An acclaimed pianist with a heart of gold, Fred Rogers' wife Joanne Rogers was the perfect complement to her beloved husband.
“When the White House called to tell Fred he was getting the Presidential Medal of Freedom… on July 9th,” recalled Joanne Rogers, the wife of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood host Fred Rogers, “Fred said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, I won’t be able to make it. That’s our 50th wedding anniversary.'”
After an invitation to celebrate the landmark anniversary at the White House, Fred and Joanne Rogers made the trip together.
And exactly how did Fred, 50 years prior at age 24, propose to his wife-to-be?
“He wrote me a letter,” Joanne recalled. “My last year at Florida State, he wrote me a letter proposing marriage.”
While Joanne knew the man that was Mr. Rogers was important to her, she could not have imagined just how important he would be to the world.
From their wedding in 1952 to his death in 2003 to her own passing on January 14, 2021, only one woman knew what it was like to be Fred Rogers’ wife: the charming and talented (and some would say very lucky) Joanne Rogers.
Joanne Rogers’ Early Life
Joanne Rogers was born Sara Joanne Byrd in Jacksonville, Florida in 1928. The only child of homemaker Ebra Edwards Byrd and Wyatt Adolphus Byrd, a salesman and postal worker. She remembered her father was frequently absent during the holidays.
“He worked during times, often at holidays, when other people would be celebrating. That was his busiest time,” she said. “I think that put a little bit of a damper on my feelings about big celebrations of holidays, with a lot of people around. Because we never did that when I was young.”
Joanne began playing the piano before she could even recite the alphabet; formal lessons began at the tender age of five. Her talent for the instrument eventually earned her a scholarship to study piano at Rollins College in Florida. In 1946, college-bound Joanne left Jacksonville for the college town of Winter Park, about 19 years before Disney World opened its gates nearby.
Meeting Mr. Rogers
During the fall of 1948, Joanne Rogers heard about a music composition major named Fred transferring from Dartmouth College. Professors assigned a few students to show him around, and Joanne was one of them.
“I must say, we were just good friends,” she recalled. “We didn’t do much dating, as such. We all ran around in a group… But I think we thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company, and he was a marvelous dancer, a fabulous dancer! So I would ask him to our sorority dances, and he would ask me to his fraternity dances.”
They bonded over their similar childhoods; both felt somewhat isolated as kids, that they weren’t able to freely express their emotions with words. Music provided them with the voices they always longed to have.
“He and I both had childhoods that you weren’t allowed to be angry. You weren’t allowed to show your anger. We were never able to do it. It scared us,” she remembered in the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, about Mr. Rogers’ life.
“In his young days, he was lively and full of fun, but he talked about his feelings”, Joanne disclosed.
Joanne soon graduated and moved on to Florida State University (to study with its composer-in-residence, the Hungarian-American virtuoso Ernst von Dohnányi, no less). Fred had recently graduated and headed to New York for an apprenticeship at NBC Television studios.
The pair kept in touch by writing letters. Correspondence between the two friends was mainly platonic. That is, until one special letter where Fred simply asked for her hand in marriage.
Joanne ran to a payphone and called him to give him her answer. She would be Fred Rogers’ wife. They married in the summer of 1952.
“You have to have a friendship to fall back on throughout your married life… and we had it for 50 years, so that was nice.”
Being Fred Rogers’ Wife
Now Fred Rogers’ wife, Joanne Rogers soon became involved in her husband’s career, voicing characters on Fred’s first show, The Children’s Corner. She also taught at the preparatory school of music at Chatham College.
When the couple’s two sons arrived in 1959 and 1961, however, Joanne stepped back from television production to care for them. (Though she did teach music for a few years at Pittsburgh’s Carlow College in the 1970s.)
Music was always at the forefront of the Rogers’ lives. Joanne said, “It’s so important in the relationship that I look at him and say, ‘What do people do who don’t have music?’… It’s that important.”
While Fred was integrating his musical training into his groundbreaking children’s programs, Joanne remembered life at home was no different.
“When our sons James and John would get a little rambunctious, or it was a rainy day and nobody knew what to do, Fred would say, ‘Let’s have a parade!’ He’d go to the piano and play and they’d march around,” she said. “Music almost always put everyone in a good mood.”
Love And Marriage
“Fred was a very sensitive person, and tears were available to him,” Joanne Rogers revealed in 2018. “I used to say, ‘You’re my liberated man, and I think it’s just wonderful.'”
While the couple had many common interests, there were enough opposing personality traits to keep things interesting. Joanne was known by her friends to be much more boisterous and mischievous than her husband. “She has a wonderful sense of humor,” Fred once said. “That was apparent from the first time I met her.”
Over their years together, Fred found a special way to tell Joanne “I love you”: the number 143.
The one was for the one letter — “I”, four for the number of letters in “love”, and three for the number in “you.” It was a number that had an additional tie to Fred. He weighed exactly 143 pounds for almost his entire adult life and took up swimming just so he could maintain that special weight.
Despite their loving relationship, there were whispers among the public that Fred was secretly gay. Those who knew him the best confirmed his heterosexuality, but the rumors bothered Joanne (aside from the wilder rumors that he hid military tattoos under his hand-knit sweaters.)
She described herself and her husband this way: “It was really a very, very good friendship. I’ve heard people say that men and women can’t be friends and lovers. We really were friends, and I know we were lovers.”
Her Husband’s Success
Joanne Rogers was always an independent woman, with her own successful music career as a pianist. But with Fred’s unprecedented television success, she could often feel like the odd one out at public events. Still, she consistently marveled at the level of admiration that both children and adults felt towards her husband.
“They’re so cute and so warm with him,” she said of the strangers who regularly embraced Fred when they were out and about. “They just get really excited. And to the little children who come up to him, he’s no stranger. They just come right up, give him a hug, and tell him something important to them. I always find I get a big lump in my throat.”
Even with a wildly popular television program, the Rogers lived frugally and simply. “They’re very down-to-earth people. They don’t like fancy,” said their friend, Gloria Cook. “Even when they come to visit, I don’t especially clean the house or put flowers out or the best china. I know that’s not them.”
One small luxury the couple did enjoy was their vacation home in Nantucket, given to the couple by the parents of Fred Rogers in 1961 as a wedding gift. Nicknamed “The Crooked House,” it was their refuge when television life became too hectic. But the cottage was simple, even sparse. It contained mainly just the essentials — and of course, a piano.
When Fred was diagnosed with stomach cancer in December 2002, Joanne Rogers felt she had to tell him that it was ok to leave this Earth.
“There was a feeling of real relief when I could say to him, ‘You know, we’re going to be OK. We’re going to be all right… The boys will be fine, and I’m going to try to be fine.’ So when he went, I could feel he went at peace and even with joy. I really feel he went with joy.”
Of course, the loss was extremely difficult. “Part of me just went with him,” she said. “But I find that he’s with me so much of the time. I can get to him very quickly.”
Joanne Rogers’ Life After Fred
Joanne Rogers had quite the legacy to look after, including Mr. Rogers’ body of work, his production company, and the audience that still craved his words of calm guidance. But took it all in stride.
Though Joanne remained behind the scenes while Fred was alive, after his passing she generously made herself available for interviews and television appearances.
She sat for multiple interviews for the 2018 documentary about Mr. Rogers, and she was involved in the 2019 feature film about her husband as well. She also appeared at the dedication of the postage stamp commemorating Fred.
She used to frequently perform with her college friend and musical partner Jeannine Morrison — though her aged hands couldn’t always navigate the piano keys as they once did.
While many were in awe of Fred, the man himself was in awe of his wife — and her musical talent.
“I think she is more concerned with the overall feeling of something than the actual perfection of it,” he once said. “That doesn’t mean she doesn’t play all the notes perfectly, it’s that she’s a communicator. She’s not just a mathematician; there’s feeling in her work.”
Joanne Rogers’ Death And The Legacy She Left Behind
Just as Joanne remained a source of inspiration to Fred until his passing in 2003, so too did she remain a source of inspiration to fans of Mr. Rogers until her own passing on January 14, 2021 at age 92.
Not only was she active and vibrant until the end, she also stayed committed to the mission that was so important to both her and her husband.
As the official announcement from Fred Rogers Productions read, “The loving partner of Fred Rogers for more than 50 years, she continued their shared commitment to supporting children and families after his death.”
The statement went on to address the thousands of people who personally knew and loved her. And for a woman as kind and generous as Joanne Rogers, thousands is no surprise at all.
After learning about Fred Rogers’ wife Joanne Rogers, take a look at these female world leaders who made history without a husband. Then, read all about everyone’s favorite public television painter, Bob Ross.