From the book “Roy Rogers and Dale Evans - Happy Trails” with Carlton Stowers - 1979
When the Rogers family made the move to Chatsworth, they found no Episcopal church. So they accepted the invitation of Dr. Harold Hay ward to attend his local Methodist services, and quickly fell into enthusiastic involvement. The children were soon busy with Methodist Youth Fellowship and Vacation Bible School, and Roy and Dale became regulars at Sunday school and church services, with Dale and the older girls singing in the choir. Dusty and Debbie were eventually baptized by Dr. Hayward—Dodie, Linda, and Sandy having been baptized at St. Nicholas Church in Encino.
Problems later arose, however, after Roy and Dale participated in a Christian Anti-Communist Crusade in Los Angeles's Shrine Auditorium, each giving a brief testimony. The crusade was conducted by Dr. Fred Schwarz, himself a former Communist who had been converted to Christianity. And while many saw good in his work and willingly lent him support, he was labeled by some religious leaders and liberals as a rabble-rouser, a controversial figure the Christian faith could well do without.
The day after Dr. Schwarz's crusade, a Methodist Conference speaker at their church publicly denounced his efforts and strongly urged the congregation of the Chatsworth Methodist Church to have nothing to do with any form of anti-Communist movement.
It was quite clear which particular members of the Chatsworth congregation the directive was aimed toward.
Though urged to remain by many of the friends they had gained in the Methodist faith, Roy and Dale decided to leave the church before their own beliefs and convictions—which included a strong stance against godless Communism—created further problems within the church family. Quietly they moved their membership to the Chapel in the Canyon in nearby Canoga Park, an independent church with a Disciples of Christ background.
"It had been our plan," remembers Dale, "to visit several churches before placing our membership, but when we visited the Chapel in the Canyon and met its pastor, Larry White, when we saw the enthusiasm and love he had for the young people of the church, our search was over."
As always, young people—their own and others—were major concerns in the lives of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. In the course of their lengthy and celebrated careers, many honors have been bestowed upon them. One which Dale Evans most cherishes and Roy deems most deserved came in 1967, when Dale Evans Rogers was named California Mother of the Year.
Roy and I both went into a state of shock when Cheryl graduated from high school and announced that she was planning to marry. Things like that have a way of sneaking up on you. One day it's scratched knees and mud pies, and the next time you notice they're asking for permission to borrow the car and your opinion about their new shade of eye shadow. Personally, I think they do it with some kind of magic. You see them day in and day out, but aside from noticing that you have to buy clothes a size larger and stock the refrigerator with greater regularity, you still have a hard time realizing they are fast gaining on adulthood.
One of my favorite stories about the swiftness with which children grow up has to do with the husband and wife who are sitting at the breakfast table one morning, talking about their kids. The mother asks the father what he thinks they should do about enrolling their son in a driver's education course. The father gives it little thought before saying, "There's no big rush. They won't let little kids drive cars anyway, you know."
"Honey," the mother pointed out, "your son is not a little kid any more. He's sixteen years old."
"Already?" the stunned father replied.
That's the way Roy and I felt when Cheryl began making plans for a Valentine's Day wedding to her sweetheart, Bill Rose. He was—and is—a fine young man, and we had no objections to the marriage (well, no more than any parents do when their daughter takes such a step). But I did make a token attempt to persuade her 'to give it a little more time and perhaps get a year of college behind her first.
I need not tell you how much good the wise old high school dropout did with that suggestion. She was married in a beautiful ceremony in St. Nicholas Church, with Linda serving as her maid of honor, Marion as a bridesmaid, and Dodie and Debbie as junior bridesmaids.
Doing it up in high style, she invited seven hundred and fifty to attend the wedding. I did all the things a mother is supposed to do: I poured punch, I laughed, I cried, and I felt a little older than I had in quite some time. And I delighted in the joy I saw in the faces of Cheryl and her new husband.
Then, just a month later, Marion too was gone, married to Dan Eaton, a marine stationed at nearby Camp Pendleton, in a small, quiet ceremony at the ranch.
Suddenly it seemed like a good time to take inventory, before we looked and the house was empty. Linda, into her teen years, was beginning to draw the same whistles of approval from the audience that Cheryl had. The boys, Dusty and Sandy, had finally eased out of what Roy liked to refer to as their knot-headed stage, and were doing well at the Ridgewood Military Academy. Even Debbie and Dodie were growing almost too fast to keep up with.
There were, quite clearly, no more babies in the Rogers household.
The next thing we knew Linda, though still in her early years of high school, was madly in love and steadily dating a fine young athlete at her school named Gary Johnson. Aware that the relationship was getting quite serious, Roy and I discussed it at length and came to the decision that enrolling her in Kemper Hall, where Cheryl had done so well, might be the best thing for her as well as for young Gary.
It wasn't one of the more popular decisions we've ever made. Linda didn't like it one iota but, to her everlasting credit, went away and made excellent grades. When she returned home in June, announcing that she was still very much in love with Gary and wanted to marry him, we knew full well the trip had not solved the problem.
It was time to again go to the bargaining table. Finish school, we urged, and we would see to it that she had whatever kind of wedding she wished, along with our wholehearted blessings. So four months later she and Gary eloped to Las Vegas and, with the groom's parents serving as witnesses, were married. When I got the news I was recovering from pneumonia and almost went into a relapse. Never mind that I had run off and gotten married much earlier, and had waited two days before even telling my parents where I was or what I had done. This was different. Well, I thought it was. After all, it was my first time on the other side of the fence.
I sat for a while, allowing the anger to advance to numbness and, finally, resignation. All I had to do then was call Roy, who was in New York, and break the news to him. While the elopement had come as a surprise to me, Roy's reaction didn't. I'm sure half of New York City heard the objection he yelled into the telephone after he had heard the news. He said he was heading home right away to straighten things out.
I didn't bother to tell him that there was nothing he could straighten out. Instead, I suggested he complete his business there and then come home. That, I knew, would provide him with a little cooling-off time before he returned to meet the new bride and groom.
As I've already pointed out, there is seldom a dull moment in the Rogers family.
With the regular routine of shooting movies and doing a weekly television series behind them, the professional pace of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans slowed somewhat in the 1960s. Which is not to say they had any great lapses of idle time. There was always another rodeo or state fair to attend, a TV special on which to make a guest appearance, or a religious function at which to give witness.
And while the head count at home had dwindled considerably, it wasn't long before there were grandchildren visiting the Rogers home.
"When our older kids were young," Dale reflects, "I think there were too many times that Roy and I had to be away. I regret that part of it. So does Roy. It just seemed there was always someplace we had to be, something we had to do. That's just one of the things you have to accept when you get involved in a business like ours. With so much travel, though, we were lucky that we worked together, rather than one of us filming a movie in Europe or somewhere while the other was busy on the other side of the world. I can imagine how hard it is for show business families which are constantly scattered in every direction. And, to be honest, I'm not saying I would do things much differently if I had it to do all over again. I'm reasonably certain I would probably jump right out and make a lot of the same stupid mistakes I did the first time around."
She and Roy both agree, however, that it was nice when the time finally came that there were occasional days on the calendar with no obligations penciled in.
The fact of the matter is, I think there came a time when Roy had too much free time—for motorcycle riding, speedboat racing, and all of those kinds of wonderful pursuits which kept me looking down toward the gate to see if he was coming home in one piece.
For instance, it has always been my opinion that the tremendous jarrings he took during his ocean speedboat racing for eight years were what ultimately made it necessary for him to enter the hospital in 1964.
For some time he had been complaining of severe pain in his neck. The doctor who examined him found that three vertebrae were jammed together because of worn discs and an operation would be necessary to correct the problem.
We had been planning a family vacation for some time, but the doctors insisted that Roy take things easy and be prepared for surgery as soon as possible. Roy agreed, but only after I promised that I would go on to Hawaii for a few days with the children.
Dusty liked the hula girls, Dodie and Debbie the beach and sail boats, and Sandy was captivated by every serviceman— sailor, soldier, marine—he met. Almost from his first day in the military academy, Sandy had been fascinated with anything that dealt with the military. His favorite toys as a child were tanks and minature jeeps. He would sit for hours on the floor in his room, maneuvering his troops and artillery around, fighting make-believe battles, and winning resounding victories.
I think there in Hawaii, talking with all those young men in uniform, he made the decision that he would enlist as soon as he reached the necessary age. But I really didn't give it much thought then; I was comfortable in the knowledge that he was still too young. And frankly, I had Roy's operation on my mind most of the time.
The surgery, lasting nine long hours, went well, but unexpected complications set in a week later when Roy suffered a painful staph infection. That soon passed, however, and the day after Debbie's twelfth birthday we were allowed to move him from the hospital to the quiet of a convalescent home in Bel Air.
Seeing her father on the mend was better than any birthday present Debbie received. She had worried mightily during his stay in the hospital, constantly coming to me for assurance that he was going to be okay and home soon.
She had always been daddy's girl, always the first to greet him on his arrival home, and delighted in sitting on his lap even when she had reached an age at which most girls find it "childish," combing his hair for him as he sat reading the paper or watching television.
When she realized that the move from the hospital to the convalescent home was a step toward Roy's return to the ranch, her spirits lifted greatly. No longer worried, her boundless energy returned, and she again became the tireless, exuberant young girl we had been watching with amazement for nine years. Nine years; it didn't seem possible that that much time had passed since Dr. Bob Pierce had stepped off that plane with her in his arms.
Even just a year earlier, at Youth Night during Billy Graham's Los Angeles Crusade, when she, Dodie, Dusty, and Sandy had rededicated their lives to Christ, she had looked to me like a little girl.
But no longer. Soon, it occurred to me, she too would be a young woman, anxiously looking ahead to the opportunity to make her own place in the world.
The Sunday following her birthday she sang in the choir and then joined her friends in a discussion of the next day's planned bus trip to Tijuana, where the young people of the church would deliver gifts to an orphanage.
It was a trip she had long looked forward to—and one I almost didn't allow her to make. During the Sunday services Dodie became ill, and since there might be need of Debbie's help at home the next day I told her the bus trip was out. Naturally, she was crushed and pointed out to me that if she was not allowed to go her two best friends, Kathy and Joanne Russell, would not be allowed to make the trip. I gave in.
And the following morning she and her friends climbed aboard the gift-loaded bus, giggling, laughing, full of life; I went to the Bel Air Convalescent Home to spend the day with Roy.
Later that afternoon, as I drove home along the San Diego Freeway, I was lost in thought about a myriad things—Roy's recuperation, the children, things I wanted to do to the house— and didn't even bother to turn on the car radio. By not doing so I postponed briefly one of the most shocking, saddening moments of my life.
As soon as I pulled into the driveway I knew something was amiss. Ruth Miner, our housekeeper, waited patiently at the door while I parked the car and then quickly, silently took me by the arm and led me into the living room.
"Dale," she said, with a strange look on her face, "I have to talk to you." At the sound of her voice and the expression on her face my body tensed in foreboding. I could literally feel the blood draining from my face.
"The bus," she continued, tears building in her eyes, "had an accident after if left San Diego. Debbie and Joanne Russell are with the Lord."
With the Lord? For a split second it failed to sink in. Then the realization struck like a blow from a hammer. She was telling me that Debbie was dead; beautiful, fun-loving, full-of-life Debbie had been killed in an accident.
I went to pieces. I screamed. I pounded my fists against the door. I asked God why? Why my baby again? Jesus please help me!
At that moment Dusty walked into the room, having just returned from the church. He said nothing at first, just grabbed me and shook me.
Finally he spoke. "Mom, for as long as I can remember you've been telling me to trust Jesus. If you meant that—and I think you did—you had better start trusting him right now. Debbie is okay. She's with him."
If I live to be a hundred I doubt I'll ever get any better advice than my son gave me at that moment.
The doctor arrived shortly and gave me something to settle my nerves, and I began to regain some composure. I went looking for little Dodie and found her out back, huddled with the dogs, crying her eyes out.
We had a good cry together, and went into the house. I placed a call to Art Rush, telling him to make sure Roy didn't hear the news on the radio or television. As always, he was several steps ahead of me, at the hospital, and had persuaded the members of the press not to release anything about Debbie's death until I had been told.
I felt as if I were walking around in a trance. Even when the coroner in San Diego called to tell me that Bob Russell, Joanne's father, had identified Debbie's and Joanne's bodies, I held to the hope that it was all a mistake, a bad dream from which I would somehow wake.
It was no dream, no mistake. We soon got the story of how it had happened.
On the trip home Debbie and Joanne had been standing up at the front of the bus and talking with Larry White, who was driving, when the left front tire blew. The blow-out sent the bus, weighted with sixty-six passengers, spinning uncontrollably into the oncoming traffic. A station wagon had run head-on into the bus.
Someone at the accident scene later said it was a miracle that no more lives were lost. In addition to Debbie and Joanne, six occupants of the station wagon were killed.
It had fallen to Roy's surgeon to break the news to him. And then I talked with him briefly on the phone. Neither of us could say much. I don't believe I ever saw him take anything harder. A beautifully sentimental man, never afraid to show his emotions, he had shown amazing strength when his first wife died. And when Robin passed away it had been left to him to take care of all the funeral arrangements and lend me part of his strength to get through the ordeal. In 1958, when his beloved mother had died, it had been Roy who provided the shoulder for everyone to cry on.
The news of Debbie's death, however, was such a traumatic jolt that the doctors immediately ordered him returned to the hospital intensive care unit. This time, I realized, the trip to Forest Lawn to make funeral arrangements would be mine.
The following day I went first to visit Roy at the UCLA Medical Center, and then went to make arrangements for the double funeral. The Russell's other daughter, Kathy, had been injured, and they were with her in the hospital at Oceanside. I picked out two caskets and flowers, and made the arrangements for the services. This time the closed casket was not my decision, but that of the coroner. The attendant at Forest Lawn explained to me that the coroner had advised that the casket not be opened under any circumstances.
I agreed, partially. Since Robin's death I had lived with the regret of not having looked at her in death. I did not allow myself the same mistake with Debbie. I looked down at her, dressed in her pink sixth grade graduation dress, her little hands clasping a little blue stuffed animal she had won at the Ocean Park amusement center on her birthday. And I fell to my knees and thanked God for the nine years he had allowed us to have that beautiful little girl.
The next morning the entire family decided to dress for the service just as we had dressed for Debbie's sixth grade commencement. Dodie wore white, and I wore a pink dress and a short veil. The boys dressed in what they referred to as their Sunday suits.
Before we left, I prayed for the strength to be a good Christian witness during the service. Then I went into the garden and picked the three prettiest rosebuds I could find to place in Debbie's hands. I also called ahead to ask that one of the attendants see to it that a new gold cross was placed around her neck to replace the one which had been lost in the accident.
The Reverend Ralph Hoopes, minister of the Valley Presbyterian Church, a long-time friend and a wonderful man of God, conducted the service—Larry was still hospitalized. Larry's wife, however, represented the Chapel beautifully with a short eulogy to Debbie and Joanne, and the Reverend Leonard Eilers offered a prayer.
There were friends and loved ones everywhere. Floral arrangements came from all over the country, along with heartwarming cards and telegrams and letters. And then it was over.
At least I thought it was. A week after the funeral I went into Debbie's room, thinking it time to go through her closet and decide what to do about her things. Standing there, looking at all those lovely clothes she would never again wear, all the agony and pain came flooding back. I rushed to the kitchen, crying, saying aloud that it wasn't fair, that I could not understand why something like this could have been allowed to happen to my little girl.
In the midst of my tirade, I turned to see my mother standing in the doorway, glaring at me in a manner only mothers can do. She had come on the first plane from Texas as soon as I called her with the news of Debbie's death and had remained, offering support and sympathy throughout the ordeal. Now, however, there was neither support nor sympathy in her eyes. "I'm surprised at you," she scolded. "And disappointed. You know better than to give way to this. What has happened to your faith?"
For the second time in just a matter of days I had wavered, but had the good fortune to have members of my family standing by to set me straight—first Dusty, then my mother.
Shortly after the funeral Dale Evans began to write her own moving tribute to her daughter. For days she wrote obsessively, much as she had done twelve years earlier following Robin's death, filling page after page with warm reflections, with love, and with Christian candor. The book would be entitled Dearest Debbie, and its royalties were to be donated to World Vision, Inc., the organization which, with the help of Dr. Bob Pierce, had made it possible for Deborah Lee Rogers to come from Korea to the United States.
And even as Dale wrote her book, there was yet another tragic footnote to the soul-trying episode. Roy, deeply affected by the death of Debbie, was finally dismissed from the hospital and allowed to return to the Double R Ranch. Wearing a neck brace, he was told to avoid any activity for a while. Thus it was that he was resting in bed one afternoon a couple of weeks after the funeral when the son of the Rogers' gardener came to the house with disturbing news and a frightened look on his face.
Shortly after the funeral, Bob Russell, the father of Debbie's friend Joanne, had disappeared. At first his wife, aware of his despair over the loss of their daughter, assumed that he had decided to drive back East to spend a few days with his parents. Days passed, however, and there was no word. Eventually a missing person report was filed, but to no avail.
Then on that sunny Sunday afternoon the young gardener's son, who was walking his dog near one of the barns considerably removed from the general path of activity at the ranch, noticed the sun reflecting on something shiny inside the closed building. Peeking inside, he saw a car, with what looked like a man seated motionless at the wheel.
He raced to the house to tell his father and Roy. The police were summoned, and upon their arrival found the body of Bob Russell. On the floorboard beneath his feet were several unused sleeping pills.
The coroner ruled the death a suicide.
"There are a lot of things that happen in this world," Roy would later say, "that I have to admit I don 't understand. Maybe I'm not supposed to understand. I'm sure it was grief that drove Bob to do what he did, but he had so much to live for.”