In 2003, T-COM (now Media Arts & Studies) student Conrad Dillon was enrolled in John Butler's Sound Mixing class. For his final project, Conrad headed back to Pittsburg to find the voices from Butler's past. Along the way, he spoke with Mr. Fred Rogers and some of the characters from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Below is the story behind the recording.
I had only known John Butler for a year in the fall of 2002, but he was already one of my favorite teachers. As an audio major, I was an outsider at Lindley Hall; one of the strangers occasionally milling about known to the film students as “those TCOM kids.” It didn’t help that during my first semester there, I convinced an outgoing lab assistant to tell me John’s highly confidential middle name in exchange for some gas money to help get him to Iowa. Word got around quick that one of “those TCOM kids” had paid off a TA for John’s middle name and the film students were significantly less enthusiastic than I was about the whole thing.
Almost every Wednesday night for a year-and-a-half, I would join eight other “TCOM kids” in the Peterson Sound Studio to hear John talk about his career, film production, and about creative recording techniques and problem solving. John always had a rough exterior, but you know deep down he genuinely cares for every one of his students. It wasn’t until three semesters passed, when John called to ask if I wanted to work on a thesis film – a project that would require me to be alone in the woods with a dozen film students for several weeks – that I knew I had finally broken through to him.
It was actually a project for my TCOM field recording class, ironically, that gave me the opportunity to honor John. I started off lugging around a huge DAT recorder and a mini-boom mic, covertly recording students and faculty at thesis screenings and late nights at Lindley Hall. One night, feeling particularly daring, I hollowed out an old textbook and placed a handheld DAT machine inside of it, ran mic cables through my clothes and taped a lavelier mic to the side of my shoe. Then, sitting right next to John in class, I was able to record him talking for over an hour. Later, John would say he knew I was recording the whole time, but didn’t want to say anything. Of course, we all know that is completely untrue. We can only imagine what John would do if he found out someone was secretly recording him.
Arranging an interview with Mr. Rogers and all of John’s friends at WQED was surprisingly easy. There was no Facebook or Twitter then, but if you called the number listed on the website of Mr. Rogers’ production company, the phone would be answered by David Newell, who played Mr. McFeely on the classic childrens' show. It turned out, David and Fred didn’t just want to be a part of my John Butler project, they wanted everybody at WQED to be a part of it, too. I drove up to Pittsburgh with my girlfriend, one of John’s film students, on a sunny day in late October. We met everybody at WQED and they all had a story about John to share. David and Fred showed us an old set from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and told us to help ourselves from the giant bowl of popcorn in the middle of his conference table.
When we got back to Athens, I put everybody’s stories together. One November evening before the end of the semester, the usual Wednesday group assembled in John’s studio a few minutes earlier than usual. We prepped the file on the sound system and when John walked in, we pressed play, just sat and listened to it. I still remember John’s face when it was over.
I listen to that recording now, more than a decade later, and think about how all the people I interviewed are just from a brief period in John’s life. Every year, new students come to the film school and get the privilege of working with him, learning from him, and becoming one of the many students whose lives he’s touched.
- Conrad Dillon