Monday, March 19, 2012

Fred Rogers -- From A Mom's Simple Hello To My Sons' Documentary: A Tale of Two Generations

My sons' documentary, Mr. Rogers and Me, about Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers Neighborhood) on PBS, was featured in the Sunday New York Times, March 18, 2012--Arts and Leisure section. You might want to take a look.
The documentary is scheduled to air on most PBS stations after March 20, 2012. DVDs of the film are available on the film's website ( see Rounding 60, May 10, 2010 blog entry below for link ).

Backstory Summary

For years, I summered in Nantucket next to Fred and, over time, we became friends. My son Ben asked me if I would invite Fred and Joanne Rogers over for his birthday ( always celebrated in Nantucket ). Conscious of respecting Fred's private time on the island , I hesitated-- but did ask. That's the beginning of Ben's documentary--their brief meeting on a couple of occasions and the impact it had on his life.

The film is co-directed by both sons, Chris Wagner ( 20 years in TV/video editing ) and Ben Wagner ( 15 years @ MTV management ).

I could never have imagined when I first decided to summer in scruffy, rugged, isolated Madaket nearly 20 years ago the place it would hold in my heart. It is the place where I've waited out near hurricanes behind boarded picture windows; where I housed my children and grandchildren ( newborn in a bassinet made from a dresser drawer ). It is the spit of land where I mourned my mother's death watching the sun set over Madaket Bay trying to find her in the wind as I walked relentlessly along Smith's Point. I couldn't have imagined that my love for this island, for my children, and my friendship with Fred--would result in the opportunity for this creative project.

One final thought:
Sometimes I think that what mothers do for their children is set the stage, offer the tools... and whisper into small ears:

"I think you can do anything, you know."

Mary Catherine Bolster

More Below........

Re-published entry--
MONDAY, MAY 10, 2010

Fred Rogers and A Simple Hello

New York

I have been going to Nantucket for nearly twenty years. In the early years, I stayed near the town center on Nantucket Bay in a waterfront townhouse with the clink,clink,clink of halyards hitting steel masts in the night air. Most days, I would ride my bike to the closest beach and spend the day there loving the solitude. I explored other parts of the island by bike and car.

It soon became apparent that the best, most remote part of the island was Madaket where fisherman had constructed cottages a century ago with sturdy fireplaces and thick planked floors.
Beginning in 1999, I rented a little cottage facing Madaket Bay, home of piping plovers, oystercatchers, and moored boats bobbing silently in the breeze outside my window.
Next door was Fred Rogers' house, a funny mishmash of a house that his father had built years ago.
One afternoon, I went down to the bay armed with binoculars to spot the amazing birds on the tip of the island, a small book of May Sarton's poems and my journal. Coming toward me on the beach was a tallish, thin man with his bathing suit on, a pale orange bath towel draped over his shoulders. It was Fred Rogers out for his daily swim.
I looked up at him from under the brim of my floppy sunhat and smiled. " Hello, there. Enjoy your swim. "
"Thank you." He smiled, paused. "May I ask --are you are a writer?"
" I ...I guess I am," I stammered. "I have done advertising copy and published a couple of professional journal articles."
"I see. That's wonderful. May I introduce myself? I'm Fred Rogers."
"Nice to meet you. I am Mary Catherine Bolster." I stood up to shake his hand.
"Well, Mrs. Bolster, it is so nice to know you."
" I just want you to know something, Mr. Rogers."
"Fred, I want you to know how important you were to my children's lives when they were little boys. I can still see them sitting in front of the little 15 inch, black and white screen, watching you and King Friday and all of those wonderful characters you brought to life."
We talked for awhile about poetry, religion and the search for meaning. About life as a journey. About seeking meaning in literature and poetry. I told him about my pilgrimage to Spain, trekking the medieval 500 mile path to the tomb of St. James in Santiago.

As he walked away, I was struck with his depth and lack of pretense, and how totally he seemed to be the same man, the same persona, as the one I had watched so many years ago with my sons.

Later that same week, I tucked a copy of Patricia Hamel's book, Virgin Time, in his mailbox with a note: Hope you enjoy this. I mentioned her book about seeking meaning when we spoke. Best, MC.

My cell phone rang soon after. " Mary Catherine? This is Fred Rogers. I just called to thank you for the wonderful book, and see if you would like to come over and have some tea with Joanne and me?"

That was the beginning of my acquaintance with Fred, and his wife Joanne, and my memories of sitting on the back deck of the Crooked House drinking tea in the afternoon or having dinner at the modest dining table off of the kitchen.

All my family and friends were excited about Fred living next door to my little cottage. One by one, I introduced them to Fred. Beginning with my son, Ben.

It so happens that Ben's birthday is in early September. He asked to meet Mr. Rogers when he and his girlfriend came to stay with me.
"Do you think he'd come over for my birthday?"
"I'll ask him."
Fred did come over for Ben's birthday. He walked around the corner of the cottage in his yellow windbreaker and said: "Where's the birthday boy?"
Ben beamed with appreciation.

Each year until Fred died, Ben ( sometimes solo, sometimes with girlfriends ) would come to visit me, and I would invite the Rogers' to his birthday--and Fred and, sometimes, Joanne or sometimes their houseguests, would come, too.

One year, Ben and I were invited to Fred's house, Ben played guitar for Fred.Fred took snapshots of all of us ( which he sent to me later with a lovely note. ) Then, he took us on a tour of the house . In his tiny studio, he sat down at his Roland keyboard and began playing "Neighborhood" songs. I listened as Ben told Fred about his career at MTV and Fred talked a bit about his take on pop culture. I watched my son lean in to this man's words, his gestures.

Fred had such a gift for making a difference with the available moment. After 9/11, Ben did a benefit concert for the victims' families which Fred knew about. The night of the benefit, I got a voicemail on my cell. " Mary Catherine, this is Fred Rogers. I know Ben is performing tonight for the victims, and I called the place but no one answered. Would you please tell him that I hope it goes well?"

After Fred died, there was a tiny, inconsolable hole in my heart. I guess I thought there would be endless summers of tea and birthdays overlooking the bay. I wrote Joanne a long note and realized (as I believe we do when something wonderful is suddenly, permanently taken away from us ) that my life was changed by this man's generosity and humility--and I would miss him terribly.

Soon after Fred's death, Ben decided to do a documentary about him. It was, I suppose it was a way for him to get his arms around Fred's death, and perhaps other things known only to Ben. He enlisted the help of his brother, Chris ( full time film editor and father of 3 kids under 6 ), as co-director in the project. Ben writes, directs, produces. Chris films, edits and directs.

The film was finally finished recently after all night edit sessions and years of work .
So, Ben and Chris sent it out to all manner of film festivals--Tribeca, Sundance--with no idea of the outcome.

And here's the thing: They did it. Mister Rogers and Me will premiere at the Nantucket Film Festival that runs from June 17-21, 2010. ( )

Who could know all of those years ago that my path would lead me to the house next to Fred's in Madaket? Would urge me to say hello to Fred that day on the bay? Who could know that Fred would accept my invitation to come to Ben's birthday? Who could have known that Ben would be so moved, so passionate to follow this uncertain path?

Usually, things don't turn out quite so neatly, so...well...whole.

And it all began with "hello".


Linda said...

I know how proud you are. I am thrilled to see this story spread to a wide audience. An important message so well told. So nice to meet you in NY, I hope our paths cross again some day.

Margaret Polaneczky, MD (aka TBTAM) said...

Mary Catherine -

I recall you telling me about this when we last met= so wonderful to hear it has come to fruition! I will be on the look out for it on PBS!

PS - My daughter is back in London, where we first me on the tube of all places. I am heading there to see her next month - cannot wait!

All the best,