The Channel 11 news anchor confesses his playboy past, how he lost the woman he loves, and how he found the family he never knew.
With a sponge, I applied the thick, orangy liquid to my face, all the way up to my receding hairline, like I did every day. It was 11:50 a.m. on August 14, 2002. Ten minutes to air. I hadn’t read over the copy yet; I no longer needed to. I was on autopilot, as I had been for most of my adult life. Only now it was different. I may have looked the same from the outside, but inside, I was in pieces. My third marriage had ended abruptly two months before, after my wife found out that I had lied to her. I had just moved out of the Budget Suites Inn in Arlington and into a tiny, one-bedroom apartment in Fort Worth for $640 a month. I was sleeping on a cot borrowed from my second ex-wife, the mother of my two teenage sons. My income had been slashed in half, after I lost my morning-drive anchor job at KRLD-AM. And I had just learned that I had been sexually abused from age 3 to 6, something that I had blocked out for nearly 40 years.
Sitting by myself in the makeup room, I grabbed the coverup stick and swiped it again over the dark circles below my bloodshot eyes. Pathetic, I thought as I saw my reflection staring back at me. What a jerk you are. My stomach burned from the countless cups of black coffee that I’d been drinking to stay awake or perhaps from the intense self-hatred.
I wanted my wife back. I wanted us to be together, back in our million-dollar home in Highland Park, complete with a teenage stepdaughter and two white Labradors, plus my mixed-up mutt, Bandit, all of whom I adored. Our life, for nearly a year, had been perfect.
But now she wouldn’t speak to me. So I appealed to the only person that I thought might listen. I fell to my knees, pressed my palms together, and squeezed my eyes tight. I prayed hard for a miracle, then stepped across the hall to do my job.
“Good afternoon. Welcome to CBS 11 at noon.”
BEFORE I WAS BORN, MY ADOPTIVE MOTHER decided that whether I was a boy or a girl, I would be named Jody. I’ve always hated that name.
Growing up on the south side of Fort Worth with a girl’s name, I was always getting into fights. In elementary school, the kids called me “Judy.” As if that weren’t enough, the TV show Family Affair was popular at the time, with a character named Jody and his twin sister Buffy. So when I wasn’t throwing punches for the “Hey, Judy!” comments, I was teased about being Jody from the television show.
My mother, Ruth Harbuck, was a quiet, soft-spoken woman with Southern sensibilities of church, God, and marriage. She was an only child, the daughter of a schoolteacher and a grocery store manager in the central Texas town of San Saba, and she wanted more than anything to have a family of her own. At 29, she met my father, Jimmy Dean, 38, on a blind date, a few years after he had returned from World War II. The seventh of eight children, all born before the Depression, my pop had an impenetrable reserve and an old-fashioned work ethic to go along with it. But he had a good heart, and he could make her laugh. My mother, who had had many suitors before him, fell in love and married him within a year.
Pop worked for the Postal Service, riding the trains from Fort Worth to Little Rock, Arkansas, delivering the mail, five days a week. On his off days, he sold specialty advertising to small businesses in town—pens, pencils, matchbooks, and bumper stickers, mostly. He also sold American flags. His company, which he ran out of a corner of the house, was called Arrow Flag and Banner. His office was as organized as his life. Nothing was out of place.
But having children wasn’t so easy. Mom’s first two pregnancies ended in miscarriage. On the third try, my older sister Susan was born, but there were a number of problems due to a lack of oxygen to her brain. Susan had cerebral palsy, among other maladies. She couldn’t hold her head up, walk or talk, sit up, or control any of her bodily functions. For years, Mom and Pop took her to clinics, hospitals, and even mineral springs, hoping for a cure.
Mom got pregnant once more, but the child, named Stephen, was stillborn. By now, Susan was 6 years old. Emotionally and financially, my parents were drained.
They still wanted another child, though. A friend of mom’s had heard of a young woman who might be interested in giving up her child for adoption. No one knew if the baby was a boy or a girl, but my mom and dad were interested. They wanted a healthy, normal baby. That’s where I came in.
On October 28, 1959, four days after I was born, I arrived home. Our modest two-bedroom house was always filled with activity because Susan required constant care. Instead of being shunned for her disabilities, Susan was treated as a special treasure and showered with love and attention. She stayed in a hospital bed in my parents’ bedroom; I had a room to myself.
Because Susan often needed to be taken to the doctor or the hospital, I was usually sent to the neighbor’s house next door. An older woman and her two sisters—none of them married—would look after me when Mom and Pop had to leave. I remember that when I was 5 years old, Mom and Pop built a tall fence with a locking gate around our house. And I remember that we eventually moved away. But I didn’t understand why until recently, when I began to dig up the memories of the sexual abuse I suffered. I don’t remember what the woman looked like, only that she was fat and spoke with a lisp. Turns out, I had been sexually abused for years.
At least once a year, my asthma would become so severe that it would quickly progress to asthmatic bronchitis, which would cause my right lung to collapse. By the time I was 6 years old, doctors realized that I had been born with a strange deformity. The three bronchial tubes leading into the three lobes of the right lung were twisted, which further constricted air to the lungs and made my asthma attacks much worse. Doctors fixed the problem by surgically removing the middle lobe, which allowed for air to flow without obstruction. For the first time in my young life, I could breathe without wheezing. I got back to the business of being 6—building forts with blankets and chairs and constructing cities with wooden blocks. Less than a year later, though, my sister Susan died. A heaviness settled into the household.
BY THE TIME I GOT TO HIGH SCHOOL, I WAS NO longer sickly. I had grown to 6-foot-4 and weighed 190. I played tackle and defensive end for Pascal High School, and I was dating one of the hottest girls in school, Ginger Watson*. I worked as a stock boy at Bill Weaver Sporting Goods, sweated in an oil-field supply-company warehouse, hauled hay, and sometimes dug fence-post holes for extra cash. When I didn’t have any, I stole money from my mother’s wallet, which went unnoticed. Although I was underage, I drove my ’65 white Chevy pickup to keg parties with my buddies on the weekends or otherwise smuggled beers into my room. My parents had no idea. I was also having sex with my girlfriend as much as I possibly could. I wrecked the family car, a Chevy Malibu, when I was playing chicken one night with some friends. I never got in trouble for that, either.
After graduation in 1978, I went to Abilene Christian University. I really didn’t have any idea of what I wanted to do with my life. I only knew that I liked going to parties, I loved having sex with girls, and I loved being the center of attention.
When it was time for me to declare a major, I remember listening to Ron Chapman, a disc jockey for the Dallas pop station KVIL-FM, and I thought that being a radio deejay might be cool. So I began taking classes and working at the campus radio station, KACU. I played Bee Gees, Jimmy Buffett, and the Eagles during the first morning shift, before I went to classes.
I loved being on the radio. Playing the right song for someone who’d just fallen in love made me feel like I was part of a special moment. By now I had another girlfriend, Nancy Thomas*, a sexy brunette majoring in interior design. By my sophomore year in college, I had moved on to a job at KEAN-FM, but Nancy had skipped the second semester and returned home to Washington State. We missed each other so much that we decided to get married. I flew to Washington, married her, and we drove back to Texas.
By now, I was starting to enjoy my new celebrity. I dropped out of college and worked at three different radio stations in the next two years before landing a gig at KLIF-FM. I also got a side job spinning records at the Merrimac in Fort Worth, one of the hottest discos in town. But my marriage wasn’t working out. When I returned to our apartment early one morning, I ran into a guy who was just leaving. But I, too, had begun to see other women.
By the age of 21, I was divorced. But I’d moved on—in more ways than one. It was the era of the urban cowboy, and I’d just landed a disc jockey job at Billy Bob’s, billed as the largest honky-tonk in the world. I was the king of the universe. Every night, after playing songs from Barbara Mandrell, Eddie Rabbitt, and Hank Williams Jr., I’d go home with the pockets of my Wrangler jeans stuffed with women’s phone numbers, more often than not, after getting more than just phone numbers from them. It was the era of tight Calvin Klein jeans, 4-inch Candies, and feathery, humongous hair. Could life get any better?
Indeed it would. I had already written a letter to Ron Chapman, along with a tape, asking him for a job, but I hadn’t heard a thing. Then, one night at Billy Bob’s, I met the legend and told him that I wanted to work for him. Three months later, he called and asked if I could fill in one night a week for the 2-5:30 a.m. shift. I jumped at the chance. I quit my full-time job at KLIF for three and a half hours a week at KVIL, which turned out to be a brilliant career move. About a year later, I got the overnight slot; by 1987, five years after I began, I became Ron Chapman’s morning-show producer.
It was also the year that my eldest son celebrated his first birthday. I had gotten married in 1985 to Gina Reese*, a woman I’d known from childhood. I had run into Gina at the Arlington nightclub Pizzazz a few years before. She was stunningly beautiful: tall, blonde, and unforgettable. But as much as I liked the idea of being a father and a husband, I didn’t put much effort into being one. Instead, KVIL became the biggest focus of my life.
By 1989, I was a big-time Dallas celebrity. I emceed charity events and attended cocktail parties and galas. Picking up women was easy. All of them were wounded, it seemed. They had a boyfriend who was a jerk or who had just left them. Being with them provided immediate emotional gratification. I was a junkie, and women were my drug of choice. I often dated two or three simultaneously, but I always came home to my wife, who rarely questioned my whereabouts. If she did, I’d make up a big lie. I rarely wore my wedding ring, so most of the women that I dated didn’t know that I was married. Naturally, I lied to them, too.
I had another son in 1991. By now, I was also executive producer for the Cowboys Radio Network. I spent a lot of my time hanging out at the Corral Club or having drinks at Humperdink’s in Las Colinas after the game. Not only was I working for KLIF, the best radio station in the country, but I was also working for the hottest sports team. I was in all the right places. I had girlfriends. A wife. And two sons. But my life was empty. And I was looking to fill the hole with work, women, sex—anything to make me feel more complete.
Then, in February 1994, I fell instantly in love. Marissa Hall* was a beautiful, blonde paralegal, and even though I was married, I wanted to be with her more than anything else. For nearly two years, I never told her that I was married, and we managed to see each two, three times a week.
I was living a double life. On the weekends, I’d work in the yard and go to little league games. During the week, I’d be at the station at 5 a.m. and not come home until 9 or 10 p.m., sometimes even later than that. Marissa and I squeezed in lunches, dinners, and all-afternoon trysts during the week. I divided my time between work and relationships with other women. My family got whatever was left over.
One night, after I’d been out late, my wife Gina asked me what was the most obvious question of all. She wanted to know if there was someone else. “Yes,” I said, without hesitating, “and I love her.”
My divorce was final in 1998. We had been married for 12 years. I moved out long before the paperwork had been dealt with and moved in with Marissa. We dated for three more years and made plans to get married and have children. But I knew that when she found out that I had lied to her about being divorced, she was never going to be able to trust me. Why would she? I knew that our relationship was bound to fail, so I broke up with her. Besides, I had already met someone else.
My career continued to skyrocket. I’d left KVIL in 1994 for KRLD, where I hosted my own midday talk show. I railed against the hypocrisy of televangelists. I criticized Bill Clinton for lying about Monica Lewinsky and for being unfaithful. I supported his impeachment and encouraged listeners to do the same. And I continued to be rewarded.
KTVT Channel 11 approached me with a job offer, too. After my KRLD shift, I’d drive to Fort Worth and work as an anchor. My combined income was nearly $250,000, so I bought a black Mercedes CLK 430 convertible. The price tag: $120,000.
ONE NIGHT IN LATE 1999, WHILE I WAS STILL dating Marissa, I took part in a celebrity goat-milking contest at the Fort Worth Rodeo, and a friend of mine asked me if I could get her in. She had a friend with her whose name was Beth Chambers*. She was drop-dead gorgeous. After the rodeo, the three of us went to the Backstage Club for barbecue and ribs. I didn’t think much about it then, but a few weeks later, at a party in Highland Park, I ran into Beth again. We talked about our kids. She had just bought a house and was thinking about getting a dog for her daughter. I had a business card from a guy who bred white Labs, and I said, “Why don’t I get your e-mail address and send you his information?” She was extraordinarily beautiful. She could have been a model. Instead, she was an anesthesiologist, and she took great pride in what she did for a living. But I never thought anyone as impressive as Beth would be interested in me.
Luck would strike again. About the time that I broke up with Marissa, I received an e-mail from Beth, who had two white Labs that she wanted me to meet. And so we did, over coffee at Starbucks in Highland Park Village. We talked for hours, and a friendship quickly developed. After a few more coffee dates, I asked her to dinner, and over banana ravioli with chocolate sauce at Sevy’s, I knew that she was the one. On New Year’s Eve, despite a treacherous, paralyzing ice storm, I drove for three hours, from Fort Worth to Dallas, just so I could be with her for a few minutes at midnight, then drove three hours back to the radio station and spent the night so I’d be there for the morning show. A few weeks later, Beth invited me to the presidential inauguration. I’ve never had such a magical night in my life. We spent the night together in her hotel, in the same bed, but I never took off my tux. I didn’t even kiss her. I was too afraid of breaking the spell.
After we flew back to Dallas and I dropped her off, I knew she was the one. As much as I had thought I had loved other women, the feeling was nothing compared to this. This time, I was really, really in love.
So, on Valentine’s Day 2001, not even two months after I’d last spoken to Marissa, I took Beth to dinner at Hotel St. Germain and gave her a heart pendant. I told her that I loved her. She said that she loved me, too, but we still hadn’t had sex. It seemed like neither of us wanted to ruin what we had by getting too intimate too quickly.
The next month, I slipped into the hospital where she worked, disguised myself as a patient, and hid underneath a sheet on a gurney for her arrival. It was so romantic. She came in, and there I was, with a ring and a proposal. She laughed. She cried. And she said yes.
We were married three months later in a tiny, turn-of-the-century Methodist church in Lewisville. Ron Chapman was my best man, and Ray Wylie Hubbard sang in a tent nearby. It was storybook. For our honeymoon, we went to Vancouver, British Columbia, and stayed at the Prancing Horse resort, on top of a mountain, at the end of a fjord. It was one week in paradise.
And I moved in with Beth. I fixed faucets, planted rose bushes, and afterward, I’d sit on the porch and drink iced tea. I cooked for her most nights—sometimes salmon, sometimes roast pork, and sometimes we’d sit on the kitchen floor and eat a sandwich. Her daughter was 12 and quickly became friends with my sons. Beth and her daughter would go with me to the boys’ baseball games, and they’d come over and we’d watch videos together. It was a perfect life. This time I was married for good. We talked about growing old together.
But in less than a year, everything began to unravel. KRLD forced me to choose between my job there and my anchor position at Channel 11, leaving me with half of my salary. Suddenly, I couldn’t make my payments to American Express. At the same time, Beth, who had never asked me about my finances, insisted that I help with the house payments and the bills. We had never discussed money before—not when we were dating and not after we’d gotten married. There always seemed to be enough money to buy whatever we wanted, so it wasn’t an issue. But when she applied for a business loan to open her own office, my poor credit—and other details about my background—were exposed for the first time.
When we had met, I had told her that I had been divorced seven years, when, in fact, it had been only three. She found this out after her attorneys obtained a copy of my divorce decree, which she needed for her loan application. She was furious at me for lying. Of course, I got so mad at her for not believing me, for not trusting me, that I slammed a door, and it crushed her fingers by mistake. She wouldn’t even let me take her to the hospital. Later that day, she told me to pack for a few days.
Somehow, though, she forgave me and said that I could come back home a few days later. But, she said, she first wanted to talk to Gina, the ex-wife before her. Well, I knew that Gina would tell her the truth about all of the other women, and that would be that. And it was. I never returned home.
Four days before our one-year anniversary, at 2 p.m. on June 19, 2001, our marriage was annulled.
I sent 32 letters and called her twice a day, until she asked me to stop. The last time I spoke to her was in August. She said, “I don’t know who you are anymore.”
Neither did I, really.
I HAD A CLUE. WHEN I WAS IN MY EARLY 20S, MY mother had given me a shoebox filled with yellowed newspaper clippings, and a picture of a young woman wearing black shorts and a crisp, white blouse, seated on a picnic blanket in the middle of a park. Beside her was a little boy. My mom told me that she was my biological mother, that her maiden name was Mary Ann LeBaum, and that she didn’t marry my father. The picture was taken before I was born. At some point, she married and either took the name Smith or McDonald. That was all I knew. I never tried to find out more.
In July 2002, I called the court to find out how I could get a copy of my adoption records, which were sealed. I wrote a letter, and within days, I received word that the judge had okayed the opening of my files. But first I needed to find an intermediary—an unbiased third party—to track down my biological mother and find out if she was interested.
That next week, I contacted Bonnie Solecki, who said she’d do the best she could to find my biological mother but advised me not to get my hopes up. She warned me that even though the judge had okayed the opening of the records, many biological mothers didn’t want to be found. Plus, she said, with a name like Smith or McDonald, the search could take years.
I don’t remember the broadcast on August 14, after I’d gotten up from my knees to read the news. I seldom remembered the stories. They were as meaningless as the fake tears that I’d muster for the especially heart-wrenching pieces. I was a phony, and I had been all of my life.
On my way to the conference room where the other anchors—Rene Syler, Tracy Packard, and the show’s director Steve Caccavale—and I met each day to review our performance, I stopped into my office to grab my coffee mug and noticed the red light blinking on my phone. I had a message.
It was Solecki. “Your mother wants to meet you,” she said.
I was excited and terrified. Afraid that she wouldn’t like me, scared that I wouldn’t like her, worried that she might not show up or, if she did, that I’d never see her again after that. Could she, would she reject her son—twice?
We agreed to meet later that day, at Solecki’s house in Fort Worth, about 5 miles from the station. She told me a little bit about my mother, that she worked in Lakewood for a commercial real estate company as a district manager and that, at one time, she lived in the same ZIP code as I did. The minutes dripped by. Then the phone rang. It was my biological mother, telling Solecki that she was on her way and would arrive in a few minutes.
My hands started to sweat. My heart slammed against my chest. Thump-thump, thump-thump. I felt like I would throw up or faint or both.
How would I introduce myself? Would I tell her about her grandchildren? Should I tell her about my career? Had she ever seen me on television or heard me on the radio? Would I cry?
The doorbell rang.
My stomach dropped as I stood up to meet my mother. I didn’t know what to say.
Sokecki opened the door, and there she was, the girl on the blanket, smiling at me. At 5-foot-10, she was nearly as tall as I was, and her long, blond hair was now cut short. She wore a simple, navy business suit and wireless round glasses over her blue eyes.
“Do you know who I am?” I asked, thrusting my hand toward her for a shake.
“I know exactly who you are,” she said, stepping toward me, hugging me instead.
We collapsed onto a sofa and started talking about our lives. She gave me the beginning. She was a divorced young mother with a son, Brad, the one that I saw in the photograph, when she met my father, Leonard Karnes. She was a nightclub singer—tall and gorgeous and just 23 years old. He had movie-star good looks and was as charming as he was handsome. But after four dates, after realizing that he drank too much, she broke it off. But not before she had gotten pregnant.
She decided not to tell him about the baby. At first, she thought about keeping the child, but she and her 4-year-old were barely surviving on her $175-a-month salary as a receptionist. It would be impossible for her to feed another mouth. So, through a friend, she found a couple who wanted a baby and who would pay for her pregnancy.
“I grieved for you every year on your birthday,” she told me. “I thought about you all the time, really.” I had no idea.
She told me that she now lived with her third husband of 12 years, Dub Blessing, near Alliance Airport, in the middle of a pasture, at the intersection of 170 and I-35, a route that I’d taken hundreds of times. I found out that she’d once worked as a secretary at Channel 5, where I’d worked in junior high. Her husband, my stepfather, was a helicopter pilot who once flew for KVIL. One of my half-sisters worked as a waitress at Billy Bob’s at the same time I did. Through an Internet search, I found out that my biological father had died three years earlier of heart disease, but he had been a regular at Billy Bob’s while I was working there, too. When I saw a photograph, I remembered him as the man with the perfectly creased straw cowboy hat, a broad smile, and a ruddy complexion framed by thick, white sideburns that shot down his cheeks like exclamation marks. He liked to two-step and twirl women around the dance floor. He also played football, just like I did, for Pascal High School.
I found out that I had two half-brothers from Ann, two step-sisters from Dub, four half-sisters from Leonard, one half-brother from Leonard, and another deceased half-brother from Leonard. At last count, I had 25 nieces and nephews and more cousins than I can name.
Finding the rest of my family has gone a long way toward making me whole. I now meet with a group of sexual-abuse survivors once a week and see a therapist twice a month. Otherwise, I spend all of my free time at church, with friends from church, listening to Christian music, or reading the Bible. I’m dating again but haven’t fallen in love yet. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back together with Beth. It’s been almost a year since we last talked, and I think about her every day.
Freelance writer Ellise Pierce writes for Newsweek, People, and Jane.