Rogers had her own.

“I always thought it was better to let him do his job, and I would do mine,” she said.

As a keeper of Mister Rogers’ legacy (she looks to FCI for primary stewardship, while making appearances on behalf of his posthumously-released books, major events, etc), though, she is saddled with a very public job in the face of what I assume is a very private grief.

It’s with some awkwardness, then, that I’ve contacted Mrs. Rogers in these years since Mister Rogers’ death. I don’t want to minimize her loss, or create the impression that I’m some sort of circling vulture. My motives really are as pure as any I’ve ever had. But I do want to be sure this project happens, and is done as well as possible. So sometimes my transition from the personal to the professional read a bit awkwardly.

She wrote me back last night and told me that she won’t be in Nantucket over Labor Day. Instead, she’ll be performing with her longtime performing partner, Jeannine Morrison, in Atlanta. Further, it doesn’t sound like she spends much time there any more, or plans to. Which isn’t surprising to me. I’m not sure whether The Crooked House was ever the refuge to her that it was to Mister Rogers. They spent a lifetime of summer’s there together. I saw the evidence with my own eyes. Scratched into the kitchen wall, lines, dates and names mark the growth of their sons, John and James. Without Mister Rogers or her sons there, I imagine that it’s a lonesome place.

I responded to her with a long email — possibly too long. In it, I told her we’d miss her, updated her on Chris and my progress, then transitioned (for some reason) to the following:

    It occurs to me, Mrs. Rogers, that it may seem to you as if my enthusiasm for the documentary project is disproportionate to the duration of our time together in Nantucket. You must know that the simple act of opening your home, and your hearts to me that summer afternoon in 2001 was transformative. When Mr. Rogers said to me, “I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex,” well, it forced me to take a good, hard look at my job (MTV News), and the world around me. As importantly, though, the memories of that afternoon, and the sun-kissed, wide-eyed smiles in the living room of The Crooked House, never fail to brighten even my darkest moments. For that, I am forever grateful to you both.

It’s true. I hope she knows that. And I hope to see her soon.

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  • About

  • Benjamin Wagner first met “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” creator and star, Fred Rogers, at Rogers’ summer home on Nantucket, Massachusetts. His mother rented the cottage next door, so Mister Rogers really was his neighbor. On the afternoon of their first meeting, “America’s Favorite Neighbor” asked the young journalist about his job as an MTV News producer.  Wagner felt exposed and a tiny-bit embarrassed, a PBS mind in a jump-cut, sound-bit MTV world. Mister Rogers said warml ...
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