(Tim Johnson, Beth Sullivan, Fred Rogers, Jane Seymour and Joe Lando)
photo courtesy of erasofelegance

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ET visits Fred Rogers on the set of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman  Download Video

In November 1998, this story was published as part of Esquire Magazine's 'Heroes' issue. We offer it now as a part of our tribute to Fred Rogers. Can you say hero?      Esquire Remembers Mr. Rogers

We miss you 'Babba'

by Beth Sullivan

The above photo was given to Beth Sullivan by Director Chuck Bowman after the death of Fred Rogers
Fred Rogers and I met at the Ranch. Really. It was in February of 1996 and was my last day on the set before having to move DQMW meetings to my bedroom at home. About four weeks later, Tess and Jack were born. I was enormous, unrecognizable, and relatively immobile, while Fred was busy, kindly besieged with all the production concerns of appearing as the Reverend's mentor in the "Deal With The Devil" episode (the only time he ever agreed to accept a role outside The Neighborhood), as well as paying special, private attention to the many kids brought by their staff, crew and cast parents that day. What I most recall is the children's casual companionship with him as he spent "special" time with each, in contrast to the adults's unexpected awe and reverence for this remarkable ability to be entirely present with whomever he was dealing with, from the teamster who picked him up at the local hotel early that morning (and later told me that Fred had asked him to please pose beside the van for a photo, as he was the "very first person" Fred was meeting who was part of DQMW") to Chuck, who was stepping in at the last moment to direct that day for Bobby Roth who had been called the night before to the deathbed of his mother. To Fred, everyone on the production was equally important. Everyone in the world, for that matter…

Bobby Roth's son, Nick, (and my godson) was acting in the show, and ironically had been featured earlier in a way that we couldn't easily shoot him out, as it was our final day. Besides, Bobby and I had already decided before dawn that Nick was too young to be involved in the hospital grimness of his grandmother's passing, and his mother was in England. I kept him close, and he sat between Fred and me at lunch. Within moments, Fred was speaking quietly and privately to him about his grandmother. Nick had immediately felt safe to express his feelings to Fred, though he'd been stoic until then. I inwardly marveled, and after presenting Fred with one of our canvas "carpet bags" full of other DQMW gifts, spent the rest of the afternoon fretting over whether he was getting enough water, shade, rest, you name it, as he was dressed in a period wool suit on what turned into a very hot afternoon.

Fred and I actually first "met" through his wife, Joanne, the previous October at the Catholics In The Media awards dinner. We were both to receive awards that night. Fred could not make it to the dinner, so Joanne had respectfully flown out to accept for him. In the green room before the evening began, she came up to me and introduced herself, saying that DQMW was the only network show that she and Fred watched every week. Sometimes Murphy Brown, she said, but always DQMW. I was flabbergasted. I told her, she was stealing my lines. If anyone was to be praising the other's work it should me. I had long admired what Fred did on The Neighborhood, believing it to be unique in its form and content in a way that was so sorely missing in children's programming. Even Sesame Street, which premiered on PBS the same season as The Neighborhood and has done so much good, seemed fast-paced and more commercially "entertaining", compared to the calm, safe, loving parenting that was the soul of The Neighborhood, and that soul was Fred. His quiet, unhurried manner of both talking and listening gave six generations of children the parenting they so desperately needed (not to mention the parents who were lucky enough to watch with their kids, or of other adults who for some reason had the great fortune to experience the show, as I had during a thyroid illness when I was twenty-eight.) And thank goodness The Neighborhood shows will go on parenting generations to come, even though Fred is gone.

Fred and I didn't really get to know each other until later that year in September in Nantucket at Crooked House, the little old, yes crooked, beach house passed to him by his parents. The "chic getaway" that the tiny "faraway island" (as it's called) had become didn't interest Fred in the least. It was simply part of family tradition, and he took the same pleasure of retreat there that he had as a boy, except now he was doing so in "grown up" ways. Most of The Neighborhood's shows were written or at least conceived of there. Yet, on our first visit of what would become a yearly sojourn, he found time for us, as did Joanne, who was also busy, practicing (she's a concert pianist) for the year's coming engagements.

They unexpectedly picked us up at the little airport. At first, Fred didn't recognize me seventy pounds lighter than our day at the Ranch. Of course he knew I'd been pregnant, but he very tactfully handled the fact that I'd been over 200 pounds (more than I should have been, even with twins) when he last saw me by saying that he just thought I must be a large woman...

We hit it off immediately. First, our reasons for working in television were the same. We both felt a strong drive, Fred called it a mission, to counter the overwhelming junk on television. We both loved to read non-fiction in similar areas of interest and discuss matters of import in the world, even the saddest and direst... And we both loved to laugh and have fun. So does Joanne. So did their friends they introduced us to, and so did our friends who sometimes visited. That first trip cemented a relationship that will remain one of the most important of my life.

I will never forget the moment, while sitting around the formica kitchen table for dinner. While I was busy feeding our two six month olds, there was a tap on my shoulder, and I turned to find Fred holding out a forkful of my own untouched food. He said, "Who's going to feed you?" I took the bite, fighting back tears.

At the end of that first visit, I received the greatest honor DQMW has ever brought me, when Fred and Joanne asked if they could be "honorary grandparents" to Tess and Jack, and be their "Babba" and "Granny". And they are to this day and always will be. I am so grateful that my children are so blessed.

Fred believed in heaven, and he was the wisest, holiest person I have ever known. To me, there is simply no way he could be wrong about something he had given so much spiritual and intellectual consideration. For Fred, there must be a heaven, and that gives us comfort. But we still miss you terribly, Babba, and think of you every day with all the love there is…

Beth Sullivan