Devoted wife of children’s TV personality Fred Rogers, a renowned concert pianist and one of Pittsburgh’s most beloved public figures, Joanne Rogers died on January 14 at the age of 92. In recent years, the world has come to know Joanne thanks to renewed interest in her husband’s life and principles.
Two film projects led the recent Mister Rogers Renaissance in popular culture: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” from director Morgan Neville — the most successful biographical documentary ever released — and Oscar-nominated “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. When she came on to promote the films, late-night TV hosts enjoyed finding Joanne as kind, funny, and engaging as we figured Fred’s wife must be.
Over 33 years, Fred produced 886 episodes of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” that taught and affirmed generations of children. It took such dedication, upon returning home he would often take on the stern demeanor of King Friday whom he voiced on the show. She, in turn, was his Queen Sara, helping him to see the best in others and fight another day (born Sara Joanne Byrd, she found her first name too “stuffy” and dropped it).
Joanne Rogers, who married Fred Rogers in 1952 and remained by his side until his death in 2003, died Thursday at the age of 92
An author and pianist in her own right, she was among Pittsburgh’s most beloved public figures: https://t.co/1VA8ABvS4y
She loved my shirt when we met pic.twitter.com/cWdCUQMjtG
— Josh M Shepherd (@JoshMShep) January 15, 2021
In November 2019, I met Joanne briefly during an interview. By wearing a shirt depicting Fred, I got to hear her famous lively laugh. If Fred’s style and substance were deceptively simple, even more so his life partner. She had a big personality, yet often shunned the limelight. Writing as one of the millions impacted by their legacy, here are seven insights into the late Joanne Rogers.
1. She Loved to Laugh As Much As Fred Did
Joanne and Fred had a lighter side rarely seen in their public lives. In the definitive Rogers biography “The Good Neighbor,” Joanne recounted a story that became an inside joke between the two of them. A mutual friend of theirs owned a car upholstery shop. One day, a boisterous woman came in to the man, named Larry, to have her taxi cab seats fixed. When she came back days later, the comfort delighted her. “Larry, this makes my sweet ass smile,” said the woman.
The Rogers couple loved this story from their college days and told it often. They didn’t know then how much travel would define their lives, with Fred’s frequent trips to New York City and Washington, D.C. Whenever they’d get into a cab after a long night of speeches, according to the Rogers biographer: “One would turn to the other with a mischievous grin and say, ‘Oh, this makes my sweet ass smile.’”
2. She Preached and Lived Messages of Simple Clarity
During her lifetime, Joanne saw various hot takes that criticized her husband’s simple messages of kindness, empathy, and hope. In the wake of 9-11 and other national tragedies, he famously said: “Look for the helpers.” During a TEDx talk in 2019, she defended that message: “Simple is better. Fred certainly did think that, and I agreed.” As to their critic, she candidly said, “This is someone who was very ‘intellectual’ and maybe not too much in touch with his childhood.”
To preserve her husband’s wisdom, Joanne worked with team members at Family Communications to compile his most memorable nuggets of wisdom — about imagination, losing well, affirmation, patience, the power of creativity, and a host of topics. It became a series of three short books, with Joanne writing a new foreword chapter for each one.
3. She Was Usually the One Who Disciplined Their Boys
The Rogers had two sons, James and John, born only 21 months apart. By their school years, Fred Rogers was a household name and the family was often under scrutiny. In his writing, the educator and Presbyterian minister made it clear they “weren’t perfect parents.” He continued: “Both Joanne and I can recall many times when we wish now we’d said or done something different. But we didn’t, and we’ve learned not to feel too guilty about that.”
Though they kept their personal lives mostly private, Rogers biographer Maxwell King got Joanne to admit she was usually the disciplinarian of their young sons. “They tussled and roughhoused so much,” she said, commenting on events at the family dinner table. “Fred would be very, very patient — and I wasn’t.” Their personalities complimented each other, and neither parent wanted to coddle their sons. Fred met his two grandchildren born to his older son, James, during his lifetime, though he died only weeks before a baby was born to his son John.
4. She Pursued Her Love of Music Apart from Fred’s Work
Because Joanne appeared on a few episodes of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” including as piano accompaniment for his songs, many assume she remained a collaborator with him in his children’s TV programs. While she supported his nationally known work, including long nights with him answering fan mail, Joanne carved out her own niche of music and the arts.
Joanne was a classically trained pianist beginning at age five. Attending the Rollins College Conservatory of Music in the 1950s on a scholarship, she not only met Fred but also fellow musician Jeannine Morrison. The two women performed concerts as a piano duo hundreds of times and recorded several classical albums together.
When Joanne married Fred and moved to Pittsburgh, it ended the piano duo for a time, as her friend was based in Georgia. Joanne taught piano at two colleges in the Pittsburgh area, while also juggling her time raising the two Rogers sons. Fred featured her concerts on multiple episodes of his show, including a 1975 program. Decades later, Joanne reunited with her friend Jeannine Morrison and they performed several concerts together including as late as 2003.
5. She Struggled to Let Fred Go
In December 2002, stomach cancer had begun to take its toll on Fred as Joanne recounted about a year later. “Last Christmas, I was worried,” she said. “I was very, very worried and I was very concerned about Fred. He really was not feeling well, so there was a constant ‘Let’s get him to eat, let’s fix things he can eat without it hurting him.’”
As the pain worsened, she realized that her consuming care had kept him holding on; she wanted to give him a sense of relief. Joanne recalled on a TV interview: “I said to him, ‘You know, we’re going to be okay. 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.”
6. She Understood Emotions Like Grief Are Complex
Then and now, most children’s shows focus on learning letters and numbers. Yet Fred Rogers always had bigger ideas in mind. Decade after decade, his imaginative puppet TV show engaged viewers not with high-IQ concepts but focused on stimulating EQ, or emotional quotient. Joanne reflected this in how she discussed her own emotions.
In 2005, two years following his death, she wrote: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just tell ourselves, ‘Okay, you’ve grieved. Your time to grieve is up. Now it’s time to get your act together.’ But it’s not like that for me. Some days I feel energized. Some days I feel depleted. Grieving can be exhausting!”
She and Fred faithfully attended the Sixth Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh and her faith echoes in how she dealt with the loss of her husband of over 50 years. “The tears do come sometimes when I’m alone and missing Fred — sometimes tears of anger that he was taken from us too soon. But this I try to remember my overriding feeling at the time he went to heaven — that feeling of blessed relief that his pain and suffering were over.”
7. She Carried the ‘Neighborhood’ to the Next Generation
Following Fred’s death, Joanne became the chair of his company Family Communications, Inc. She was involved as they hired new team members for an ambitious project, to introduce his learning concepts to a new generation. They landed on the right partner in educator-producer Angela Santomero, creator of the preschool TV hit “Blue’s Clues.” She grew up watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and saw the potential in updating it as an animated series.
Currently in its fifth season, production of “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” continues to this day. Leaning into Fred’s life teachings and even remixing many of his songs, the animated series has won several Emmys and Parent’s Choice Awards. In a tweet following Joanne’s passing, Santomero wrote she was “never without a smile and sharp as a tack.” She added: “I’m eternally grateful to have received her heartfelt support and kindness.”
Anyone who met Joanne, as I had the privilege to, can only echo the words of longtime “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” producer Margy Whitmer. “Every time I think of her, I can hear her laughing,” she said in a recent story. “Even if you didn’t feel like laughing, you started laughing because she was laughing. It was contagious.”