Fred Rogers and his partner were married for more than 50 years before his death in 2003. And now, 15 years later, wife Joanne is opening up about their relationship. During an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, in fact, the widow melted hearts as she revealed the sweet secrets of their happy marriage.
Mister Rogers was born on March 20, 1928, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He reportedly didn’t have the easiest childhood, however, because he was shy, overweight and suffered from asthma. The star even faced bullying as a youngster – but he eventually built up his confidence.
Then, after high school, Fred went to Dartmouth College. He also attended Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, to obtain a degree in music composition. And it was there that he met Sara Joanne Byrd, who was known simply as Joanne.
Fred and Joanne fell in love and consequently married on June 9, 1952. Their sons, James and John, were born in 1959 and 1961, respectively. And not long afterwards, Fred became one of the most renowned figures in children’s television.
“I went into television because I hated it so, and I thought there’s some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen,” Fred reportedly told CNN in 1999. He actually got his first job at NBC in 1951 as an assistant producer and then became a floor director.
Fred’s rapport with children was then noticed, and he was hired by CBC to help create the children’s television series MisteRogers. This show lasted for three seasons. Later, in 1968, Fred landed the gig that would make him a household name: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
This educational series for children ran from 1968 to 2001 and aired on PBS. It was aimed at kids between the ages of two and five. Mister Rogers became a beloved figure because of the show, which included the theme song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
In 1985 the show was apparently at its most popular and was, according to Pittsburgh Magazine, being watched in 8 percent of homes in America. So Fred naturally became known for his kind and gentle nature. He also earned four Emmys during the 33-season run of the beloved show.
Tragedy struck in December 2002, however, when Fred received a diagnosis of stomach cancer. The next month, he had a surgical procedure to fight the cancer, but it was not a success. He sadly died on February 27, 2003, a few weeks before his 75th birthday. Yet now, 15 years after his death, Mister Rogers has found himself in the public eye once again.
You see, March 20, 2018, would have been Fred’s 90th birthday. And on that day, a trailer for a documentary about his life was released. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? later came out on June 8 and received high critical praise. It also became the highest-earning bio-doc in history after taking in $22 million at the box office.
June 2018 also saw Mister Rogers’ wife, Joanne, appear on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon to speak about her late husband and promote the documentary. During the show, Joanne revealed that she wouldn’t have accepted the invitation from anyone else. “Jimmy, at age 90, I would not have come from Pittsburgh to here for anybody beside you,” she said.
Joanne explained that she knew that Fallon had watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child – and that was why she had agreed to the interview. “I grew up with your husband, absolutely,” he said. He added, “I was his neighbor. I loved the show so much, as so much of our generation loved it so much. He was just such a kind and compassionate guy.”
Fallon then asked Joanne about the significance of the number 143. And Joanne confessed that it had important meaning in their marriage. “He really wanted to remain at 143 [pounds] all of his life – all of his adult life, I should say,” she said. “And especially after he started swimming; he swam every day. He was very pleased when he would get out of swimming, go and get on the scale: 143.”
Then Joanne explained that the number was Fred’s way of telling her that he loved her – because the individual numbers each corresponded to the number of letters in three very special words. “One was I, four was L-O-V-E, love, three was Y-O-U,” she revealed. “He had enough love to go around.”
Joanne’s words audibly moved Fallon and the audience. Then the host asked her, “Was that his little wink to you?” And Joanne replied, “Oh yes.” The widow also revealed that she had known that Mister Rogers hadn’t been like the other guys when she had met him at Rollins College.
“He was different. In his young days, he was lively and full of fun,” Joanne explained. “But he talked about his feelings, and I could talk about my feelings to him and the things that bothered us, the things that we loved.”
Joanne also clearly believes that the foundation that they had is what kept their marriage solid for over five decades. “You can’t build a friendship without doing that,” she said. “And don’t you have to have a friendship to fall back on in your married life? We had it for 50 years. That was nice.”
During their chat, Joanne also divulged that Mister Rogers had served as a minister with the Presbyterian church and that he wanted to fight against the way that television targeted kids. “He was ordained as an evangelist to carry on the work that he was doing in television with families and children,” she said. “He knew he wanted to work with children, and he didn’t want children to grow up to be consumers, to be thought of as consumers.”
It’s worth nothing that the documentary won’t be the last time that people can see Fred Rogers on the big screen. In January 2018, in fact, news came out that Tom Hanks will portray Mister Rogers in the biopic You Are My Friend, which is due for release in October 2019. And as Joanne’s appearance on Fallon shows, audiences still love Mister Rogers.
“What a man he was, and what a woman,” one person shared in the comment section on a YouTube video of the Fallon segment. Another agreed, “Mr. Rogers was such a kindhearted, beautiful person; an example that we should follow! And his wife is nothing short of that.” And a third commenter wrote, “I feel sorry for every kid who did NOT grow up with Mister Rogers. They have no idea what they have missed. He will always be my neighbor.”