Everyone knew Mr. Rogers, the cardigan-clad television host who journeyed with generations of children to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, helping them learn the things one must in the course of growing up, such as how to tie shoelaces and what it means to die. But there was also Mrs. Rogers – she relished identifying herself that way – his loyal partner for 50 years and later a memory-keeper for his message of kindness.
Joanne Rogers, who died Jan. 14 at 92, was for years largely unknown to the millions of youngsters and former youngsters who grew up watching her husband, Fred, on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the celebrated show that aired on public television from 1968 to 2001. They did, however, know the puppet she inspired – Queen Sara Saturday, a gentle, tempering influence on the sometimes pompous King Friday XIII.
King Friday bore little resemblance to her husband, who voiced all the puppets on his show. Daniel Striped Tiger, with his deep feelings and tender reserve, was “the real Fred,” Rogers said.
Rogers did voice work on her husband’s show “The Children’s Corner,” which preceded the nationally syndicated “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on Pittsburgh public television. She shared his love of music – a concert pianist, she was said to have been the better musician, though he also was by all accounts a fine one – and said modestly that she brought “a little more of the light side of life to him.”
But she assumed her most active role in the neighborhood long after he had moved on, and well after his death in 2003 from stomach cancer.
In recent years, Fred Rogers has inspired what has often been described as “a moment,” with the release of two films about his life and the emergence of what at times has seemed a collective yearning for the almost unworldly goodness that he projected.
Rogers appeared in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (2018), a documentary directed by Morgan Neville. She was thrilled, she declared, when actor Tom Hanks was cast to portray her husband in the drama “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (2019) and spent considerable time on the set, making a cameo in the final product. (Actress Maryann Plunkett played her in the film.)
As she emerged as a celebrity in her own right, Rogers delighted her husband’s admirers with stories of his incongruously naughty sense of humor. (She told the Los Angeles Times that he took pleasure in amusing her at boring public events by intentionally passing gas.) But her chief role was to confirm for everyone who had loved Mister Rogers from afar that he was the same Fred Rogers she had loved up close.
“I want to assure everyone,” Rogers said in a TEDx Talk in Pittsburgh, “he was that person that you knew on television.”
Sara Joanne Byrd was born in Jacksonville, Fla., on March 9, 1928, 11 days before her future husband was born to an affluent family in Latrobe, Pa., east of Pittsburgh. Both were only children. Joanne – she would shed her first name, finding it too fancy, and, indeed, Fred Rogers found it fit for his puppet queen – grew up in a considerably less wealthy but immensely loving home.
Her father worked as a teacher, a traveling coffee salesman when the Depression struck and later as a postal employee. He traversed the South by train, Rogers told Maxwell King, the author of the Fred Rogers biography “The Good Neighbor” (2018), tossing mail bags from a rail car as the train rumbled from town to town.
Her mother, a homemaker, loved music and encouraged Rogers’s budding interest in the piano. A turning point in her life came early, when she was 5: A neighborhood friend introduced her to the piano teacher who would give her lessons for the next 13 years. Rogers later remembered her mother sitting near her at the keyboard as she practiced, a show of communion with a child that anticipated the philosophy of Fred Rogers.
“She didn’t read music,” Rogers told King, but “she would sit with me at the piano for all my practice time, and it was wonderful, because I wasn’t alone. I can’t say enough about that for young children and music, that if their parents can invest that time with them, it makes it a less solitary thing.”
Fred Rogers, too, loved music from a young age. Before Fred’s 10th birthday, King wrote, his maternal grandmother agreed to buy him a piano – and did not flinch when Fred, after trying all the models at the Steinway & Sons store in Pittsburgh, selected a 1920 concert grand priced at roughly $3,000, the equivalent of more than $50,000 in today’s currency. Rogers kept the piano, a display of his grandmother’s early faith in him, for the rest of his life.
Joanne and Fred met at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., where she received a music scholarship, and where he transferred from Dartmouth College. She favored classical music, while he preferred improvisation and jazz. They became good friends, with dating limited to fraternity and sorority dances. (Fred, she said, was a superb dancer.) He was deeply self-conscious of his family’s wealth and was perhaps drawn to her, she told King, because she was not “extravagant.”
Rogers graduated in 1950, Fred the following year. She proceeded to Florida State University, where she studied with Ernst von Dohnanyi, a noted Hungarian composer, and received a master’s degree in 1952.
By that time, Fred had moved to New York for an apprenticeship at NBC. He proposed to Joanne in a letter, and she called from a pay phone to accept. They were married in 1952 in New York. They later moved to Pittsburgh, where they raised their two sons, Jim Rogers and John Rogers, who survive, along with three grandchildren.
Rogers gave piano lessons to beginners as well as to more experienced musicians. Later in life, she performed in concerts with Jeannine Morrison, a friend from Rollins, with whom she made two recordings, “A Virtuoso Duo-Piano Showcase” (1995) and “Duo-Piano Favorites” (1997).
Rogers also played the piano with her husband, in private. “Music meant a lot to both of us,” she said in the TEDx Talk. “We had that in common, and we talked often about how do people live without music?”
After her husband’s death, Rogers sought to carry on his legacy through nonprofit organizations including Fred Rogers Productions and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe. Her death was confirmed by David Newell, who played McFeely, the “Speedy Delivery” man of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and was a longtime friend. The cause was not immediately available.
Especially after the two films about her husband were released, she kept up a busy schedule of promotion. She objected to depictions of him as a saint.
“I think he was perfectly human,” she said in a 2019 interview with ABC News. “Or imperfectly human, I should say.”
In 2019, when an NBC correspondent inquired about the matter, she pronounced that her husband would have been “appalled” by the unkindness, even cruelty of the prevailing political climate. But mainly she sought to perpetuate his message, as she described it, of “making goodness attractive.”
“I don’t mean to sound boastful, but he was my icon before he was anyone else’s,” she wrote in a foreword to the book “The World According to Mister Rogers” (2003). “Being Fred Rogers has been the most remarkable life I could ever have imagined.”
She did not favor showy jewelry but did wear a ring, given to her by her husband, designed to resemble a castle battlement. It was a tribute to her, and to Queen Sara.