Fred Rogers Center Welcomes Wagner Bros
Chris and I spent Friday afternoon at the Fred Rogers Center For Early Learning & Children’s Media in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, guests of Senior Fellow, Max King.
It was an informative, inspirational, and serendipitous homecoming.
Our documentary, “Mister Rogers & Me,” was born in 2001 of my brief but life-changing conversation with Mister Rogers. And though my memory — and the exact contents of that conversation with it — has been faded by the cloudy distance of time, the film’s thesis is clear, shaped by years of research and interviews: human beings seek a sense of something greater than themselves, though the journey is often undermined by the pursuit of material riches.
Put more broadly, deep and simple is far-more essential that shallow and complex.
The last time Chris and I were in Mister Rogers’ hometown, ground had only recently been broken on the center.
We were well into shooting “Mister Rogers & Me” without a real sense of what the film would look like, when we would finish it, or where — if at all — it would premiere. In fact, we weren’t even sure Mister Rogers’ company was going to green light our project.
And so we quickly and quietly pulled into the parking lot, sneaked a peek from the car, and went on our way.
Still, the burgeoning Fred Rogers Center and surrounding idyllic campus of St. Vincent College held powerful sway. A few hours later, as we shot b-roll from a ridge high above town, a shaft of sunlight broke through the slate-gray clouds to illuminate the twin spires of the college’s basilica. It struck me then that perhaps that edifice was in some small part connected to Mister Rogers’ sense of something greater from well before he was Mister Rogers.
I got the chance to corroborate that thesis Friday afternoon when Max introduced us the Archabbot of Saint Vincent Archabbey and Chancellor of Saint Vincent College, Douglas R. Nowicki. The Archabbot — a child psychology expert himself — had known Mister Rogers for decades, and worked with him on numerous specials, including “Old Friends, New Friends” (the series in which Mister Rogers visited Madaket Milli Jewitt on Nantucket). He regaled us with tales of their life-long friendship, and confirmed that — though Protestant — The Rogers Family had been connected to St. Vincent since the 1920s, and that it’s twin spires had in fact inspired Mister Rogers when he was still just Little Freddy Rogers.
Later, Max provided additional insight. The Benedictines are a deep and simple order, nearly ascetic in their abstinence from worldly pleasures in pursuit of their spiritual goals. What’s more, one of the core values to their brotherhood is hospitality.
In the afternoon, Max set us loose (with guidance from archivist Emily) in the Fred Rogers Archives. Chris poked through dozens of boxes while I quizzed Emily.
“Here’s another honorary degree,” he’d say from behind rows of shelves.
“I think we have 42 in the collection,” Emily finally responded.
Soon, I too began to drift.
A replica of King Friday’s castle rested against the back wall, next to Mister Rogers’ well-worn Lay-Z-Boy. The chair had been in his office, and his father’s before him. Mister Rogers, a vegetarian, had replaced the original leather with Nogahide.
A few paces away, I found a box full of zip-front cardigan sweaterts and a well-worn pair of Keds sneakers.
A wooden-framed quote from “The Little Prince” — “Le essential est invisible” — stood on the shelf just above. It hung in Mister Rogers office for years.
“That which is essential is invisble to the eye”
The bulk of the archives, though, consists of reems and reems of Mister Rogers’ personal notes. He was fastidiously organized, sorting his brainstorms, research and correspondences into well-labeled folders and, eventually, boxes.
The very-first manilla folder I opened was labelled, “Identity.” The top page was a single, white sheet with Mister Rogers’ unmistakably meticulous script in blue pen.
“You know we human beings need and want to be identified with something (Someone) bigger than ourselves,” he wrote. “There’s a danger in letting the world (and all of its fancy things) tell us what our identity is.”
Had the making of “Mister Rogers & Me” not been full of serendipity and synchronicity from the outset, I would have been completely flabbergasted. Instead, I was read it again, looked up and grinned.
Once again, Mister Rogers had surrounded us with “helpers.” And once again, ten years into this incredible journey, Mister Rogers was — from somewhere higher than where we stood — nodding, “Yes!”
“Discovering the truth about ourselves is a lifetime’s work,” he reminds us all on the walls of The Fred Rogers Center. “But it’s worth the effort.”