Mary Forrester and her son Michael sit in the living room of their McLean home, late Saturday afternoon, more than a week after Frank Forrester killed himself. They are still trying to understand what happened. It was an ending totally out of character to the way that life was lived.
Forrester had such energy and enthusiasm that he left everyone who knew him with Frank Forrester stories. He first came to prominence in Washington as the weatherman on WRC-TV. He was a meteorologist who took as his responsibility the business of educating his audience not only about what was going to happen in the weather but why. He worked for WRC full time from 1960 to 1962 and then went to work for the U.S. Geological Survey, heading its public information office until he retired in 1981. There, it was his task to explain to reporters what was causing everything from severe droughts and hurricanes to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, including Mount St. Helens. He not only explained, he taught, and made sure we understood what we were writing about. Frequently he would call back with an added dimension to the story that would improve it about 25 percent.
He continued to do the weather for WRC part time until 1970. It is a mark of his enthusiasm for life -- and his impact -- that some people remember him as the weatherman, some remember him as a splendid public information officer, still others remember him as the guy who did research on anything you could name for Harden and Weaver on WMAL radio. He loved knowledge in any form. This was a man who could tell you the origin of the term "the whole nine yards." (It's a cement truck term.)
Others remember him as the guy who would sit down and play the piano and get everyone singing at a party. He had a good voice and he could play. He'd taught himself, played by ear, and couldn't read a note of music.
"He was just the kindest father you could ask for," says his only son, Michael. "There was no greater source of knowledge and understanding than Dad." A neighbor, who teaches college English, jotted some favorite memories down on a yellow pad: "Frank telling our sons the names of different clouds and what they meant. Frank reading George Orwell essays to me as I painted the porch. Frank bringing me drinks as I weeded the garden. Frank always willing to drive, pick-up, babysit in a time of need."
"I have a lot of beautiful memories," says Mary Forrester, who was married to him for 31 years. "We never had an argument." What if they disagreed? "I'd just say, 'Oh, Frank.' "
Forrester had open heart surgery in 1980 and another heart operation within two months. "He was in such pain," she says. It is to failing health that Mary looks for the best explanation of what happened. "After surgery, he said: 'Mary, I'm such a burden to you. You have to do everything.' I said, 'Frank, do you remember when I broke my arm?' It was in a cast for about eight months. The whole elbow was shattered. They had to do everything for me. I said, 'Now, it's my turn. That's what life is about. One helps the other.' "
In the past year, she says, the titanium valve implanted to keep his heart going began making a pounding heartbeat noise that even she could hear sitting near him. He couldn't sleep. "The metallic valves make noise. Now, they're making them a little more silent." She suggested getting another kind of valve. "He said, 'Oh no, no more.' " She says prescription sleeping pills gave him only a few hours of sleep. "He had lost a lot of weight and his appetite was not good." He bought a machine to help him sleep. He tuned it to the sound of rain.
On the morning of May 21, says Mary Forrester, "he was in a good mood. He was cleaning the oven. We'd had barbecued ribs the night before. He was talking about going to the bank. We had a workman here working outside." She says that Frank was headed downstairs. "I said 'Frank, would you like a sandwich?' He said, 'Yes, please make me one.' I went into the kitchen and took everything out.
"He went downstairs. That's when it happened. I heard a noise. I thought it was the workman." The workman was all right. She went downstairs and found her husband. He had shot himself in the mouth with one of the guns he collected. No one knows where the bullet came from. He did not keep ammunition in the house.
He left no note. Mary says she is left "with a sense of not knowing why. If he'd hear of somebody doing this, he'd get so angry. He used to call it a cop-out. The monsignor said it was an act of love. I don't know.
"I knew him 46 years," says Mary. "But it wasn't enough."