Mrs. Rogers' Neighborhood

The woman who said yes when Fred Rogers asked `Would you be mine?' gets ready to see him a little more after her husband hangs up his TV cardigan.

July 09, 2001|By Nancy Imperiale Wellons | Nancy Imperiale Wellons,ORLANDO SENTINEL

Sara Joanne Byrd Rogers has been married to a guy named Fred for 49 years as of today. This is not all Joanne has accomplished in 73 years of life. She's a concert pianist, for starters, which is no small potatoes.

She also raised two sons and has two grandkids. She's on the board of trustees at Rollins College in her native Florida, where she calls the president by a pet name.

She's the bee's knees of a best friend, say her pals - the kind who calls just to check on a little thing that was bothering you. She loves the word "love," and often says "I must say!" Surprisingly, she can tell a bawdy joke with abandon. She has a smile like cookies and warm milk on a hard day.

But why oh why, when the world thinks of her, is it a brief mention buried under hand puppets, zip-up sweaters, slip-on sneakers and her husband?

That's life when your Fred is Fred Rogers, host of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Because he has announced the end of production of his show, we just had to ask: Will Mr. Rogers be spending more time loafing around Mrs. Rogers' Neighborhood, in his cardigan and tennies?

"Oh no," she giggled over the phone from their home in Pittsburgh. "That's a TV thing."

Mrs. Rogers has been called, in her day, a firecracker. She finds the delightful side of most everything. While she was laughing about the clothing question - her husband prefers a bathrobe or a mauve workman's jumpsuit around the house - she also found it funny that anyone would think Fred Rogers, even at 73, is slowing down.

Since November's announcement, "people have come out of the woodwork with these projects they want him to be involved in," she said. "He's coming in a little too tired these days. But I'm not seeing him slow down unless he's forced to, for poor health. For Fred, it's a ministry. It always has been."

Final new episodes of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" will air in August, but the show can continue in reruns indefinitely. It's a safe bet the man will never be sitting around dipping a fishing pole (and not just because he's a vegetarian).

The price of popularity

The world won't let Mr. Rogers retire. He has become a bona fide pop icon. He founded what is now the longest-running PBS children's show, a steady TV presence that has helped millions of little ones better understand the big world. He's been given two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and awarded five Emmys and 36 honorary degrees.

Adults revere him as a father figure. College students make Mecca-like pilgrimages to the doors of his Pittsburgh studio. Three-year-olds glom onto him like Santa.

Which gives Mrs. Rogers more than a little in common with Mrs. Claus - they both know what it's like to be married to men who are the epitome of devotion to children. Mrs. Rogers has learned how to share with the world.

"They're so cute and so warm with him," she said of the complete strangers who regularly embrace her husband. "They say, `Ohhhh, Mr. Rogers!' and, `I can't believe I'm meeting you!' They just get really excited. And to the little children who come up to him, he's no stranger. They just come right up, give him a hug, and tell him something important to them. I always find I get a big lump in my throat."

Does he introduce Mrs. Rogers?

"Yes. He'll say, `And this is my wife, this is Joanne.' "

Then what?

"Well, sometimes I do feel like the odd man out. And I can, you know, figure out what the conversation will be like, especially if it's not young parents but older people who are just interested in seeing a celebrity and couldn't care less who's with him. And then there's usually someone I can turn and talk to, which is fine."

All part of being married to the famous.

Joanne Rogers "is a person who has lived in the wings and done it so graciously," said John Sinclair, chairman of the Rollins music department and a longtime friend. "She is not only incredibly supportive of Fred, she is very much a person in her own right. She is as unique as Fred is - they're a formidable pair."

Joanne Rogers was born and raised in Jacksonville, Fla., daughter of homemaker Ebra Edwards Byrd and Wyatt Adolphus Byrd, who was a teacher, salesman and finally a postal worker.

"He worked during times, often at holidays, when other people would be celebrating. That was his busiest time," his daughter recalled. "I think that put a little bit of a damper on my feelings about big celebrations of holidays, with a lot of people around. Because we never did that when I was young."

Joanne earned a scholarship to study piano at Rollins College, and in 1946 set off for pre-Disney Winter Park - a regular town compared to Jacksonville.

A solid bond

In the fall of 1948, Joanne heard there was a young music composition major named Fred transferring to Rollins from Dartmouth. She was one of several students told to show him around.

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