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Fred Rogers Was Happily Married to Wife of 50 Years despite Almost Giving up on Their Romance

Junie Sihlangu
Mar 21, 2022
02:00 P.M.
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Fred Rogers was married to one woman, Joanne Rogers, but their union almost didn't happen. He almost gave up on their relationship until she was spotted with another man, leading him to try and solidify what they had.

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A Dartmouth College professor disappointed Fred Rogers, informing him that the school's new music department wouldn't be ready in time for him to study as a music major. Little did the actor know that something positive was coming up despite the bad news.

Ironically, it was the same time he met the woman he would spend the rest of his life with. Fred was told to consider being transferred to Winter Park, Florida's Rollins College, and he said he'd think about it.

[Left] Fred Rogers donating his famous red cardigan sweater to the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution on November 20, 1984, [Right] Joanne Rogers on season 5 of "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" on June 12, 2018. | Source: Bettman & Andrew Lipovsky/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

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In 1948, Fred flew to see the college in the spring. The Dartmouth professor who recommended the move had transferred from Rollins and knew some students at the college's Conservatory of Music program.

According to Maxwell King's "The Good Neighbor," the professor had informed the program about a "young man from Dartmouth with real talent as a pianist." The students from the program picked Fred up from the airport to show him around their campus.

Fred Rogers at the Chicago Public Library in Chicago, Illinois, on August 9, 1979. | Source: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

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The day when they picked Fred up, one of the music students traveling with them happened to be his future wife, Joanne Byrd. Years after they'd first met, Joanne recalled how the antique car they picked up Fred in had more than enough room. 

She shared how she and fellow students hung out of the car's windows when Fred stepped out of the airport. One unique thing Joanne recalled about that day was how they welcomed the future actor, stating:

"We grabbed him, and took him right with us, and made him one of us.”

THEY BECAME VERY CLOSE UNTIL DISTANCE ALMOST ENDED THEIR RELATIONSHIP

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Fred befriended all twenty music students, but he clicked more with Joanne, and they became close. The pair weren't into public displays of affection and only held hands. 

However, their classmates thought of them as a couple because of how much time they spent together. Joanne and Fred's connection intensified in the two years at Rollins, but she was ahead of him at college by one year.

Fred Rogers with puppets Henrietta Pussycat and "X" the Owl during an interview on January 11, 1975. | Source: Bettman/Getty Images

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She moved around 250 miles away for her graduate studies at Tallahassee's Florida State University. While she and Fred had distance between them, they stayed in touch by writing or phoning.

However, the duo was never exclusive in their relationship, and Joanne's friends informed her Fred was going on occasional dates with other women. Despite that, in 1951, she still attended his graduation, and their relationship picked up again.

Fred Rogers during his promotional portrait from the 1980s. | Source: Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

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Sadly, Fred decided he wanted a television career and moved 1,000 miles away from his girlfriend to New York City. The added distance took its toll on the couple as the phone calls became less frequent.

Fred found out Joanne had started spending time with her music teacher's grandson, Christoph von Dohnányi. She even attended a St. Petersburg, Florida music conference with him, where she ran into Fred's parents, who were on vacation close by.

Joanne Rogers at the US Postal Service Dedication of the Mister Rogers Forever Stamp on March 23, 2018, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. | Source: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

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Joanne was aware that Fred's parents were closely observing von Dohnányi. Soon after, Fred's parents informed him about what they'd seen, leading him to act by sending Joanne an urgent letter.

It seemed the feelings he hadn't felt for her during their months-long time apart had become rekindled as per his note. In the letter, he expressed his love for Joanne and also proposed marriage to her.  

FRED'S PROPOSAL TO JOANNE WITH A LETTER

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In 2018, Joanne confessed to Today that she was in her last year of college when she received Fred's proposal. One of the things Fred had shared with Joanne was the hopes he had for their future.

He also revealed to her what kind of people he wished for them to become. By the time Fred proposed, Joanne still didn't know him that well, but she liked that he had a "strong moral center."

Joanne Rogers at the "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" panel during the Summer TCA Tour on July 22, 2012, in Los Angeles, California. | Source: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

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So even though the proposal came as a surprise to Joanne, she lost his letter almost immediately as she rushed with excitement to get to a payphone to give him her answer. While waiting for Fred to answer, she noticed some graffiti in the phone booth.

As the actor answered, Joanne accidentally read out loud one of the words spray-painted in the booth, which happened to be an expletive. Fred couldn't help but laugh out before his girlfriend uttered, "yes."

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Her agreement meant the pair were now officially engaged, and Fred flew over for his fiancée's graduation and gave her an engagement ring. The moment was sealed with the couple sharing what Joanne described as "a very romantic kiss."

On June 9, 1952, the couple married and later welcomed sons, John and James. Despite Fred's image on-screen on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and in real life, his wife had one crucial request when a movie about him was made.

JOANNE INSISTED FRED WASN'T A SAINT

Joanne Rogers at the "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" panel during the Summer TCA Tour on July 22, 2012, in Los Angeles, California. | Source: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

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When "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood's" filmmakers reached out to Joanne to get the go-ahead to make the movie, she had one request. Fred's wife asked them not to portray him "as a saint."

It wasn't meant negatively because, more than anything, she wanted them to show how funny he had been! Joanne wanted people to know how Fred could turn a bad situation into a funny one with jokes like passing gas to have her laughing.

Something that didn't feature in the movie was how the star would wear the "droopiest drawers" to run around the house with. The three sizes too big underwear was so comfortable for him that he wore them with a T-shirt even with guests around! 

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FRED CALLED HIS WIFE QUEEN SARA

Fred Rogers receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award from US President George W. Bush, on July 9, 2002, in Washington, DC. | Source: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Fred's wife kept his memory alive with some jewelry he gave her. He once bought her a ring designed in the pattern of a castle battlement, which was in tribute of Queen Sara, a character Fred named after his wife on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

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She [Joanne Rogers] felt some relief in being able to tell him [Fred Rogers] they were going to be okay without him.

The ring hung on a gold chain bracelet that once belonged to Joanne's mother. The first ring was Joanne's wedding band which was a replacement for her first one because it had a "big, fat" diamond that was too "dressy."

Joanne Rogers during UNICEF Children's Champion Award Dinner on June 1, 2017, in Boston, Massachusetts. | Source: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

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Speaking to The Christian Post in 2019, Joanne also confessed that she and her husband had never really fought. However, she would sometimes get worked up by other people, and Fred would calm her down. 

After Joanne died in 2021, the president emeritus of Fred Rogers Productions, Bill Isler, said she and Fred had communicated in a language of their own. He recalled how they had sayings from their younger years, with Pittsburgh's Mayor Bill Peduto, stating this about Joanne:

“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 AND FRED'S DEATHS

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Joanne Rogers at a special screening of "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" on May 23, 2018, in West Homestead, Pennsylvania. | Source: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Joanne remained with her husband for 50 years and was by his side upon his death in 2003 from gastric cancer. Fred's wife told him to let go when the time came because she could see how much he was in pain. 

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She felt some relief in being able to tell him they were going to be okay without him. Joanne also shared what type of feelings and the mindset that her husband left her on, saying:

"So when he went, I could feel he went at peace and even with joy. I really feel he went with joy."

Joanne

eventually joined him in the afterlife at the age of 92 was survived by their sons and three grandsons. After her husband died, she continued his legacy of promoting understanding, kindness, and making a better world for the children.

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