New park commish has Hollywood ties

Bill San Antonio

When David Paterson won a landslide victory over three-time incumbent Bernard Ralston in a write-in vote to become a Manhasset park commissioner last fall, it sounded like one of the many stories tahat he has written.

Paterson, a stay-at-home dad who has served as volunteer firefighter for the past 12 years, has written more than two dozen scripts for the stage and screen, and  served as one of the principal writers on the 2007 film “Bridge to Terabithia,” which was based off the popular children’s book written by his mother, Katherine.  

He is currently promoting the Ramona Diaz documentary he helped finance and produce, “Don’t Stop Believin’: The Everyman’s Journey,” which tells the story of Arnel Pineda’s ascent from YoutTube singing sensation to fronting the band Journey.

And his latest screenplay, “The Great Gilly Hopkins,” based on another of his mother’s children’s stories, is currently in production.

Paterson said he never thought he’d follow in his mother’s footsteps and become a writer.

“I’m not really a big reader,” he said. “I never have been. I read the news, but I don’t read books. People would ask my mom, ‘what books does David like to read,’ and she wouldn’t know what to tell them.”

Originally from Washington, D.C., Paterson was more attracted to the performing arts, traveling to England to become an actor and stuntman.

After he began taking a playwriting class while abroad, and meeting his wife, Manhasset native Ariana Tadler, Paterson began writing scripts.

“Terabithia” is based on the death of Paterson’s childhood friend, a friend he thought he’d have for life as a seven-year-old.

The tragedy “destroyed” both families, he said, and his mother wrote the children’s book as a way of mourning the loss and grieving for her son.

“Bridge to Terabithia” became a beloved children’s classic, but Paterson struggled for years to accept its fame.

“I was very ashamed of the book at the time,” he said. “We were very poor when I was growing up and once the book started doing very well, I had a new pair of shoes and we could eat meat once or twice a week, and to me it seemed it all happened because my friend died.”

Upon seeing it turned into an after-school special on the ABC network, Paterson began adapting “Terabithia” as a feature film in 1990, but several roadblocks – including the acquisition to the story’s rights from its publishing company and finding financing for the film – prevented it from hitting the silver screen until 2007.

“A lot of that process was not fun because you were trying to teach them, some who have been in the business for a long time, how to make a movie,” he said. “And not very many people in Hollywood like being told they don’t know what they’re doing.”

The film grossed more than $137.5 million worldwide at the box office and is considered one of the more successful movies of that year, though at the time Paterson only received one offer for a follow-up project, a “Terabithia” sequel that didn’t exist.

“I say this a lot to young writers and filmmakers: make art a part of your life, but don’t make it your life,” he said. “Have other things to think about, rather than just focusing on how your career is going and any setbacks you have, because you will have them.”

Paterson, who lives in Plandome Heights, said the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 gave him his “signal flare” to write, produce and direct a short film based on his first script about a tough-talking girl from Queens, a character based on his wife.

“[Sept. 11] changed my life in two ways,” he said. “I realized life is fleeting, and that I shouldn’t expect for someone to discover me as a writer because it may not ever happen. It also made me want to do something for my country.”

Three months to the day later, he was sworn in as a volunteer firefighter.

He has now served for 12 years and is one of the few in the department able to respond to calls during the day.

Paterson soon began doing more and more throughout the Manhasset community, even cleaning out garbage from local ponds where he’d bring his sons to catch frogs.

Paterson said over the years the park district had become disinterested in the opinions of people in the community and began making decisions without their input.

The last straw, he said, was with a Town of North Hempstead plan in which the parks district would install more than 300 parking meters along Plandome Road.

Paterson, who drives his sons to school and his wife to the train station every morning, said he was approached by a group of his friends and neighbors, who knew of his outspoken nature in writing letters to the Manhasset Press, to run for the parks district commissioner position.

As election day grew closer, Paterson said his candidacy grew mostly by word-of-mouth campaigning, with every stay-at-home mom he knew telling all their friends about him.

The turnout for the election was huge, with people lined up around the block to vote “for the guy who’d get rid of the parking meters.”

 Paterson won the election 403-160, and he said the town abandoned the plan the next day.

“People knew me, but of course that’s not the only reason why they voted,” he said. “They were voting against the meters. That’s what the democracy is. You vote for people, sure, but you’re voting for your ideals.”

Paterson – the son, grandson, great-grandson and nephew of Presbyterian ministers – said that while he didn’t follow in his family’s religious footsteps, their example motivated him to get involved in public service.

“I think that’s why I’m always trying to do things in the community. I don’t think it takes that much more energy to help your neighbor. The world is kind of short on patience and kindness as it is, and I didn’t really want to feed into it.”

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