Though Fred Rogers was truly as kind and gentle as he appeared to be on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, his life extended beyond that fictional setting. Away from the cameras, his relationship with wife, Joanne, was a focal point of his world. Despite facing some problems, the couple shared a long-lasting friendship and were married for more than five decades. And Joanne has continued to promote her husband's work and legacy in the wake of Fred's 2003 death.
Fred and Joanne met when he transferred colleges
In 1948, a young Fred was considering a transfer from Dartmouth College to Rollins College so he could major in music. Before applying for admission, he decided to see this prospective new school in Florida. Joanne was attending Rollins when she heard about this potential transfer's visit. She drove out to the airport with a group of students to welcome Fred.
Fred ended up liking Joanne enough to transfer. And amidst their studies, a relationship began between. "We didn't do much dating, as such. We all ran around in a group," she recounted in a 2001 interview. "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 became close enough that Joanne was introduced to Fred's family, who sometimes vacationed near the school.
The two enjoyed a similar sense of humor, so their relationship was filled with laughter. Fred and Joanne once witnessed a cab driver, delighted by a newly upholstered seat, exclaim, "This makes my sweet ass smile." The words became a long-lasting joke for them. In addition, they had a deeper connection. "He was different," Joanne said of Fred while on The Tonight Show in 2018. "In his young days, he was lively and full of fun … but he talked about his feelings, and I could talk about my feelings to him."
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Fred dated other women before marrying Joanne
However, it wasn't always certain that Fred and Joanne were going to be a permanent couple. Fred had studied at Dartmouth for two years, but only received a year of credits with his transfer. This placed him a year behind Joanne in school. After her 1950 graduation, she began a master's program in music at Florida State University, more than 200 miles away from Rollins. She and Fred kept in touch via letters, but she knew he was dating other girls.
Fred graduated in 1951, with Joanne in attendance. Then he headed to New York City to work for NBC while she continued her graduate studies. Joanne did make time to see Fred's parents while they were in Florida. During her visit, she was accompanied by the son of her graduate instructor. It's possible his parents told Rogers about this encounter because in April 1952 he sent Joanne a letter asking her to marry him.
Joanne rushed to a payphone to respond to the proposal. However, she was nervous, so when Fred answered the phone she focused on some phone booth graffiti and greeted him by saying, "S**t." Fortunately, Fred laughed. She then agreed to marry him. They wed in July 1952.
The Rogers never got angry with each other
Joanne joined her new husband in New York City, where he continued to work for NBC. But they soon relocated to Pittsburgh for him to switch to public television. There, Joanne taught piano and performed. She also did a few voices for Fred's show, The Children’s Corner.
Joanne and Fred had two sons (Jim, born in 1959, and John, born in 1961) together. She has stated, "We waited until we were married about seven years before our kids came along. And I've always been glad of that, because we knew that the marriage was going to be okay." Joanne's music career was placed on hold for several years so she could concentrate on their children. Rogers displayed his usual patience with their sons, so Joanne became the family disciplinarian.
Though their life had its stresses and frustrations, the two never expressed anger toward each other. Joanne explained in the 2018 documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor, "He and I both had childhoods that you weren't allowed to be angry. You weren't allowed to show your anger. And we were never able to do it. It scared us." Instead, as she told the Los Angeles Times, "We just got quiet. Both of us handled it that way, and that’s not the best way. It’s good to yell sometimes." Yet she also shared with the paper, "Fred was a very sensitive person, and tears were available to him. I used to say, 'You're my liberated man, and I think it's just wonderful.'"
Being married to 'Mister Rogers' wasn't easy
In the early 60s, Fred began appearing on camera for the show Misterogers, made for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In 1966, he returned to Pittsburgh and public station WQED to make Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, which was nationally distributed two years later. Joanne played a part in his work (the show's Queen Sara puppet was based on and named after her, as her full name was Sara Joanne). However, Rogers' new prominence couldn't help but affect their relationship.
Joanne admitted in a 1978 interview, "It's difficult to live with an image. Sometimes I want to do something impulsive, silly, adolescent. But then for Fred's sake, I say, 'Don’t do that!'"
However, Joanne accepted staying in the background when people came to greet Fred. And many of the people Fred helped and supported over the years became her friends as well. Plus she understood Fred's decision not to commercialize his program or market toys to children. They lived frugally (with the cushion of Rogers' family money) and Fred never pursued a big payday.
Joanne has carried on her husband's legacy
Fred, who'd ceased production on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood in 2001, was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2002. The illness progressed quickly. Joanne was by his side when the end came in February 2003. Before his death, she assured her husband: "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." Fred's relief at these words convinced her that "when he went, I could feel he went at peace and even with joy. I really feel he went with joy."
Fred and Joanne had been married for more than fifty years when he passed away, so losing him was understandably difficult. "Part of me just went with him," she said in 2018. "But I find that he’s with me so much of the time. I can get to him very quickly." She also threw herself into doing what she could to support Fred's legacy.
Since Fred's death, Joanne has been a leader within Fred Rogers Productions and at Saint Vincent College's Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media. She wrote the foreword for the book The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember (2003) and was interviewed for the documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor. She's also spoken at numerous events related to Fred, such as the launch of a postage stamp bearing his image. She's also a fan of the show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, which features the progeny of Fred's puppets, and she's applauded Tom Hanks' portrayal of Fred in the 2019's A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, calling the project "a very needful film right now."
Her activities have ensured that her husband's work continues to reach people. "I’m surprised by the strength of his legacy and its length, how people still take comfort in his words," Joanne said in 2016. Taking up the mantle of his legacy has also helped her maintain their connection. "His legacy has afforded me many, many wonderful things," she said in 2017. "He's here, even though he’s gone."