I only met Joanne Rogers once. But I owed a huge debt of gratitude to the widow of children's TV host Fred Rogers – the inspiration for his Queen Sara Saturday puppet -- who died Thursday at age 92.
I've often said my most memorable interview from 35 years covering television was from spending a day with Fred Rogers at Pittsburgh's WQED-TV as he taped a Mister Rogers' Neighborhood episode in November 1997.
But my conversation with Fred Rogers would not have resulted in my favorite story -- without the intercession of Mrs. Rogers.
Fred also was my most difficult interview. Unlike everyone else in TV, Fred had no ego. He was as interested in me as I was in him. When I asked him a simple question like how he wrote scripts – on a keyboard or longhand? – he turned the question on me.
"For a long time I did the scripts with an electric typewriter," he told me during a taping break. "Now it's back to longhand. Is that how you write?"
Late in the afternoon, out of the blue, Joanne arrived with one of their two grandsons. And she provided plenty of colorful insights about her husband which gave my story depth, detail, and a few jackpot quotes journalists dream about for every story.
"People always ask me that lovely question: 'What's it like to be married to Mister Rogers?' " she volunteered as we spoke while her husband played with their grandson in the studio. "And I tell them: What you see is what you get. That's who he is."
Sara Joanne Byrd, born March 9, 1928, in Jacksonville, Fla., met her future husband when they were music students in Winter Park, Fla. She graduated in 1950; he graduated in 1951. They married in 1952.
"I have one of those Southern double first names - Sara Joanne - and I chose Joanne because I thought Sara was a very prudish kind of name," she told me. "Fred calls me Sara. Now I love the name."
She became the namesake for one of the six puppets he performed in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe on his iconic PBS series: Queen Sara Saturday, King Friday XII, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, Henrietta Pussycat, X the Owl and Daniel Striped Tiger. Fred launched the PBS show in 1968, after doing puppets for another Pittsburgh children's show. Joanne, a classical pianist, appeared on the show April 25, 1975.
Research told me that Fred surprised his family in Latrobe, Pa., after college by announcing he was going into TV, instead of divinity school. He eventually earned a master's degree at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1962.
Again, Joanne filled me in with another priceless quote:
"It was very unusual," she said. "The Presbyterian Church ordained him as an evangelist - their wording - to minister to families and children in his television work. So that's been his ministry. He's very serious about that part of his life. It makes the program even more important to him."
When I told Joanne how her husband turned that question on me about writing, she dropped another gem: "He's not a desk person. He works on his lap in a chair almost always," she said.
"And he's not very good at relaxing," she added with a laugh.
Fred rose at 5 a.m. and swam a mile. After taping shows – he worked about three months a year in the studio – he would go home for late afternoon 45-minute nap before supper. While Joanne watched TV, he read or kept in touch with friends by correspondence or telephone. He also would write shows when they vacationed on Nantucket.
Fred starred in, and produced, 895 episodes over 33 years. He retired in 2001, and died of stomach cancer two years later, at age 74.
"It's been just amazing to me, an interesting adventure," said Joanne, who was 69 that day we met in Pittsburgh.
The adventure has continued long after Fred passed. Fred Rogers Productions (formerly Family Communications Inc.) produces the award-winning animated series, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, plus Peg + Cat, Through The Woods and Odd Squad. In 2019, Tom Hanks played Fred in a feature film, A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood. (Look closely in the restaurant scene and you'll see Joanne as one of the patrons, along with David Newell, who played Mr. McFeely, the Speedy Delivery man.
"People are wonderful to him," Joanne told me that day. "He's not crazy about traveling but he comes back each time and says, 'You know, we have such wonderful people in our Neighborhood.' "
Joanne Rogers certainly was one of those wonderful people.