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How Joanne Rogers, the late widow of Fred Rogers, kept the 'Mister Rogers' brand relevant

Raechal Shewfelt
·Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
·3 min read
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When Joanne Rogers, the widow of TV star Fred Rogers, walked into a Pittsburgh movie theater to watch the premiere of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the 2019 movie in which Tom Hanks played her husband, the audience gave her a standing ovation.

They might not have known it then, but Rogers, who died Thursday at 92, was instrumental in bringing the story to the screen. She was “one to five to vet the screenplay,” according to the Los Angeles Times, but she sought minimal changes, including a line in which her character referred to someone as “buster.” (She insisted she’d never say that.) There was a chair reserved for her on the set, and she even gave Hanks old ties of Fred’s to wear. In the scene in which Hanks and the reporter character played by Matthew Rhys are sitting together in a Chinese restaurant, she appeared as an extra.

She married Rogers in 1952, and they navigated his success together, until he died of stomach cancer in February 2003. For much of their time together, she had her own career, as a professional concert pianist, even touring around the country. Yet she was always there for her husband.

After his death, she served as the chair emerita of Fred Rogers Productions and the honorary chair of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media. Rogers was there on her husband’s behalf at the unveiling of his commemorative United States Postal Service stamp and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his beloved children’s show in 2018 — the same year she popped up in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a touching documentary about her husband’s beloved show. She represented him at numerous charity events.

“When Fred died, she wasn’t going to step in to be Mister Rogers, but she was going to step in,” Bill Isler, the president and CEO of Fred’s company for nearly three decades, told the L.A. Times in November 2019. “I think she is incredibly comfortable with it. They were married for over 50 years and raised two sons. Fred relied on Joanne. He would often say that if it wasn’t for Sara Joanne Byrd Rogers, the Neighborhood probably would have never happened.”

He named the Queen Sara character in the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe” after her; Rogers’s first name is Sara.

Joanne Rogers appeared on husband Fred's show in its early days. (Photo: Twitter)
Joanne Rogers appeared on husband Fred's show in its early days. (Photo: Twitter)

The future Mrs. Rogers met Fred at Rollins College in Orlando, although they were just friends at first. After graduation, she remained in the Sunshine State to earn her master’s degree, while he moved to New York to work at NBC. They stayed close through the letters they wrote each other, and that’s how he eventually proposed. She kept those letters nearby, “in a tote bag that hangs by her favorite chair,” according to a 2019 profile, so that she could hold one when she wanted to feel close to him.

And she worked tirelessly to make sure that the beloved, longtime host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood wasn’t forgotten by anyone else. She wanted him to be remembered not as a shiny idol but as the genuine man that she loved for half a century. Still, she stayed close to his brand, except for speaking out against President Donald Trump — a “horrible person” — in September 2019. (“I’m alone now. I don’t do a program for children,” she said.)

Joanne Rogers, pictured in 2018, died Jan. 14. (Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
Joanne Rogers, pictured in 2018, died Jan. 14. (Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

That same year, she was disappointed when the critically lauded documentary about her husband wasn’t nominated for an Oscar.

She wrote to a reporter, “We just need to concentrate on the doc’s created mission — Fred’s legacy — and be grateful that can continue well beyond.”

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