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Display of love buoys Mrs. Rogers

Sunday, May 04, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Her dining room table is piled high with cards of sympathy and notes of condolence. Joanne Rogers, widow of Fred Rogers, has been overwhelmed by the expressions of sorrow and thanks for the life's work of her husband of more than 50 years.

"I don't know where to start, almost," Rogers said last week. "I had flowers at every imaginable spot [in my home]. About four days into it, my eyes began to itch and run ... It didn't even occur to me for a little while what it was."

She laughs a little at the memory of her allergic reaction. Despite the sadness, Rogers said, "I'm doing pretty well. I'm so busy. ... I am surrounded by people who loved him so much and our mutual love comforts all of us."

Her busyness since late February has included a trip to Florida to meet her third grandchild, born a few weeks after Fred's death. She's also stayed in touch with the employees at Family Communications Inc., the company her husband founded in 1972.

"I was at FCI for lunch last week and it was just so nice," she said. "We told stories and just laughed a lot, a really good and healing kind of time."

The outpouring of love may not have come as a surprise to Fred Rogers, but Joanne said he might have been taken aback by it.

"I can only hope Fred knew he had so many people who loved him, but whether he actually did, I can't be sure because he was a very modest person," she said.

The president and Laura Bush sent condolences, as did Gov. Ed Rendell, singer Naomi Judd and Kathie Lee Gifford. U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy "wrote a very beautiful letter referring to Fred as the founder of early childhood education in his lifetime," Rogers said.

While going through some things Fred wanted to give to people recently, Rogers "had some sad feelings," but when she thought back on her husband's fight with the stomach cancer that killed him, she sees only relief.

"My overriding feeling when Fred died was relief for him, and I felt that so strongly," she said "That feeling has carried me along. ... That's one thing that can alleviate your grief or change it a little bit, at least, because he was so ready to go.

"Early on, we said, 'You're too anxious to get to heaven, we don't like that,' but he really was ready. That's helpful, too, when you think back; this person wasn't frightened of dying."

Rogers said her husband wrote out what he wanted for what turned out to be his private funeral, but he and his wife never discussed a public memorial.

"I don't think it would have entered his head," she said. "I'm sure he's up there laughing at us, glad he doesn't have to do all this running around."

Rogers said she wanted yesterday's memorial to convey the tone of the man and his work.

"I think that's what amazes me most about him, it was his capacity for love and the fact he really felt there was nobody you couldn't love if you knew their story.

"I would just like everybody to be able to know Fred loved them, because he did," Rogers said. "I think that's an amazing thing to say."

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