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As promised, Joanne Rogers is doing 'fine'

Thursday, December 25, 2003

By Barbara Vancheri, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

More than 50 years after Joanne Byrd changed her fate by accepting Fred Rogers' marriage proposal -- tendered in an old-fashioned letter -- she finds it hard to talk about their life in the past tense.

 
 
CLOSE-UP 2003
One of a series

Tomorrow: Budget woes that went from bad to worse battered Pittsburgh's finances and image for much of the year.

   
 

Like many widows, she still says "we" and "our" and sometimes expects her husband to return after swimming or welcoming visitors to his cozy office where his grandfather's wise words, "Freddy, I like you just the way you are," are framed.

"I said to somebody, sometimes I'm surprised that he doesn't just show up at the door. But on the other hand, I also know he's not here, and I'm coming to the realization slowly that he's not coming back," the 75-year-old said from her Oakland home.

"I talk about 'our' this and 'our' that, and I talk about him in the present tense an awful lot. I haven't been able to get used to the past tense. ... It's just curious to me, when I realize I've done that."

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
Joanne Rogers celebrates the work of her husband, Fred Rogers, in interviews and ceremonies.
Click photo for larger image.

Anyone who knew Fred Rogers realized how important Joanne, mother of their sons John and Jim and grandmother of three grandsons, was to his life. But since Rogers' death from stomach cancer Feb. 27, the world has gotten a closer look at the woman with the gentle Southern lilt who shared his love of family, music, God and the value of a generous laugh and sense of whimsy.

A pianist who plays concerts with Atlanta friend Jeannine Morrison, Joanne Rogers has found herself celebrating her husband's work in interviews and awards ceremonies. Although fans find comfort in watching "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," which continues in reruns on PBS, that's the one thing she cannot do as easily as others.

In a New York ceremony inducting the children's host and 11 others into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame, her thank-you speech did not go as planned.

John Heller, Post-Gazette
Fred Rogers.
Click photo for larger image.

"I had notes for a thank you and all these people I was going to include, particularly people who were there from PBS and FCI [Family Communications Inc.]," she said, "and they showed the film and I was so undone by it, that I went up, I had the notes right in front of me but I couldn't remember. It was like everything in my mind had been knocked out."

Instead, she congratulated the other inductees and thanked her hosts. "I guess it shocked me, for some reason, and it hasn't happened to me since."

Rogers has handled herself with grace and warmth in accepting accolades or promoting the publication of "The World According to Mister Rogers." Subtitled "Important Things to Remember," it's a collection of bite-size stories, anecdotes and insights that has hugged the top of the best-seller list since October.

Next week, she will record her foreword for an audio version that will include celebrity readers, and Hallmark plans a special edition to be sold in its stores. Earlier this month she and others flew to Los Angeles for "A Tribute to Fred Rogers," staged by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and produced in part by Pittsburgh natives Arthur Greenwald and Donna Mitroff.

David Hartman hosted the salute, which included remarks or performances by, among others, Lily Tomlin, LeVar Burton, Tyne Daly, Scott Bakula, John Schneider, Jean Louisa Kelly and the Karousel Kids along with video tributes from first lady Laura Bush, NBC's Katie Couric and puppeteer Kevin Clash, who speaks for Elmo.

Rogers, typically, was full of praise afterward. "It really was beautiful ... David Hartman, talk about somebody who did a fabulous job ... The music, oh my gosh, that was wonderful."

Although they didn't realize it, husband and wife Bradley Whitford ("The West Wing") and Jane Kaczmarek ("Malcolm in the Middle") struck a chord. They recalled hearing a Rogers commencement address on the car radio during a family trip in Connecticut and having to slow down "because it's hard to drive and cry at the same time." The talk included a favorite anecdote about a Special Olympics participant who stumbled but was escorted to the finish line by his fellow runners.

"In our family, we call this an 'Our Town' moment," Kaczmarek said. "You know, it's like Emily's speech in the last act of 'Our Town,' where she talks about the simple beauty of everyday life. Fred's words made us so glad to be alive."

Fred Rogers had often quoted that same Thornton Wilder play.

"Whenever Fred and I would have a conversation about something, he would sometimes say at the end, 'Well, I think this is an important talk we've been having.' So the play has good memories. But I didn't get a chance to tell them," since she spent the hours afterward signing copies of the new book.

Such a night makes her feel a little less lonely and yet reminds her of what she's lost.

"You have a lot of feelings that are kind of all mixed up because the people are so wonderful and David [Newell] really made a point of saying this is a celebration and that helps if you really can think of it that way." David Newell has long played Mr. McFeely on the "Neighborhood" and remains one of the most public faces of Family Communications, Rogers' nonprofit company.

A blessedly warm day in May brought a memorial service at Heinz Hall and in September, Joanne Rogers took the podium at a press conference announcing the Fred M. Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe. As that center slowly comes into focus, the Pittsburgh Symphony is planning a March 27 program, "The Music of Fred Rogers," at Heinz Hall.

The work at FCI continues and this New Year's Day at 9:30 p.m., many PBS stations will broadcast a documentary called "Fred Rogers: America's Favorite Neighbor." That morning, she may continue a tradition started by Fred of calling Bob Keeshan, another TV icon known as Captain Kangaroo.

Although Rogers plans to spend Christmas with her 11- and 15-year-old grandsons (she will see the 9-month-old in Florida early next year) and will bring a yam or squash casserole for the family feast, she did not send Christmas cards. She is still writing thank-yous for the roughly 1,000 condolence notes she received.

"I've still got them spread out on the table that I have to answer. ... I think a lot of them didn't know Fred but a lot of them did, and they would tell me stories about how they knew him," she said. "I read them when they came and I have to read them again when I'm going to answer them. The second time, I can digest them better, I notice."

Her apartment echoes with memories of Fred: a red songbook open to "In the Bleak Mid-Winter," which he found soothing; a favorite black-and-white photo that freezes him at the keyboard, seemingly lost in the music; a watercolor of his "Crooked House" in Nantucket. Photos of family weddings and babies and friends -- including a boy whose brother christened him Daniel upon seeing him, after the puppet Daniel Tiger -- are warm reminders of a marriage that endured for half a century.

A year ago, the shadow of illness had crossed their lives, even as Fred prepared to be a grand marshal of the Tournament of Roses parade on Jan. 1.

"Last Christmas, I was worried. I was very, very worried and I was very concerned about Fred. He really was not feeling well, so there was a constant 'Let's get him to eat, let's fix things he can eat without it hurting him.' ... That's all over for him. I know that things are better" for him in heaven.

He had been in pain his final month and she could not have wished for him to stay on, she told Ann Devlin last week on PCNC's "NightTalk."

"So there was a feeling of real relief when I could say to him, 'You know, we're going to be OK. We're going to be all right. The boys will be fine, and I'm going to try to be fine.' So when he went, I could feel he went at peace and even with joy. I really feel he went with joy."

And while she still dearly misses the man in the cardigan sweater, she is -- as promised -- doing fine.


Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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