A Documentarian Delves into
Bernie Fowler’s Wading Legacy
Preacher for the Patuxent now showing in Solomons
by Mark Burns
Soggy sneakers, coveralls and politicians by now comprise a familiar rite in Calvert County, where retired state senator Bernie Fowler leads his annual Patuxent River wade-in from the shores of Broomes Island. For most, the story ends with the measure of Bernie’s waterline. But there’s much more tale for the telling.
That’s the tale told in Preacher for the Patuxent, a documentary crafted by Rockville filmmaker Frank Cervarich. The 48-minute film chronicles the long plight of the Patuxent and Fowler’s 36-year crusade to rescue the river. Preacher premiered during Patuxent River Appreciation Days in October, but fresh eyes get their look at Calvert Marine Museum November 30.
Cervarich approaches the screenings with high hopes.
“First, I hope the audience responds to the man, that he comes through to them as he has come across to and moved me,” the filmmaker says. “Bernie Fowler, to me, is the best kind of American hero and should be looked to as a worthy role model for our children and grandchildren.
“Second, I hope the documentary perpetuates or ignites continued conversation about the role of our environment in this crazy modern world that we live in.”
If the October premier was any indication, his hopes are well founded.
“We have people who wanted to storm the State House tomorrow with it,” says Doug Alves, director of the museum.
For all his passion, the filmmaker is relatively new to the cause. Cervarich grew up on the James River in Richmond, so he wasn’t natively familiar with the Patuxent or Bernie’s environmental crusade. He settled in Rockville in 1993. While filming stories for Maryland Public Television’s Outdoors Maryland, he learned of Fowler. In 1999 Cervarich decided to follow up, toting his camera to Bernie’s wade-in with the idea of doing a segment for the program. He was struck by the discovery.
“I was drawn to Bernie, the human being, not his cause,” says Cervarich. “Bernie is truly a one-of-a-kind person deserving in every way to be recognized for the life that he has led as well as the kind of person that he is.”
The segment never aired, but Cervarich returned with his camera each year after forging a friendship with the senator and collecting heaps of footage. The documentary evolved slowly.
“It just kind of happened over time,” Cervarich says. “It grew out of a feeling that I wanted other people to find out more about Bernie Fowler and the crusade he had been waging for over 30 years.”
Cervarich consulted Fowler throughout development of the film. The documentary arrived in its current form after at least three major re-edits and dozens of smaller revisions.
The relatively brief film proves enlightening for its insights into Fowler’s motivations and history, as well as detailing the long history and plight of Chesapeake waterways. It’s an absorbing story, told in historical water-working footage, folk song, beautiful Patuxent scenery and interviews with Fowler. Bernie’s personality and sincerity shine through in conversation and even song, as he lends his voice to a couple ditties among the occasional folk music. The retired senator’s depth of devotion to the Patuxent is clear, and Cervarich succeeds in relating Fowler’s homespun charisma.
Cervarich’s narrated insights and commentary direct the film’s flow. Preacher’s first half, introducing Bernie and his beloved Patuxent, is informative and serene, with the filmmaker waxing poetic about the river he has come to love and the man he deeply respects.
As the timeline nudges into recent past, the film’s tone shifts. The filmmaker ponders the depth of political devotion to Patuxent River restoration. He notes a long string of unkept promises and laments a stalled environmental movement. Pace slows as the camera turns to politicians’ speechmaking, resembling C-Span with poorer audio. Nor does the filmmaker mask his disappointment with Gov. Robert Ehrlich for withdrawing from a 2005 educational boat ride and this year’s more partisan wade-in.
Fowler’s voice stays diplomatic as the frustration of fellow environmentalists glows bright. Ultimately even his exasperation is shown, as he raises the specter of a lawsuit to boot the state and the Environmental Protection Agency out of their complacency. Cervarich ends his film openly wondering about the river’s fate.
“When Bernie’s generation dies off,” Cervarich wonders, “will we still have people with the vision and the moral rectitude to tirelessly remind us of what was and what should be as it relates to our environment? Will we ever get the job done? Or will Bernie be like Moses, who can talk to God, can lead people out of Egypt and through the wilderness, but never be allowed into the promised land?”
The film’s fate is also uncertain. Additional screenings prior to the November 7 elections were nixed by Fowler and filmmaker alike, neither wanting the film to become a partisan tool. Cervarich would like to see the documentary aired on television, but at present its length makes that unlikely. He’s spoken to Bernie about other options. “I would love for it to be used as an educational tool, in museums, in classrooms, in civic meetings.” As yet, though, no additional screenings are planned.
At the debut, Fowler rose to offer the film an upbeat and emotional benediction as well as hope of pending progress.
“We want you to leave here tonight with hope, not despair. We need a victory,” he said, choking up. “I can assure you, I won’t quit until we get that river cleaned up.”
Showings at 2pm & 7pm, Thurs., Nov. 30 at Calvert Marine Museum, Solomons. free: 410-326-2042. Sen. Fowler comes to the 7pm showing to answer questions and autograph posters.