Calling all 'Rogers'

By PHILIP EIL  |  June 26, 2013

ROLE PLAYER Hutchinson, in his Roger-portraying prime.

There was a conspicuous absence in Providence on Saturday during celebrations of the 350th anniversary of Rhode Island’s charter. A certain man was missing in the morning when Governor Chafee snipped a red ribbon with oversized scissors to welcome throngs of guests — including numerous members of the Roger Williams Family Association — into the state house’s newly-christened Charter Museum. The same guy was absent around lunchtime at the Roger Williams National Memorial when Roger Williams University president Donald Farish said, “Whenever you are lost and unsure of what to do next because you’re in a complex situation, just ask yourself, ‘What would Roger do?’” Even during the evening gala, when guests roamed the state house rotunda munching coconut shrimp and listening to a band belt Earth, Wind & Fire covers, Roger Williams — that is, a present-day imitation of Roger Williams — was nowhere to be found.

Now, there are obviously more serious issues in today’s Ocean State than the absence of an R.W. impersonator at our charter blowout. Think of Providence’s recent wave of shooting deaths or the decision on whether to pay back 38 Studios’ bonds or the fact that Saturday’s plaque re-dedication ceremony at the Roger Williams National Memorial — the cradle of separation of church and state — began with a pastor invoking “Christ’s holy name.” (We have a full transcript of the prayer on our “Not for Nothing” blog.)

But the question remains: where have all the “Rogers” gone? There was one standing at attention at January’s press conference announcing the upcoming charter-related festivities. But, by Saturday, he had disappeared.

Explanations abound. Apparently, plans for a “Roger” on Saturday — or even a person impersonating a metal statue of Roger from the “living art installations” experts at Pawtucket’s TEN31 Productions — never came through. Then there was the fact that John McNiff, the wildly knowledgeable and engaging park ranger at the Roger Williams National Memorial who plays an extraordinary “Roger,” was busy with the day’s park ranger duties.

Folks at the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities also tell us that there have been fewer “Roger” sighting since funding dried up for their first-person history programming. Retired RIC theater professor and longtime “Roger” Bill Hutchinson remembers a trip to a middle school during those RICH-funded golden years. Dressed in full Roger regalia at 8 am, he says, he heard a student say, “Here come the motherfucking pilgrims!” Hutchinson retired Roger a few years ago at age 75. He still gets phone calls, but he turns them down.

In light of all this, perhaps it’s time for a brief Phoenix Public Service Announcement: let’s never go Roger-less at a public party again. The recruiting starts here.

Yes, if you want to be “Roger” you’ve got to be literate enough convince folks you can speak eight languages. (He spoke English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Dutch, Narragansett, and “probably Italian,” McNiff says.) And yes, you’ve got to be trim and fit enough to convince people that you could paddle from Providence to Newport to debate Quakers for 12 hours at age 70. (“I think he was probably pretty lean, but we don’t know that for certain,” says Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul author John M. Barry.)

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