Mr. Rogers' Wife Joanne Has Southern Roots (And the Sweetest Proposal Story!)
It's been just over 50 years since Fred Rogers invited us all to be his neighbor in the wonderful gentle world he created on public television. For decades, Mr. Rogers as he was known was a constant and steady presence in the lives of millions of children helping them navigate and understand the big world around them. Of course, Mr. Rogers had his own constant and steady presence helping him navigate the world—his wife of 51 years, Joanne.
Joanne Byrd was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, to her parents Ebra and Wyatt Byrd. Her mom stayed home with her, while her father worked as a teacher, a salesman, and finally a postal worker, according to an interview with her in the Orlando Sentinel. Joanne loved the Florida sunshine and divided her childhood free time between running outside with friends from her neighborhood, or inside practicing the piano. Joanne reportedly started lessons at age five and by the time she was in high school, she was such an accomplished pianist, that she earned a four-year scholarship to study piano at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, years before Disney World moved into the area.
In 1946, she packed up her life in Jacksonville and headed to school, which she absolutely loved. "I was not homesick one minute," she told the Sentinel, adding "College was probably one of the happiest times of my life." In the fall of 1948, a young music composition major transferred to Rollins from Dartmouth and she was one of several students who was asked to help show him around the school and make him feel at home. That composition student's name was Fred Rogers.
Joanne swears that at first the two were just friends. "We all ran around in a group," she told the Sentinel. "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."
Their friendship continued, even after Joanne graduated and left to study piano at Florida State. It continued even as Fred finished his studies and moved to New York for an apprenticeship at NBC. The pair wrote letters back and forth and then one day Joanne received a letter with a question that stopped her in her tracks. It said: Will you marry me? Yes, Mr. Rogers proposed in a letter. Joanne found a pay phone to call him and give him her answer.
They married in 1952 and Joanne Byrd became Joanne Rogers. As her husband's television career bloomed, she helped when she could find time between raising their two sons, James and John, and keeping up her own career as a pianist. She provided voices for some of the inanimate objects in the attic on The Children's Corner, Fred's first television show, helped answer fan mail, was a frequent guest, and provided the voice for Queen Sara Saturday, the puppet queen on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.
Since Fred passed away in 2003, she has helped carry on his legacy. She served as chair emeritus of the board of the nonprofit Fred Rogers Company, was honored by the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh with the Great Friend of Children Award in 2016, and at "91 and a half" years old, she reportedly closed down the party at the premiere of the new film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood which stars Tom Hanks as her husband.