ROY AND DALE
ONE MORE HARD TRAIL
The only things you can take with you are the things
you give away.
Roy Rogers, Los Angeles Herald Express,
September 30, 1954
Excited children scurried past cheery adults shuffling through the midway at the Canadian National Fair. The youngsters were so fixed on the coins in their hands and the games they wanted to play that they took no real notice of the grown-ups around them. Consumed with winning stuffed animals and other trinkets, they missed seeing the odd-looking man dressed in a fireman's uniform and cowboy boots, trying his hand at the ring-toss game. Among the families and young couples he seemed out of place—alone in his long beard and dark—glasses, but he drank in the sights and sounds of the fair as though there were nothing out of the ordinary about his manner of dress. On his way to the livestock area, he was approached by a pair of boys who saw through his disguise—it was the gold-tipped boots that gave him away. Thrusting a piece of paper in Roy Rogers's face, the children asked him for an autograph. He happily gave them what they wanted.
In 1958 Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were two of the most recognized faces in America. Roy thought his outfit would give him a chance to see the fairgrounds without anyone knowing it was him. Diehard fans and hero-worshiping youngsters would not be fooled.
With the success of The Roy Rogers Show, the couple became more popular than ever before. Television was pervasive, and between their performances on NBC and at rodeos throughout the country, the pair were almost constantly in the public eye. Roy Rogers shirts, pants, boots, lunch pails, sheets, toothbrushes, and pajamas made it possible for followers to have their hero with them twenty-four hours a day. Such notoriety made it impossible for Roy and Dale to go anywhere in the United States or abroad without being found out.
On average Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were on the road performing twenty-two weeks out of the year. When school permitted, their children accompanied them on their travels. Working around the various schedules was no easy feat. Debbie and Dodie were in grade school, Dusty and Sandy attended a military academy, and Linda, Marion, and Cheryl were in high school.
The Rogers children often participated in their parents' act. Dodie and Debbie, three months apart in age, dressed like twins and did a sister act, and Cheryl, Marion, and Linda sang and danced. All of the Rogers children were paid for their work, which consisted of two shows a day. Roy and Dale deposited the youngsters' earnings into a savings account to be used when they got older.
When Roy and Dale were away from the family, they phoned home often. They spoke to each child and were updated on daily events. The siblings formed a special bond in learning how to share their parents with the world. The entire family was fiercely devoted to one another. Debbie and Roy were particularly close and had been since the day she'd come to be his daughter.
When Debbie had first arrived from Korea, she didn't speak any English. She was apprehensive about where she was going. She wore a fearful expression as she was carried off the World Vision airplane. Roy saw that she was scared and reached out his hand to her. She fell into his arms as though she instinctively knew he would keep her safe. Roy and Dale offered the same assurance to all their children. No matter what trials they encountered, they knew they could trust in their parents' love and loyalty.
Although Roy and Dale were individually recognized by various civic organizations for their parenting skills, no award came close to meaning as much to Dale as the card she received one Mother's Day from Cheryl.
You came to live with us at rather a bad time, with Daddy so sad, and two little girls who were naughty, and a little boy who needed a mother's love that he had never known, and the youngest of those girls had for only three years. The older girl, when she was smaller, always kept her sorrows and problems in her, and even when you had problems of your own you were always there by our sides and you helped make our Daddy a Christian. I can't find anything fancy to say, but thanks from all of us and we really, really love you.
By 1964 Roy and Dale's television run had come to an end, and their time was spent almost exclusively doing personal appearances at state fairs, rodeos, and charitable programs. Dale kept up with her writing. Her books, published by Revell, were consistent best sellers. The spiritual records the two released were well received and were in constant demand at churches and crusades, but the motion-picture work the two had enjoyed seemed to be a thing of the past.
Since he'd gone up against Republic, other motion-picture companies resisted hiring the actor for film roles. Paramount Pictures had been the exception, but that was for only one film. Executives at all the major studios felt their ability to transform entertainers into stars gave them the right to control the product they created. The fact that Roy had successfully blocked Republic from selling his pictures to television did not sit well with filmmakers. Years after the dispute had been settled, Art Rush learned that every major studio in Hollywood had offered the help of its legal staff to Republic during the legal battle. As a result of Roy maintaining the commercial rights to his name and likeness, the industry brass had, in essence, blackballed the singing cowboy.
At the time Roy became aware of the backlash, he appealed to the Screen Actors Guild president, Ronald Reagan, for help. Reagan politely told him nothing could be done. Rather than dwell on the injustice of the situation, Roy decided to concentrate on other areas of his career. It was a move that paid off handsomely.
Rogers's chain of enterprises included his own television production studio, a company manufacturing and distributing western products, real estate ventures, a cattle and thoroughbred horse operation, a rodeo show, and a chain of restaurants. It made him one of the richest men in Hollywood. By the mid-1960s his personal wealth was estimated by some as close to $100 million.
BACK THEN 100 MILLION WAS A MIGHTY LOT OF MONEY - Keith Hunt
Dale added twelve candles to the German chocolate birthday cake before her on the kitchen table. It hardly seemed possible to her that nine years had passed since Debbie had come into their lives. "All my children grew up too fast," she admitted out loud. Tom, Cheryl, Linda, and Marion were all married now, with children of their own. Dusty and Sandy were in high school, and Dodie and Debbie were about to enter their teenage years. "It seems like only yesterday I was draped in a Spanish costume and singing to the cowboy who would one day be my husband," Dale said as she pressed peanut brittle to the cake icing.
Roy would be absent from Debbie's twelfth birthday party. Years of galloping atop Trigger had damaged his spine and forced doctors to operate. On August 14, 1964, he entered the hospital and underwent nine hours of surgery to separate three vertebrae that had fused together. Debbie was consumed with worry over her dad.
Dale repeatedly reassured her that he would be fine. But it wasn't until the girl could see him after he'd been moved to a convalescent facility that she felt fully confident he would pull through. During her visit with her dad, she told him about the shopping trip Dale, Dodie, and she had taken and showed him the stuffed animal she had won at Pacific Ocean Park. Roy smiled at his beautiful daughters, remembering them as toddlers sitting on his lap while he read books to them. After a moment of reflection, he wished Debbie "happy birthday" and told her to save a piece of cake for him. Dale, Dodie, and Debbie promised to do just that.
Dale lit the candles on the big day, and she and Dodie sang to Debbie. After she opened her presents, the three girls settled themselves in front of the television to watch movies and eat cake and ice cream. It was an evening Dale would relive in her mind over and over again.
Debbie had always been a generous child, sensitive to the needs of others around her; she went out of her way to help wherever she was needed. She was recognized by her school for her excellent service to community and outstanding citizenship. Dale was not surprised when her daughter came and asked permission to go to an orphanage in Tijuana with her friends from church. The mission would involve delivering presents to boy and girls who did without.
Dale drove to the church the following morning and watched her child board the gift-loaded bus. Debbie and her friends laughed and giggled as they waved good-bye to their parents.
Dale blew a kiss to her happy daughter and left to spend the day with Roy.
Roy's visit with his wife included an update on all the children and grandchildren. He asked about Debbie's trip into Mexico, and Dale told him how excited she was about it all. "She reminded me that we always let our kids choose the way they celebrate their birthdays," Dale shared with Roy. "She wanted this trip to be her present." Roy understood his daughter's heart and assured Dale she had done the right thing in allowing her to go.
A doctor stuck his head into Roy's room and delivered the good news that they were upgrading his health status from serious to stable. The couple breathed a sigh of relief as Dale kissed her husband's head. Neither of them could wait until he was home again and life could return to normal. Dale left the hospital feeling grateful for Roy's improved condition but preoccupied with all the activity in the Rogers household. She was uneasy about something and searched her mind to find the source.
The hot Southern California sun blasted through the front windshield of Dale's car as she headed home from the convalescent hospital in Bel Air. The notion that something wasn't right intensified the closer she got to the family ranch. A Bible verse leapt to her memory, and she recited it aloud: "My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete lacking nothing." Dale's voice trailed off as she glanced at the hazy blue sky stretched out before her. She offered up a prayer of peace. For a moment her anxious heart was eased.
Dale pulled into the driveway and surveyed the welcoming sight of her house. Noticing Debbie's bicycle in the breezeway, she almost smiled. The red bike had been resting on its stand for a couple of days, but now it was lying on the pavement. The inclination that something wasn't right washed over her again. Ruth Miner, the family housekeeper, stepped outside and waited for Dale to get out of the car. Tears stood in Ruth's eyes as Dale approached the front door. Dale couldn't bring herself to ask what was wrong. "I have to talk to you," Ruth said, the tears sliding down her cheeks. Dale's color went white.
"The bus," Ruth said, her voice halting, "had an accident Debbie is with the Lord."
Dale stood frozen for a second, not quite grasping the news. "With ... the Lord?" she repeated. Her knees buckled as she realized the gravity of the statement. "No! No! No! Not my baby!" she screamed. "Not again." Pain tore into her heart like a knife. She lashed out, tearing her clothes, pounding her fist, and wailing loudly. Ruth sobbed along with her.
In a fog from the tragic news, Dale rushed into the house wailing and beating the walls. "Why, Lord? Why my baby again? Jesus help me!"
Sandy and Dusty had arrived on the scene only moments before their mother. Debbie's death hit them hard as well. Sandy was too stunned to say anything. Dusty quickly deduced that he alone would have to help his mother through the initial hysteria. Dale collapsed into a window seat, crying. Sandy stood in the doorway of the living room, watching his mother fall to pieces, not knowing how to comfort her. Dusty finally broke in. He sat down next to her and tried to calm her down. He firmly grasped her shoulders in an attempt to bring her to her senses.
Shaking her, he said, "Mom!" Through tear-filled eyes she looked into her son's face. "Mom, for as long as I can remember, you've been telling me to trust Jesus. Now is the time for you to do that. Debbie is okay! She's with him!"
Dale thought about what he had told her and fought to regain some composure. He held his mother and gave her another moment to cry before convincing her she had to pull herself together. "What about Dad?" Dusty asked. "He's not strong enough to handle this. He's going to need you."
Roy's doctors broke the news to their patient. He was heartbroken. In his despair over Debbie's death he tried to pull himself out of his hospital bed. Tearing the IVs out of his arms and tugging at the brace around his neck, he cried out, "Why? Why her?" His physicians quickly sedated him and rushed him to the intensive care unit.
The grieving parents were almost inconsolable when information on how Debbie died reached them. She and another friend had been standing in the front of the bus talking with the driver when a tire on the bus blew out. The vehicle spun out of control and slammed into a station wagon. Six occupants in the station wagon were killed, along with Debbie and her friend.
The day after Debbie's passing, Dale visited Roy at the hospital. She sat beside him on the bed, neither of them knowing just what to say, both feeling the pain of another lost child. When it came time for Dale to leave, she had difficulty standing up. A glucose tolerance test revealed she was having a diabetes attack. Debbie's death had taken a toll on her health.
When Debbie Lee was laid to rest at Forest Lawn, devoted Roy Rogers-Dale Evans fans from around the world sent flowers to the funeral. Telegrams, letters, and cards expressing their condolences flooded into the Rogers home.
At the funeral Dale ran her hand across Debbie's dark hair and still face. She was wearing the same white dress she had worn at her sixth-grade commencement. Dale placed three red roses into her fingers as the tears dropped uncontrollably down her face.
A week after Debbie's service, Dale tried to go through her things. The grief once again overtook her, and she raced out of her daughter's bedroom. With her face in her hands she sat at the kitchen table sobbing, asking God for the reason why. This time it was Dale's mother who reminded her of her faith. "Frances," Betty Sue started firmly. "God's garden is the world, and his children are his flowers. He has a large mansion with many rooms. Sometimes he wants flowers for his mansion. Sometimes he picks a full-grown rose, sometimes half-opened. Sometimes a bud. He's taken a bud. Doesn't he have that right? It's his bud."
Roy and Dale agonized over the loss of Debbie for a long time. Dale wrote about their daughter in a book titled Dearest Debbie. Released in 1965, it paid tribute to the spirit Debbie brought to the Rogers family. Royalties from the publication went to World Vision International.