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Mrs. Rogers' Neighborhood

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"I must say, we were just good friends," she said. "We didn't do much dating, as such. We all ran around in a group. ... 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."

But then she graduated and moved on to Florida State, to study with renowned Hungarian-American composer-pianist Ernst von Dohnanyi. And he graduated and went to New York, for an apprenticeship at NBC.

The pair kept in touch by rather mundane letters that Joanne never saved because there wasn't much to them. Then one day his letter said: "Will you marry me?"

And so she stopped what she was doing and found a pay phone. She called him immediately to say yes. And he said? She laughed.

"I have no remembrance of it. None at all!"

They married in 1952.

In the early years of her husband's TV career, Joanne provided voices for inanimate objects in the attic of her husband's first show, "The Children's Corner." She also answered mail for the show's fan club, the Tame Tigers Torganization. She left the business after the birth of their two sons in the early '60s. But she's still very much a part of the show.

Just turn on her husband's show and you might see her in the regal bearing of Queen Sara Saturday. Mr. Rogers has immortalized his wife, whom he calls Sara D. (friends whisper that it's short for "darling") as the most gracious puppet on television.

The Rogerses are intensely private people. Even their friends are private for them - giving you an insight or sharing a personal story, and then immediately wondering whether they should have told you that.

The Rogerses are so private that their two grown sons - 39-year-old John, who attends college in Orlando, and 41-year-old James, who works in health care and has two kids, 12 and 8, in Pittsburgh - appear never to have granted a major interview. The family didn't want them interviewed for this story, either.

But there are plenty of Central Floridians who are more than happy to discuss their pals.

"They're very down-to-earth people. They don't like fancy," said friend Gloria Cook, who is on the Rollins music faculty. "Even when they come to visit, I don't especially clean the house or put flowers out or the best china. I know that's not them."

The couple is famously frugal, like many children of the Great Depression. They drive used cars and have been known to wear secondhand clothes and furnish their house with secondhand furniture.

But there's no stinting on the important stuff with Mrs. Rogers.

"She remembers the things in your life, and she remembers the things you're worried about and she calls to see how things are going," said Rollins President Rita Bornstein. Mrs. Rogers calls her "Prexy," an old-fashioned term for college leaders. "I am just in love with her calling me that. She dignifies me by giving me that wonderful nickname. ... I don't think I've ever met a more loving person."

For nearly half a century, that loving person has taken care of our favorite neighbor. One wonders if Joanne Rogers wishes her husband would slow down, if she wants him to retire.

"No, I just don't want him to make himself sick," she said. "But I think he's so wise about that. He comes home and he's one of those people who can lie down and go off to sleep immediately. I used to wake him. He'd say, 'Three minutes is all I need,' so I'd wake him up. But now I let him sleep."

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