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Joanne Rogers Was Fred Rogers’ “Outspoken” Secret Weapon

One expert says that thanks to Mrs. Rogers, we learned not to put Fred "on a pedestal."

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On January 14, 2021, Joanne Rogers, the widow of Fred Rogers, outspoken titan, and caretaker of his legacy, passed away at the age of 92. For those who knew Joanne, her loss will be deeply felt, as well her fountains of wisdom, her wit, and her opinionated views. 

“She wasn’t afraid to make people mad,” said Dana Winters, the Director of Simpler Interactions and Academic Programs at the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at St. Vincent College. But she was also a musician, a mother, a guardian, and a kind soul who helped guide the posthumous legacy of Fred Rogers to one that retains extreme cultural relevance and pop culture supremacy. She did it, frankly, by being herself. 

Here, Fatherly talked to Winters about Joanne Rogers’s legacy, her memories, and her help in continuing to keep Fred Rogers’ neighborhood alive. 

What’s Joanne Rogers’ legacy?

I think, for a lot of people, it’s hard to look at Joann without thinking of Fred. But Joanne was also such an accomplished musician. She was a duo’s piano player who traveled the world playing. She was a fierce advocate for children and families in her own right. She did that alongside Fred, and she did that outside of Fred. She was such a strong woman on her own. She had such an amazing life, both as Fred’s partner and as Joanne Rogers. 

When I think back on her influence, obviously, the Fred Rogers Center opened after Fred had already died. We didn’t have the fortune of being able to ask Fred, “Okay, are we doing this right?” But we would go to Joanne and say, “Okay, are we doing this right?” She, more than anyone, gave us permission to be ourselves as a Center, as people seeking to extend the legacy that Fred had left for us. She was the first person to remind us that we don’t have to speak like Fred, that we could find our own voice, in extending what he had left and his philosophy.

Factually I knew that – but I had never really thought of it that way. What do you think… knowing Joanne… What would she want to honor her? 

Well, she’d want us to do it our own way, that’s for sure. I think that she would hope that we could see in her the type of person who was fearlessly authentic, and caring, and kind, and lived that life every single day.

It may have manifested differently every single day but you knew who you’d get when you saw Joanne. You knew there would be laughs, you knew there would be hugs, you knew there would be kisses. And you knew there would be the sharing of stories. I think she would want us all to continue living life like that. Caring for others, sharing our stories, sharing other people’s stories. 

As a mom, with a rising career, I remember sitting and talking with her about being a mom and having ambition and wanting to serve others. And trading stories about what it meant to raise two daughters — so what it looked like to raise two boys against two girls, and stories of being a mom, stories of being a working mom. A mom who was out working with others, and serving others. I will forever treasure those conversations with her. She was so giving of her time and of herself.

What about her life and legacy has been underreported?

I think a lot of things are coming out right now. I’ve had notes from people saying, “Wow, I didn’t realize she was a musician. I didn’t realize she had done this on her own. Her own advocacy work was underreported. Her service of her community, kids, and families. She was a bit more, I don’t want to say radical, because Fred was radical in his own right, but Joanne was certainly not afraid to make some people mad. Where, what we know of Fred, is that he was a little more tactful in that messaging. 

Recently, especially, she would say, “Sure, Fred had the children’s television program, but I didn’t. And here’s how I feel about these things.” She was still very much her own person, and especially in her Pittsburgh community. People knew her as Fred’s wife, but she had made a name for herself as Joanne within her community as well.

Was Joanne always as outspoken as she was?

She was always witty, and whimsical. But I think when the program was on, and Fred was very much a part of the program, she was very focused on protecting her boys and protecting her family, and staying a little bit more private. 

Fred was not a fan of the spotlight and I think Joanne was really cognizant of that, too, with her family, as any mother would be. The priority was making sure her family was okay. I don’t think the wit and the outspokenness were new, I just think that she gained space for it after her boys had grown up, and the program had been on for a longer time.

I personally always knew her as witty, and willing to remind us of Fred’s humanity. You know, she would always remind us to not put him on a pedestal and to not try to be him. She’d tell us through stories of Fred, how we shouldn’t look at him as a saint. That he did plenty of things wrong, too. 

When the world thinks about Joanne Rogers, what should we think about?

I think I would want the world to see someone who was a fiercely kind, and caring person, who did her best to show that to every single person that she met. Whether she knew them or not. I would want the world to see that she was Fred’s #1 fan, but Fred was her #1 fan, also. That they had a true partnership in life. 

She had every right to be the arbiter of telling people what you could and couldn’t do in the name of Fred Rogers, but she was perfectly willing to allow people to engage with the legacy that they both had built together and allowed people to take it, and make it their own, and extend it and think about it and continue to make it relevant to their own experience.

I think that takes such a strong person. To feel like they can open up the doors of their life like that. She will forever be the one who kept us grounded as a Center when we first started, to be sure that we didn’t constantly try to worry about what Fred would do. She wanted us to deeply understand where Fred has come from, and then decide what we will do as we move forward. She did that. She never was one who fell back on, “I have to do what Fred would have done.” It was, “What will I do?”

I think when people reach that level of lived experience, it makes sense that they would want to say, and correct, “No, don’t do it that way, do it this way. I’ve got wisdom, I’ve got these years behind me.” That was one thing that I never saw with Joanne. She never enforced, or imposed, her wisdom on us. She would tell us stories if we asked. But she never tried to influence the direction that we took, the work that we did. And she had every right to do that. 

Do you have any memories that you’ve been thinking over about Joanne, lately?

I remember the feeling of that tight hug, the kiss on the cheek, and thinking, Oh, my goodness! I just got kissed by Mrs. Rogers! This is amazing.

But I also remember sitting and talking with her in her living room, not necessarily even about Fred, but about her. How open she was in sharing, and how genuinely interested she was to hear about me. Those were the moments. And then she’d throw her head back and that laugh was just contagious. She would make fun of herself, and her family, and she’d laugh at stories and times that had gone by. Those were the moments I treasured the most.