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Fred goes gently into that good night


During the final illness of D.J. Thomas, his son, Dylan, wrote the famous poem, “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” It is this poem that I thought about two days after Fred Rogers died of stomach cancer.

For the past 18 years, Fred sent me letters every week, called me on the phone every last Saturday of the month, and e-mailed me every day when e-mail entered into our lives.

When I turned 50, Fred gave me the gold cufflinks his father gave him when he turned 50. This Christmas Fred sent me candlesticks that he bought at Nantucket. I sent him my poems, copies of my new books, pictures of my children, letters about my loneliness and dreams. Fred and I spoke about our wives and children. He’d tell me about seeing the moon during his evening walks, or about a book he was reading. I would tell him about the tree that fell on our neighbor’s house, or about my daughter’s high school band concert. He would tell me that his son “J” and the grandchildren were coming for pizza.

When I met Fred 18 years ago in New York, he and I were placed, alone, in the “green room” at the HBO studios for an hour. I was working on a pilot children’s television program that never aired, and Fred was coming to the studio for an interview.

We had never met before. We shook hands, and then we began to talk about who we were. He told me about his wife, Joanne, and how much he loved her, and Fred told me about his sons and how much he loved them. Then he took out his wallet and showed me their pictures. I told him about my wife, Roe, and about our two children. We laughed a bit. I liked the man. When we said goodbye, Fred suggested that I come to Pittsburgh someday and visit.

That visit turned out to be an invitation a few weeks later to do a taping with Fred and with poet May Sarton on Fred’s television neighborhood.

We became fast friends, Fred and I, and a few years later, I asked him why. “Chris, when I first met you, you seemed to like me for me. You didn’t want me to endorse anything. You didn’t want anything from me. You were interested in my children and in my wife, and you cared about me.” I liked the man.

I remember being with Fred at his summer home at Nantucket. He introduced me to his lovely sister, and he brought me to one of his favorite spots, the tip of the island where the dunes were high. We sat on a log and he told me about his father, and how much he loved his father, and how much his father liked this place, this very spot. I told Fred about my father, how much he loved us all, and how old he now was, and how much I miss sailing with my father on the wide rivers of Ontario. Then Fred and I went swimming.

After our swim, we sat in the summer chairs on the deck of his little house. Fred worked on the upcoming scripts for his television neighborhood, I was working on the manuscript of one of my books. Suddenly, a seagull flew down from the sky and perched itself on a pillar three feet from where I sat. “Hello,” said the seagull, in a very familiar seagull voice. I looked up from my manuscript and smiled. “Hello,” I said.

“What ya doing?” asked the seagull.

“I’m working on a new collection of essays.”

“You don’t look like you’re working very hard,” the seagull laughed, and then the laugh turned into the laugh of Fred, and I turned to the man who created the voices of those famous little puppets, and we laughed some more and we felt just fine.

I lost my best friend on a recent Thursday morning, and when I went to the high school where I work, I heard so many students talking about Mr. Rogers dying. A teacher openly wept in the hall when she heard the news. And then I suddenly remembered that I was not the only one who lost a friend.

George Washington is considered the father of our country, and for the past 35 years, Fred Rogers has been the father of our souls, reminding us that we are likable just the way we are, reminding us that it is such a good feeling to know that we are alive, and reminding us that we are special on the outside, and we are special on the inside.

Dylan Thomas was angry that his father died, and demanded that we rage and rage against the dying of the light. Fred reminded me for the past 18 years to celebrate the birth of light each day.

The poet said that “wise men at their end know dark is right.” Fred Rogers reminded us all that light is what is important, and goodness, gentleness, compassion, self-confidence, courage and love.

At the end of many phone conversations, Fred would often say to me with his sure faith, “Chris, you know who is in charge.” This is what Fred Rogers said to us all each day of his life. And we can now say to him in return, “Do, by all means, do go gently into that good night.”

Christopher de Vinck’s most recent book is Finding Heaven: Stories of Going Home (Loyola Press). He is a public school administrator and lives in Pompton Plains, N.J.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2003