Joanne Rogers has passed away. She as 92-years old. Rogers was married to beloved television host and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood star Fred Rogers for more than 50 years until his death in 2003 from stomach cancer. Her death was confirmed by Fred Rogers Productions on social media this afternoon. After the death of her husband, Joanne kept his spirit alive and well, advocating for the arts and kindness. During the past election season, she made the news for publicly endorsing Joe Biden, noting that she was a, "very big Biden fan." She went on to say, "I think we all need somebody like Biden who can give us little pats on the back."
Sara Joanne Byrd was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1928. She would later go on to attend Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, which is where she met her future husband, Fred Rogers. While in college, she studied piano and started a relationship with Rogers, which would go on to be a long distance one when Rogers moved to New York for a production job. Rogers proposed to Byrd via letter while she was in her last year at Florida State University. Recalling the 1952 proposal, Byrd said she lost the letter out of excitement while trying to find a payphone to say, "yes, yes, yes."
Joanne Rogers and Fred Rogers bonded over their love of music. She recalled, "Fred was a really, really fine musician. It was part of him. It was maybe the most important part of him, was his music." She added, "Music meant a lot to both of us, we had that in common and we talked often of, 'How do people live without music?'" Joanne Rogers took over her late husband's legacy, making sure that Mister Rogers' Neighborhood kept its excellent reputation intact, while keeping the memory and spirit of Fred Rogers alive.
In a statement, Fred Rogers Productions said, "Joanne was a brilliant and accomplished musician, a wonderful advocate for the arts, and a dear friend to everyone in our organization. We extend our heartfelt condolences to Joanne's family and the thousands of people who had the privilege of knowing and loving her." She, like her late husband, was regarded as a hero in the Pittsburgh area, thanks to her spirit and willingness to help out anyone in need. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto had this to say about Joanne Rogers.
"Through her grace, humor and down-to-earth demeanor Joanne Rogers personified what we love about the City of Pittsburgh. 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. She was always there when we needed her. I and countless others, from every walk of life, were humbled to call her a friend."
Joanne Rogers took part in Morgan Neville's acclaimed documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? and was "key figure" in the development of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which starred Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. Her goal with both projects was to make sure her late husband did not come off as a "saint." Instead, she wanted the world to know that he was a simple man who made his mark with pure kindness. Joanne and Fred's eldest son, Jim, says, "She was always able to be Joanne Rogers as opposed to Mrs. Fred Rogers. She has always been her own person."
What many people don't know, Joanne Rogers was a successful musician on her own. While Fred Rogers was doing his thing on TV, Joanne was often touring the country as a classically trained pianist. In the early 1970s, Joanne Rogers performed as a duo with her close friend, the classical pianist Jeannine Morrison. "Over the next 36 years we played over 300 concerts," she recalled. They went on to record two albums, Duo - Piano Favorites and A Virtuoso Duo-Piano Showcase. She later had to quit playing due to arthritis, though she still loved to see performances by other artists. The Fred Rogers Productions Instagram account, was the first to announce Joanne Rogers' death.