A GOOD NEIGHBOR

Written By: Robert Cocuzzo | Photography By: Kit Noble and c/o The Seward Johnson Atelier, Inc.

A statue honoring Mister Rogers is proposed for a new pocket park behind The Dreamland.

Sixteen years since his passing, Mister Rogers remains a prominent figure in our country’s collective consciousness. Thanks to a critically acclaimed documentary about his life that was shown at the Nantucket Film Festival last summer and a feature film starring Tom Hanks that will play at the Dreamland beginning this Thanksgiving, the legacy of Fred Rogers is as vivid as ever on Nantucket. But one year-round resident named Michelle Keeler wants to literally cement Rogers’ legacy on the island in the form of a statue sculpted at the hands of another notable Nantucket summer resident, Seward Johnson.

“Hopefully, we can inspire more people like Mister Rogers through this sculpture,” says Keeler, who grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and whose idea for the statue was inspired last fall after watching the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? “If somebody is walking by and feeling mad, they can look at the sculpture of him sitting there and calm themselves. His legacy will live on in this statue for future generations to come.”

While seeking to honor the memory of Fred Rogers, who summered in Madaket for more than fourty years before his untimely passing due to stomach cancer, Keeler also sees the sculpture as a nod to her own father whom she lost to Alzheimer’s last fall. “My dad not only looked like Mister Rogers, but he had that same conversational style—docile, kind, loving,” she says. “The more I see Mister Rogers, the more I am reminded of my dad, so I’m doing it for both of them.”

When Keeler first had the idea for the statue, the celebrated artist and longtime Nantucket summer resident Seward Johnson immediately came to mind as who should sculpt it. Johnson had met Rogers on a number of occasions during his decades summering on Nantucket. “I can especially recall how kind and open he was to my two children,” the artist said. “When we happened to be in the North Shore Restaurant that we both loved and frequented, he would invite my son and daughter, about ages seven and ten, over to his table and speak with them—this made a big impression on me.”

Johnson has immortalized many historic figures in his statues, from Albert Einstein to a twenty-six-foot rendering of Marilyn Monroe, but capturing the essence of Mister Rogers poses unique challenges to the storied artist. “I hope to convey the genuinely kind nature of the man–his innate gentility,” Johnson said. “Fred Rogers represents for us an honest expression of respect for one another…I feel it is important in these times to bring our focus to how we treat one another—with respect and with care and with humility. And Fred Rogers was a beautiful example of this. We can all take our cue from him.”

Johnson’s work has been on display downtown this summer through a partnership between the Artists Association of Nantucket and the Nantucket Historical Association. While these sculptures will eventually return to his studio, the proposed sculpture of Mister Rogers would be permanently on display on the island. “I was delighted this summer to have ten of my sculptures hosted by the Nantucket Historic Association, and viewable throughout town,” says Johnson. “Having this permanent sculpture will complete the circle. I couldn’t be happier.”

The statue of Mister Rogers, which is still in its earliest phases of development, will serve as the focal point of a new pocket park located directly behind The Dreamland on Easy Street. Set on a slightly elevated stone platform etched with quotes from Mister Rogers, the statue will sit on a bench facing the theater so that people can take photos with him with the harbor in the background. Keeler considered a number of private and public locations for the statue, but ultimately The Dreamland’s rear brick patio emerged as the optimal location. “[The Dreamland’s executive director] Joe Hale met my enthusiasm immediately,” Keeler says. “He was so excited about the idea and is just a force to be reckoned with.”

“This statue would become the catalyst to create more green space that would be a gift to the community while also paying tribute to somebody whose values, in my opinion, our country could use a little more of these days,” says Hale. Together, he and Keeler have already raised over $200,000 in private donations for the project, which is estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $800,000. Hale indicates that this fundraising goal also represents an endowment dedicated to the long-term care and upkeep of the statue and the park.

“We’re asking for the community of Nantucket to step forward,” says Hale, who has also submitted a grant application to the Community Preservation Committee for the project. “I don’t care if somebody gives $5, $50 or $5,000, we really want that sense of ownership and engagement from the community because this is for the people of Nantucket, so we really want the people of Nantucket to have some skin in the game.” If all goes to plan with the fundraising campaign, which formally launched with the showing of the feature film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood at The Dreamland, as well as with Historic District Commission and Town approvals, Keeler and Hale hope the park will be completed by next August.

“If you’re on Nantucket for a day or live here your entire life, at some point we want everyone to have their photo taken on the bench next to Mister Rogers,” says Hale. “We want it to be one of those iconic ‘must-do activities when you’re on island.” Keeler agrees: “My goal is to sit on the bench with him and watch people be surprised and have those same feelings of watching his program growing up.” Keeler has been in direct contact with Rogers’ family—his widow Joanne is ninety-one and his two sons still own their family’s legendary “Crooked House” in Madaket—as well as with the McFeely-Rogers Foundation. She’s had their blessing every step of the way. “This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this,” says Keeler, who works as a sales associate at the Tile Room. “I may not be rich, but you don’t need money to dream big.” Mister Rogers would have agreed.

To donate to the Mister Rogers statue and pocket park campaign, please contact Joe@NantucketDreamland.org.

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