Remembering Joanne Rogers
The widow of Fred Rogers died Thursday at the age of 92.
Despite being married to Fred Rogers for more than 50 years, there was much more to Joanne Roger’s life beyond being the wife of a beloved children’s television icon. Joanne Rogers, who lived in Squirrel Hill, was a professional pianist, teacher and constant crusader for her late husband’s message of empathy, kindness and compassion.
She died Thursday afternoon surrounded by friends and family. She was 92. No cause of death was given.
“Joanne was a brilliant and accomplished musician, a wonderful advocate for the arts, and a dear friend to everyone in our organization,” Fred Rogers Productions said in announcing her death. “We extend our heartfelt condolences to Joanne’s family and the thousands of people who had the privilege of knowing and loving her.”
Within minutes, tributes began to flood social media.
“Through her grace, humor and down-to-earth demeanor Joanne Rogers personified what we love about the City of Pittsburgh,” said Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. “As the partner of Fred Rogers for a half-century, she helped champion his good works to a global audience and remained committed to his vision and to this city after his passing.”
“Joanne Rogers was a sparkling light in Pittsburgh,” said Duquesne President Ken Gormley in a statement. “When we presented her with an honorary degree during Duquesne University’s 2019 commencement, she beamed and told the graduating students, ‘You are special,’ invoking one of Fred’s favorite songs. Joanne Rogers was more than special. She will be a permanent part of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and, for those of us who knew and loved her, she will always remain in our hearts.”
“That’s the one thing about her that stands out, and her love of music,” David Newell, who played Mr. McFeely on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” told the Post-Gazette. “She didn’t take herself that seriously. She was just a good sport and a wonderful, wonderful woman. Very warm, could talk to anybody. She had her own life and career, too.”
With an infectious smile, Joanne Rogers became a star in her own right. She appeared on news programs and late-night talk shows in support of books and documentaries about Fred Rogers and his program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” In an appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” Rogers discussed her husband’s well-remembered use of a kiddie pool on his show to address issues of racism.
Rogers was born Sara Joanne Byrd in Jacksonville, Florida, and she met her future husband when he transferred to Florida’s Rollins College to study music.
“[Music] is so important in the relationship that I look at him and say, ‘What do people do who don’t have music?’ ” she said in 2002. “It’s that important.”
When Fred moved to New York to work in television, which was in its infancy at the time, she earned a master’s of music from Florida State University.
The pair corresponded by mail regularly and Fred eventually proposed in a letter. She called him on a payphone to say yes and they were married in 1952. They are survived by two sons, James and John.