The fall of the first family of televangelism came swiftly.
Two Oral Roberts Ministries employees crouched on a desk on their hands and knees, their heads sticking through a hole in the wall. The voices of the Oral Roberts University Board of Regents on the speakerphone conference call one floor below carried up through the thin ceiling panels. Patriarch Oral Roberts was urging Richard, his successor, not to go on Larry King Live that evening.
“I think I should,” they heard Richard tell his father. Oral thought Larry King would eat Richard alive.
A week earlier, a lawsuit hit the front pages of the Tulsa World, alleging that Richard and Lindsay Roberts, ORU’s president and first lady since 1993, treated the university as a personal ATM. The university’s finances were inadvertently cracked open by three professors who claimed they’d been fired for questioning Richard’s efforts to involve ORU in campaigning for Senator Jim Inhofe’s chosen candidate in Tulsa’s mayoral election. What’s more, the suit claimed Lindsay sent hundreds of text messages to “underage males” between the hours of 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. on cell phones expensed to the university.
ORU’s Board of Regents agreed: Larry King was a terrible idea. John Hagee, Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar—ORU’s board was a who’s who of televangelists. Oral was the original pioneer of television ministry. He trained up a whole generation of jet-setting mega-church pastors who preached the prosperity gospel: Plant a seed—meaning, send a check—and God will reward you with health, wealth, and happiness.
The eavesdroppers could tell Richard saw the writing on the wall. “There was no exonerating himself at that point,” one remembers. “He just thought it would be cool to go on Larry King.”
Richard had been like a moth to the limelight since childhood, when he began singing in his father’s tent crusades. In the 1970s, at the height of Richard’s celebrity as a Christian singer, he was starring in prime-time television specials with the likes of Johnny Cash and Robert Goulet, reaching tens of millions of viewers. With his signature streak of white hair and big, telegenic smile, Richard was most in his element when the cameras were rolling. If anyone ever asked if Richard was ready to perform, he’d fire back, “I was born ready.”
And so Richard and Lindsay boarded the ORU jet and flew from Tulsa to New York. In the October 9, 2007, broadcast, Larry King listed just a few of the many allegations against the Robertses: remodeling their ORU-owned home 11 times in 14 years at university expense; forcing employees to do their daughters’ homework; bestowing over a dozen ORU scholarships upon the children of their wealthy friends; the $39,000 Lindsay expensed in clothing at Chico’s in a single year; the stable of horses ORU maintained for the Roberts daughters’ exclusive use.
“Does it concern you that your excesses are so obvious that most people don’t appear to be shocked to hear of them?” Larry King read aloud from an ORU alum’s email. “I have not done anything wrong, Larry,” Richard answered.
Off camera, Richard tried to rally the extended Roberts family in his defense. “We’re all going to hang,” Richard said (according to a niece’s deposition). “We can either hang together or we can hang separately.”
Meanwhile, the school was $52.5 million in debt. Campus was in shambles. The tiled steps leading up to the library were missing most of their tiles. Even the 200-foot-high Prayer Tower at the center of campus—the very symbol of the university, wrought from steel and tinted glass and resembling a gold-plated Space Needle—was rusting.
Still, hardly anyone knew just how bad things actually were. At this rate, in less than a fortnight the university would have to declare bankruptcy.
Oral, having retired to a condo in Newport Beach, returned to Tulsa for the first time in years. He moved back into “the compound”—the Roberts’ six-house, nine-acre gated estate overlooking campus. At a chapel service, the much-beloved 89-year-old patriarch addressed students.
“The devil is not going to steal ORU,” Oral promised.
The phone call came for Richard on Thanksgiving. Televangelist and ORU Regent Kenneth Copeland was on the line, according to a source who was present. That morning, another regent, Billy Joe Daugherty—one of Oral’s protégés—faxed Copeland the receipts for the ORU jet. There was no denying Richard had been taking his family on lavish vacations and calling them “healing crusades,” says the source.
“You’re a damn fool. You should’ve paid the money,” Copeland told Richard, according to the source.
“I’m not supporting him,” Copeland said to Oral. “Your son’s out.” (Copeland did not respond to a request for comment.)
Richard hung up the phone. He and his family were to be evicted from the compound—Richard’s home of nearly five decades—his ties to ORU severed forever.
‘We’re all going to hang,’ Richard said. ‘We can either hang together or we can hang separately.’
These were the terms: Mart Green, heir to the Hobby Lobby franchise of craft stores, would bail out the nearly bankrupt school with a pledge of $70 million—on condition of Richard’s ouster. Richard would take with him his inheritance: the name Oral Roberts Ministries, where the checks get sent. In this way, the kingdom was divided.
“Success without a successor is failure,” Oral often said. He dreamed that his brilliant first-born son, Ronnie, would succeed him. Yet, Ronnie refused the mantle, unwilling to play a role in the succession drama into which he’d been born. The eldest child, Rebecca, and the youngest, Roberta, were not considered suitable heirs: Only the sons would carry on the family name. It was Roberta alone among the Roberts children who was enchanted with the mythology of her father, the faith healer, and it was Roberta, a deeply studious child, who so loved the namesake school he built in South Tulsa, near the Arkansas River. But the house that Oral Roberts built had no room for daughters. That left Richard.
“Something Good Is Going to Happen to You” was Oral’s slogan on TV. But a life lived on camera takes its toll.
Born in 1918, Oral Roberts was the son of an itinerant preacher in the Pentecostal Holiness Church—“Holycostal Penniless,” kids in the church called it. When Oral’s father was off preaching from town to town, sometimes the family would run out of money, and Oral and his mother would have to beg food from friends and neighbors. In the first half of the 20th century, Pentecostals were farmers, preachers, janitors, and rural teachers. Indelibly shaped and scarred by poverty, this was the movement that birthed the prosperity gospel in the latter half of the century.
In Pentecostalism, Oral is considered the godfather of the charismatic movement, which emphasizes divine miracles and ecstatic experience. Beginning in the late 1940s, Oral held crusades across the country and all over the world, his 10,000-person tent overflowing with those desperate for his touch to heal their suffering bodies and—often—finances. In the decades that followed, Oral turned faith healing into a wildly profitable enterprise. He hired top-notch admen and direct-mail consultants who perfected a method for using targeted mailings to solicit donations. The rate of return was so high that Oral’s ministry had to get its own zip code.
Oral longed for middle-class respectability. Being a traveling faith healer and direct-mail mogul would never get him there. But brick and mortar would. When tent crusade audiences began to wane in the early 1960s, Oral switched gears and built a Pentecostal university, the first of its kind. From gold-tinted windows to golden latticework to the Prayer Tower’s royal blue stripes and cherry red overhang, the entire campus glittered under the Oklahoma sun. “Nothing second-class for God,” Oral liked to say.
Wayne Robinson, a former aide, grew up “Holycostal Penniless” as well. In his 1976 memoir, Oral: The Warm, Intimate, Unauthorized Portrait of a Man of God, Robinson depicts a fundamentally insecure person who spent a lifetime “constructing edifices which, once they are built, must be replaced by new structures—each time larger. Over and over again, these monuments declare, ‘I ain’t poor no more!’ The nouveau riche tone of the ORU campus speaks of the poor boy who made it big. The gleaming gold is a reassuring renouncement of empty pockets and an empty stomach.”
Oral was an absentee father, always off traveling the world on the tent crusade circuit. The few days a month when he actually was home, anything the family did or said was liable to end up incorporated into a television script. It was all “grist for the mill,” remembers Robinson.
Of the four siblings, it was Richard who won his father’s attentions, because Richard could be put to use: He could sing and he loved the stage. Plus, he was a jock; Oral needed a golf companion.
Richard never was much of a student. “He’s allergic to books,” Oral once explained. Richard began getting singing gigs at parties and pizza parlors around Tulsa, much to his parents’ dismay. He idolized Frank Sinatra and Pat Boone and dreamed of heading to the nightclubs of Las Vegas or the stages of Broadway.
Richard spent the summer after high school at Interlochen, a prestigious performing arts camp on Lake Michigan. In the Interlochen production of Annie Get Your Gun, Richard landed the lead. He didn’t talk much about being Oral Roberts’ son—although everybody knew it. Once, a kid quoted Oral derisively, recalls Elliott Sirkin, another camper. “But that’s not what he said,” Richard responded quietly, clearly a little hurt. Otherwise, Richard seemed rather “cynical” about his father’s ministry, remembers Allan Janus, another camper. But evidently Richard enjoyed the perks, like Oral’s jet. “He would brag about how he could fly wherever,” Janus recalls. Handsome, friendly, talented—Richard seemed to live a charmed life.
In the fall of 1966, Richard, dead-set against attending the newly opened ORU, headed for the University of Kansas instead. It was the best rebellion he could muster against his father. Out from under his parents’ roof, he could smoke, drink, and chase girls—a tale of wayward youth that he has deployed again and again during his adult life, calling himself “the prodigal son.” Home from college one break, father and son went golfing, according to Richard’s well-worn account. Oral asked Richard to sing for him in an upcoming crusade.
“Look, Dad, just get off my back and get out of my life,” Richard barked. “And don’t you ever mention God to me again.”
As Richard tells it, one day while taking a nap in his dorm at KU, he heard a voice that he assumed to be his roommate playing a joke on him. “You are in the wrong place,” the voice said. Not once, but thrice. Richard checked under the bed, in the closet, everywhere. Nothing. Then he realized it was the Lord. “The Holy Spirit said to me, ‘You are supposed to be at Oral Roberts University,’ ” Richard writes in a 2002 memoir, Claim Your Inheritance. “ ‘That’s where your destiny is.’ ”
A former ORU student recalls hearing Richard’s mother, Evelyn, tell a slightly different version of that story: She and Oral went up to Kansas and summoned Richard back to the nest, wanting to keep an eye on him.
Richard’s college rebellion proved to be short-lived. He flunked out. Singing, however, was different. His voice instructor, Harlan Jennings, remembers him as a highly disciplined and serious student, “one of the best I have taught over a long career.”
The summer of 1967, between his freshman year at KU and his sophomore year at ORU, Richard successfully auditioned for a spot on the chorus at the Kansas City Starlight Theatre, an 8,000-seat venue on the regional circuit for Broadway stars. They put on The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady and Westside Story and more—77 shows in all, rehearsing all day and performing all night, seven days a week, with an extra 12 a.m.–5 a.m. rehearsal early Sunday morning. Richard worked like a dog, just like everyone else.
Richard could be put to use: He could sing and he loved the stage.
“I rented an apartment and lived like the devil all summer,” Richard writes. It was, he says, “one last fling.”
Starlight dancer Kitsey Plavcan was Richard’s date to a party where Broadway singer (and later Partridge Family star) Shirley Jones made an appearance. Richard drove Plavcan home, and as she tells it, the evening did not end well. “He got drunk, and I was hanging out the door of the car, trying to find the line on the side of the road,” she says. Just a few years later, she’d turn on the television, and there was Richard singing about Jesus on the Oral Roberts television show. “I used to sit there and laugh my fool head off at how wholesome he was,” Plavcan remembers.
But in 1967, 18-year-old Richard found himself at a crossroads. Late at night, after a good deal of drinking, he’d say things like, “I’m not 100 percent sure about who I am, what I believe, what I believe about my father, is he real, is he all a fraud, is religion itself all a fraud,” fellow chorus member Joe Warner recalls. In Christendom, everything would always be handed to Richard. The world beyond his father’s kingdom was the great unknown.
Richard seemed resigned to his lot. He’d stay a Preacher’s Kid forever—and not just any PK, but the son of Oral Roberts.
“Every PK has their own curse,” says Warner. “But I think Richard’s was greater than most.”
Oral always conceived of his namesake university in opposition to the counterculture, an institution that would churn out clean-cut men and women in a time of middle-class anxiety over campus rebellion. Arriving on campus in 1965, the inaugural class of ORU students was united by a deep sense of purpose: Their job was to take Oral’s vision of a healing God out into the world.
“It wasn’t anything like going to college,” writes Patti Holcombe. “It was more like founding a country.”
Richard arrived at ORU in 1967 without that pioneering spirit. But he was soon drawn to Patti, a poised, feisty co-ed from Oregon with high cheekbones and a strong jaw line. They began to date, taking long walks, according to Patti’s memoir, Ashes to Gold. “I’d like to sing on Broadway but only if it’s God’s will for me,” he’d tell her. “All my life I’ve been Oral Roberts’ son, but what about me? What about Richard? Why can’t I have a life apart from my dad?”
Such a life apart would have to be wrought. “It all had to come to him, or Richard wasn’t interested,” remembers former ORU Regent Harry McNevin.
To join Oral’s ministry, Richard needed a suitable wife. A good Christian girl, Patti fit the mold, although not quite as well as Richard’s mother, Evelyn, who was even-tempered, graceful, and endlessly supportive of her husband’s ambitions. “Patti has a mind of her own,” people said, with varying degrees of admiration.
Shortly after the wedding, Oral called Richard and Patti into his study, sat down in an armchair by the fire, and began to cry. Oral said he’d had a dream: If either of them backslid—the term for leading an unchristian life, especially one outside Oral’s domain—they’d be killed in a plane crash.
“It never occurred to us that maybe it wasn’t God who had spoken,” writes Patti, “but Oral trying to manipulate us to protect the ministry.”
On the first night of their honeymoon, Patti wore a frilly lace nightgown, a gift from Evelyn. According to Patti, Richard looked up and said, “You know, you look fatter with your clothes off.” They consummated their marriage in a coin-operated bed. Afterward, Patti says Richard put a quarter in the “Magic Fingers” contraption, making the bed vibrate and shake. Richard fell right asleep. The Magic Fingers kept Patti up for hours. They ate Thanksgiving dinner in the hotel. After a few days, they got bored and came home early from their honeymoon. So began their lives as “professional newlyweds,” writes Patti.
Back at ORU, plans were soon underway for Contact, the first Oral Roberts prime-time television special. Oral was determined to make his telegenic son into a modern Christian celebrity. Contact (and its later incarnations in the 1970s) was a wholesome variety show with singing and dancing from the World Action Singers, a group of ORU students led by Richard. The show had flashy sets and costumes, solos by Richard and Patti, and a sermon from Oral. He had admen coin upbeat catchphrases like “Something Good Is Going to Happen to You.”
Richard assumed the role of spoiled crown prince. Oral’s men were instructed to give Richard small responsibilities to create the illusion of power. “Executive decisions,” writes former producer Jerry Sholes in Give Me That Prime-Time Religion, “were made by other individuals who knew they were really reporting to Oral.” Once, impatient with a television director, Richard turned to Sholes and snapped, “Is he a director or a pussy?” Sholes groaned. Richard didn’t seem to care that ORU students—strict Christians—were within earshot. Richard had a golf date he wanted to get off to.
It was a struggle to get Richard to work a full day, say Oral’s former aides. Richard was often MIA, and it was anyone’s guess whether he was at the Tulsa Country Club or Southern Hills Country Club or elsewhere. “Sometimes we all had assignments to go get him to come home,” remembers Al Bush, a close adviser of Oral’s for decades. (“Richard was raised on a country club golf course,” Bush once told the Tulsa Tribune. “If he’s ever been hungry, it’s because he overslept.”)
According to Richard, he quit school after his junior year to work full-time for his father. According to Wayne Robinson, Oral’s aide, the future ORU president flunked out of ORU. Either way, Richard was on the move. In March 1969, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was the featured guest on the first Contact special, and 10 million people tuned in. Pat Boone, Richard’s hero, followed as the featured guest on the second prime-time special.
“The golden age, we called it,” remembers World Action Singer Larry Wayne Morbitt. They were reaching millions of the unchurched on prime time. ORU was swimming in cash in the 1970s, new campus buildings were going up, and the World Action Singers got to travel the world in luxury. For all his successes, however, Richard could not anticipate that he would face competition for his father’s attentions.
A young black Pentecostal named Carlton Pearson, another World Action Singer, became Oral’s protégé.
“[Richard] wanted to be perfect. He wanted to impress the people and to please his father,” says Pearson. “More than God, I promise you. It wasn’t about God,” Pearson laughs.
In 1971, Oral brought Pearson into his office, where Richard was seated.
“Twenty-five percent of my income comes consistently from African-Americans,” Oral said, according to Pearson. “Richard has the indispensable name of Roberts. He’s my biological son. There’s nothing you can do about that. But I need a black son. You are my black son.”
Soon, Oral hired Pearson as associate evangelist, in large part to help groom Richard to take over the empire, Pearson says.
“I knew what Oral was thinking,” says Pearson. “I want my son to succeed me like God’s son pleased him. ‘ This is my beloved son, in whom I’m well pleased.’ ”
Richard still hadn’t graduated college—he didn’t get his BA from ORU until 1985, nearly 20 years after he began. But Oral added him to the ORU Board of Regents in 1971, at age 23. When fellow Regent Harry McNevin criticized Richard’s plans to use the ORU jet for junkets, Richard declared that he would no longer attend any more meetings with him, according to McNevin. Before long, Oral made Richard vice president of Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association, the ministry.
As the years went on, Patti and others noticed Richard was becoming a clone of his father: how he spoke onstage, how he styled his hair. He recycled Oral’s sermons verbatim. Oral had even given the couple their marriage bed.
“We slept in his bed,” writes Patti, “and, in many ways, he slept in ours.”
Patti readily admits she enjoyed the fruits of seed-faith ministry: glamorous vacations, expensive cars, shopping trips, jet-setting. But, according to her memoir, she grew increasingly uncomfortable with the resemblance seed-faith bore to the selling of indulgences prior to Martin Luther and the Reformation.
At an event in the mid 1970s, Patti happened to meet young Frank Schaeffer, son of the famous Christian philosopher and anti-abortion coalition builder Francis Schaeffer. Talking with Frank, Patti was relieved to find that they “were both angry with the superstar system of American religion,” she writes. In her mind, Christian celebrity culture was pure idolatry. Frank heard Patti’s concerns about her marriage and then counseled the couple.
Looking back, Frank remembers telling the couple that he eventually planned to make his own life, away from his paternal legacy, and they should too. This life, Frank said, was “poisonous.” Richard nodded. “You’re right, you’re right, this is terrible. We need to get out,” Richard said, according to Frank.
Oral’s prophecy about Richard and Patti would prove to be slightly misdirected.
In 1977, Rebecca, Oral and Evelyn’s eldest child, and her banker husband, Marshall Nash, were killed when, returning from their newly purchased condo in Aspen, their private plane went down over the cornfields of Kansas. Oral took his grief and made it into a television episode.
At first, Richard and Patti weren’t able to conceive, and so they adopted a daughter. But soon Patti became pregnant. When she gave birth, she called Oral from the hospital. She apologized for not having a boy. “That doesn’t matter,” Oral assured her, according to aide Wayne Robinson. He would be proud of his granddaughter regardless, Oral said. He hung up the phone and turned to Robinson. “But it does matter,” Oral confided.
To be on television with his father, Richard had to have it all—the lovely wife, the kids. People had to want to be them, as any adman knows. They were selling their image. It was “a corporate marriage,” Patti writes, “designed not to upset the flow of dollars into the prized ministry.”
Patti’s ambitions began to exceed the family role into which she’d been cast: She wanted to have a singing career of her own. Oral warned Richard that he needed to get her under control, Patti recalls.
“I did not build this university or this ministry for you,” Oral once told Patti, she recalls in Ashes to Gold. “I built it for Richard. You will never get to the top. It’s not yours; it’s Richard’s.”
Patti had become an unsuitable wife. One day, Richard came back from a fishing trip with his parents and announced they had given their permission to end the marriage. (Oral had a strict policy against employing divorcés, but he bent the rules for Richard.) After the divorce was finalized in early 1979, Patti writes, “Richard came into the bedroom and said, ‘I’m so sorry our marriage didn’t work out,’ and extended his hand for me to shake.”
With turmoil erupting in Christendom over the divorce, 30-year-old Richard quickly set about the business of finding another wife. Within a year, he married Linda “Lindsay” Salem, a 23-year-old Christian of Lebanese descent from Florida, who was attending ORU’s law school. She had black hair and a heart-shaped face, cute but not regal like Patti.
Lindsay kept having miscarriages. Finally, she carried a baby to term. In 1984, Lindsay gave birth to a male heir. They named him Richard Oral Roberts. So much was riding on that baby. “Oh, how I wanted a son,” writes Richard. “Richard Oral was the fulfillment of that dream.” Born with a lung defect, the infant lived for just 36 hours.
Oral led the family in prayer before the funeral. They huddled together in the green room of ORU’s Christ Chapel, backstage at a funeral.
After Richard Oral, Lindsay gave birth to three daughters.
Not long after his daughter and son-in-law died in a tragic plane crash, Oral had a vision of a 900-foot Jesus who told him to build a Christian medical center. This led Oral to build the City of Faith, a $250-million medical center that opened in 1981. Three sparkling gold towers arose on the south side of ORU’s campus: a 294-bed hospital, a 60-story clinic, and a 20-story research facility.
The problem was that Tulsa already had more than enough hospital beds. Oral predicted—wrongly, it turned out—that believers would flock to Tulsa for a hybrid of modern medicine and faith healing. Instead, City of Faith hemorrhaged cash.
Around the same time, Oral decided that he needed a Beverly Hills home. (“The old idea that religious people should be poor is nonsense,” Oral once said in a TV broadcast.) According to Harry McNevin, the former regent, Oral diverted another $7 million from ORU’s endowment: $2.4 million to buy the house (as reported by the Tulsa Tribune) and the rest on renovations. “The entire ordeal was kept very quiet,” remembers Carlton Pearson, who was a regent at the time. McNevin says he couldn’t even get any of the other regents to tell him the address of the house. He resigned from the board.
Strapped for cash, in 1986 ORU shuttered both the dentistry and the law school. (Michele Bachmann graduated from ORU’s law school the year it closed.) Things reached a new low in 1987. Oral claimed he had raised the dead. Richard backed him up, recalling a boyhood memory of Oral resurrecting an infant who’d died “right in the middle of my dad’s sermon.”
To great national ridicule, Oral announced that God had told him he’d be “called home” if he didn’t raise $8 million for medical school scholarships. “Let’s not let this be my dad’s last birthday!” Richard wrote in a fundraising letter.
Ultimately, a dog-track owner in Florida cut a check for the last $1.3 million, and Oral was not called home. But, regardless, the medical center closed in 1989. Then, the rest of City of Faith closed in 1991. ORU’s unpaid bills were piling higher and higher.
Oral was growing old. He became even more fixated on his problem of succession, worrying whether or not “Richard could carry it,” says Pearson. Sure, Oral racked up debts, but he could also bring in the big money. Richard hadn’t proved he could raise funds.
Oral turned to his board of regents for reassurance. “What do you think about Richard? How do you think Richard did last night? What do you think about the future? Do you think he can handle this?” Oral asked the mega-pastors. Pearson remembers, “I kept saying we’ll be there for him. Billy Joe [Daugherty], myself, Larry Lea—anybody. Kenneth Copeland, all the preachers on the board. Because all those preachers understood they would want their son to succeed them.”
There was a time when Oral planned to divvy up responsibilities, Pearson says: Richard would lead the ministry, and Roberta, a graduate of ORU’s law school, would lead the university. Oral told Pearson and Billy Joe Daugherty, “I want you to buttress both of them at either end to support them.” That idea was quickly scrapped, says Pearson. “Richard wanted everything.”
Passing the scepter in 1993, Oral told his son, “You’re anointed by God, chosen by the Lord to be the second president.” Oral was leaving ORU about $50 million in debt.
“I’m just delighted that the medal is on you and now off of me,” Oral said and promptly retired to his condo on a golf course in Newport Beach, California.
All Souls Unitarian Church is not far from Oral Roberts University. From the pulpit, an All Souls minister once dubbed ORU “Babylon on the Arkansas.” According to the Book of Daniel, King Belshazzar of Babylon declared that his walled city upon the Euphrates would never fall, all the while feasting and drinking from golden goblets plundered by his father.
All Souls was where Ronnie, Oral and Evelyn’s eldest son, attended church with his wife and two adopted kids in the 1970s. Ronnie—Oral’s would-be successor, the original beloved son—could not have been more different from his brother. Richard conformed; Ronnie rebelled. Marvin Shirley, a close friend from All Souls, remembers Ronnie as a liberal rationalist who read widely, was fluent in five languages, and viewed the Bible as a historical document. This was the ultimate apostasy for a child of Oral Roberts.
Ronnie was loath to participate in the public performance of being a Roberts, remembers All Souls’ former minister, Dr. John Wolf. “He really wanted nothing to do with it at all out there [at ORU],” says Wolf. Only Evelyn could talk Ronnie into joining the family on Oral’s television specials. Oral would demand that Ronnie shave his beard, for a beard stood for hippies and secularism and everything that the ministry was not; Ronnie would refuse. In the programs Ronnie usually ended up in the background or off to the side of the frame somewhere. “It wasn’t just a beard. I mean, it was a beard,” Wolf says, laughing. “He looked like Rasputin for a while.”
One Sunday, the televangelist himself showed up at All Souls, Wolf remembers. Oral and Wolf were friendly antagonists in those days. Seeing Ronnie’s father in the Unitarian pews, incredulous, Wolf asked, “Oral, what are you doing here?” Oral replied, “Well, I just want to find out what kind of place my kid was going to.”
Ronnie eschewed his royal lineage, seeing it as something of an embarrassment. He left town for college and headed to Stanford, dropped out after a year, and joined the army as a linguist, teaching Mandarin in Vietnam. He had himself removed from the family trust fund. After spending three years in a PhD program at the University of Southern California, it was a job offer that brought Ronnie back to Tulsa. He taught at a local high school and started an antiques business. “He despised what his father did,” says Shirley, “the way he bilked the poor.” According to Shirley, Ronnie had rejected faith healing since adolescence and thought Oral “was in it for the money.”
Toward the end of his life, Ronnie developed an addiction to cold medication. Finally, he reached a breaking point. He pleaded guilty to forging a prescription for Tussionex and was placed on probation. A report filed by probation and parole officers noted Ronnie’s “strongest feelings about his childhood were those of alienation and rejection from the family because he chose not to adhere to the religious beliefs of his parents and rest of the family.”
On Mother’s Day of 1982, Evelyn went to visit her eldest son, writes biographer David Edwin Harrell Jr. Ronnie was considering a job that Oral had recently offered him at the university—a move Oral had made many times, always on condition that he shave his beard and quit smoking. Submit, obey. At the time, Ronnie was estranged from his wife and children, living in an apartment just off Peoria Avenue. He had withdrawn from his friends, most of whom hadn’t seen him in months. Ronnie always rejected Oral’s job offers. Even though he was at the end of the line—his antiques business had failed, his marriage had failed—this time was no different. Ronnie told his mother that he could never take something simply because he was a Roberts.
Exactly one month later, Ronnie’s body was found in his car about five miles outside of Tulsa. He’d shot himself in the heart with a .25-caliber gun.
After hearing word from the police, Richard and one of Oral’s aides went to Ronnie’s apartment, where they found a note. Ronnie had written that he looked forward to seeing his older sister, Rebecca, again. Richard broke the news to Oral and Evelyn.
The Roberts family arranged to have the funeral at ORU, in Christ’s Chapel. Oral’s eulogy remembered Ronnie “as a man who was never quite the same after a tour of duty during Vietnam.” Evelyn believed the devil was to blame for Ronnie’s suicide. Roberta, the youngest Roberts child, traced Ronnie’s demise to his undergraduate years at Stanford, where everything “his world rested upon” was challenged.
In the aftermath, Oral and Evelyn pored over their memories, wondering if there was something they could have done differently. Richard assured them there wasn’t. “I’ve had to work hard on my dad and mother,” Richard told Harrell, the biographer. “It’s natural that they would say, ‘If I had just done this or that.’ It’s not true.”
“My son had a will of his own,” Oral eventually concluded. “My will cannot cancel out anybody’s will.”
Lives, especially ones that end in suicide, do not lend themselves to neat lines of causation. Even now, over 30 years later, longtime friend Marvin Shirley is still mystified that Ronnie—a sensitive soul, a flautist—would ever shoot a gun, for any reason.
Upon Oral’s death in 2009, Bruce Nickerson, a classmate of Ronnie’s at Stanford, wrote a eulogy for father and son:
Ron was gay—a fact that his father could not accept. However Ron told me his father loved him and had never withdrawn support, either financially or emotionally. He just couldn’t get beyond Leviticus…
His family has denied that sexual orientation was a factor [in his suicide]. Remembering his anguish at Stanford, I am certain it was the cause, and that drugs were a futile attempt to mask the pain he must have suffered every day. When I met him he was a terribly troubled youth, struggling with who he was.
It was a time when getting married was the only way to have a normal life, to have a family. “Ronnie was trying very hard to be [part of] the outward couple that Oral wanted,” says Wayne Robinson, the former aide.
Oral’s youngest child, Roberta, has two adult sons, Randy and Steve. Both are gay. They too were once princelings, living in the royal Roberts compound. In 2005, when Evelyn died, they went together to the funeral. At the grave, they tried to enter the Roberts family tent but were turned away by a guard.
“That’s my grandmother inside the coffin,” Randy said.
“I know who you are,” the guard replied.
The two brothers stood outside the family tent and watched.
Lindsay changed over the years. By the time she was the first lady of ORU, she had a small village of people she could phone who would do her bidding. Sometimes she was sweet and maternal, sometimes cruel and wrathful. She would throw explosive temper tantrums, according to former employees. (Richard and Lindsay did not respond to several interview requests.)
Richard and Lindsay’s eldest daughter began attending ORU in the fall of 2003. (All three eventually enrolled.) Whatever the Roberts daughters wished, they received. They wanted a Pilates class to fulfill their PE requirement, so the school had to invent a Pilates class, recalls a faculty member.
“The girls would do things like check out equipment and basically wreck it,” says the faculty member. “They seemed to feel like they could get by with most anything.”
Professors got in trouble if the Roberts daughters complained about their teaching, says the faculty member, and Richard and Lindsay routinely asked professors to change their daughters’ grades.
A charming figure on campus, Richard was popular with the student body. But the alumni had given up on him long ago. Alums had so little confidence in him that only about six percent were ponying up donations.
“The alumni for years wanted somebody to truthfully tell them, ‘Here’s where the money goes,’ ” says then-Provost Mark Lewandowski. “There was a lack of open disclosure and true transparency.” That’s a nice way to say that alums were tired of donating money, only to have it disappear into thin air. Like the nearly $9 million Richard fundraised to build a new student center that never materialized.
Things came to a head on Wednesday, November 14, 2007, a month after Richard and Lindsay’s Larry King appearance. Oral summoned the tenured faculty for a three-hour meeting. He said he was there to listen, asking them to speak freely and openly. And yet he’d brought Richard along. One by one, speaking directly to Richard, the professors rattled off their complaints.
“You are my friend and my brother in Christ, but it is time for you to go,” Provost Mark Lewandowski told Richard. “I cannot continue to serve under you.” It was a major act of defiance, coming from Lewandowski, an ORU loyalist and the son of two ORU professors.
Richard pleaded with them to stay, at least for a few more years. He explained his ministry would be under a cloud if he were to be ousted, remembers the faculty member. Lindsay had resigned from the board of regents and, he promised, would no longer involve herself in university affairs.
“My house has been out of order,” Richard confessed, according to the faculty member.
Oral doubled down: If Richard left, he’d walk away with him—arm in arm with his anointed son. Oral called on the faculty to forgive Richard, to take a “fresh start.” He was 89-years-old at this point. His hearing was going, and he needed a walker. But ever the benevolent dictator, Oral demanded obedience. He asked everyone who agreed with him to stand—an old power play from his repertoire. One professor stood and bravely ventured, “I don’t know what you mean by ‘fresh start.’ I can forgive Richard. But I am not going to allow him to come back as president.”
One by one, Oral started grilling the few professors who remained seated. Suddenly, he stopped.
“No, I shouldn’t do this. I’m sorry,” he said, dropping his head in his big, wrinkled hands.
Richard and Roberta, the two youngest Roberts children, are the only surviving siblings of the four. They weren’t exactly on speaking terms in 2009 when it came time for Oral’s “homecoming,” as he called it, but they headed to the hospital together. Approaching his room, Roberta and Richard heard Oral singing from his hospital bed. He was making his way down the list of hits from his old television shows: “God Is a Good God,” “Something Good Is Going to Happen to You,” “Expect a Miracle.” The two siblings joined in. Richard knew all the words, of course. Those were the tracks off his 1968 debut album, My Father’s Favorite Songs. Roberta mixed up some of the verses, and Oral, on his deathbed with pneumonia, cut in to correct her—multiple times.
In an interview with KTUL, Richard said that Mart Green, the Hobby Lobby heir who bailed out ORU, “asked me not to come back on campus” after his 2007 ouster. The next time he set foot on ORU’s campus was for his father’s funeral on December 21, 2009. Richard and Roberta both delivered eulogies. Roberta was terrified of speaking before the crowd in the Mabee Center, the school’s main arena. (“I was about to throw up.”) Richard—it has to be said—looked a little pleased to be back on stage. He even got to sing a song.
All of the luminaries of the Pentecostal world came to mark the death of the patriarch. Hardly any of them were invited to Oral’s graveside service. Richard was meting out punishment for disloyalty—for not standing by him unconditionally as ORU president, says a former regent.
“That was his first chance to be absolutely in charge again,” says the regent, “with no one but him calling the shots and commanding the stage since his shameful demotion.”
For one day and one day only, Richard ruled supreme.
Roberta was a lonely child. Left with family friends when Oral and Evelyn were off traveling the world, she found companionship in Jesus and became the strictest Pentecostal in the family. Richard and Oral, meanwhile, were golf buddies.
Roberta and Richard have always been at odds. “When we were little, we’d get our allowance and his would be spent within half an hour,” Roberta remembers. She was the kind of careful child who saved and budgeted. Richard would come to her, wanting to borrow her allowance. She’d comply. “You think I ever got paid back? No!” she says, with mock exasperation. “That’s the story of his life.”
As adults, even when both siblings and their families lived in the compound, the two pretty much only saw one another at holidays, remembers Roberta’s son Randy. These days, their contact is even more limited. Roberta sent Richard flowers one Easter; the following December, he dropped a birthday card off at her house, leaving the bright pink envelope for her to find in a flowerpot.
On the day Roberta shows me around ORU’s campus, she seems nervous and has brought a typed list of stories she wants to tell. It is in many ways a list of firsts: the first time her father took the family to see the empty farmland where he planned to build a university; the dorm where she first lived as an ORU student; the first time she saw the man she would marry (“Almost exactly 42 years ago!”). “First kiss” is number nine on the list.
“Isn’t that the neatest?” Roberta asks, pointing out each attraction. Her voice is chipper, but she is clearly pained. Her thin, pink lips are drawn tight. She walks much too quickly, which is not an easy thing to do in heels. A slim woman in her 60s with white hair in a pixie cut, Roberta wears a navy ankle-length polka-dot dress with padded shoulders.
“Dad did not really function as a father, at least not toward me—actually until perhaps a year or so before his passing,” she writes in her memoir, My Dad, Oral Roberts. Before that, she’d been on the outs with Oral for nearly two decades. It was only after the patriarch’s death that Roberta became an ORU trustee.
When we enter Christ’s Chapel, a soaring sanctuary filled with light, a calm comes over Roberta. She surveys the stage and the roving TV camera boom. She admires the parquet floors, the plush of the seats. Roberta is unabashed in her love, filled with the wonder of her father’s creation.
Roberta faces the writing along the back wall. “ ‘Raise up your students to hear my voice. To go where my light is dim,’ ” she reads aloud. Smiling, she turns her back to the inscription and begins to recite from memory. “Their work will exceed yours, and in this I am well pleased,’ ” she says. “That’s what Dad heard from God.”
Later, we wander the halls of the Mabee Center, a rotund, flat-topped building trimmed with gold. An elderly security guard pushes aside his lunch when Roberta asks if he’d mind letting us into the television studios.
“Mrs. Potts,” says the guard, “you can get into anything you want.”
She laughs. “You shouldn’t give me anything I wanted, because I might ask for something I shouldn’t.”
“I doubt that very seriously. I knew your momma too well,” the guard replies. “You had two of the nicest young boys,” he adds suddenly. “They always said, ‘We’re the Potts boys. Can we go into the basketball game? We’re Potts children, can we please use the phone?’ ”
“I trained them well,” she says.
We enter the cavernous television studio. The lights are off. We stand in silence, looking into the darkness.
Heading back into the sunshine, Roberta calls out to the guard, “Thank you for your kind comments about my sons. Some day they’re going to come back to the Lord.” A cure for what she calls their “lifestyle”—that’s the miracle she’s expecting.
“How can I say that there were no excesses, when there were?” Roberta writes of Richard’s tenure as ORU president. She says she never learned what exactly was true among the allegations against Richard.
“Did you ever learn specifically that any of them were false? Or blown out of proportion?” I ask. “Um, I guess not. I can’t think of anything,” she stammers. She pushes all that out of her mind.
As it turns out, donors to Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association do, too. In 2010, the ministry’s revenue was nearly $13 million, and Richard and Lindsay paid themselves a combined salary of over $800,000, according to tax filings.
In 2010, the ministry also filed an amended tax return for 2006, saying an internal review of “travel and other expenses” found that $100,602 had been incorrectly billed to the ministry—when really it should’ve been taxed as executive compensation. In other words, it seemed Richard and Lindsay had put their leisure pursuits on the ministry’s tab.
“Dear friend,” Richard wrote in a recent letter to potential donors. Out of work? In debt? “Perhaps you feel like you can’t sow anything anywhere because your financial situation isn’t good right now.” Yet, Richard continued, “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Meanwhile, ORU had a succession of presidents outside the Roberts family: A protégé of Oral’s, Billy Joe Daugherty, stepped in briefly. Daugherty, the founder of a 17,000-person mega-church across the street from ORU, is said to be the son Oral wished he’d had. Then there was Mark Rutland, followed by the current president, William Wilson.
Having bailed out ORU, the Oklahoma City-based Green family mostly stayed out of the spotlight. Soft-spoken, bespectacled Mart Green, successor to Hobby Lobby CEO David Green (net worth: $5.2 billion), served as chairman of ORU’s board. The Green’s donations to ORU now total over $200 million, according to Roberta Roberts Potts.
ORU is finally out of debt. The professors’ wrongful termination lawsuits were settled out of court long ago. It is Hobby Lobby—not ORU—making national headlines these days: In June, the Supreme Court ruled in Hobby Lobby’s favor, granting a religious exemption to the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate for covering birth control.
Richard’s toppling from the ORU throne was not the noblest of exits. And yet, afterward, he seemed relieved, like a burden was lifted, says former Oral Roberts Ministries employee Ryan Rhoades. Facial hair was forbidden under the university’s strict anti-hippie dress code. But after Richard and his ministry were expelled from campus, the staff relaxed and grew out beards. Even Richard. Settling into their new offices across town, Richard introduced a four-day workweek. He joked around, carefree at last.
Roberta sometimes catches her brother and sister-in-law on The Place for Miracles, Richard and Lindsay’s daily half-hour television program. Oral looms large on the show—my dad this, and your dad that. Richard sings, as always, although his voice is getting a little flat with age.
In late January 2012, an Oklahoma highway patrolman clocked Richard’s black Mercedes going 93 miles per hour along the Creek Turnpike, a tollway just south of ORU. A blast of alcohol fumes greeted the highway patrolman when he leaned into the car. Richard failed the first sobriety test, then a second. Richard’s DUI mugshot showed an old man wearing a pink shirt and a black jacket, his face bloated and splotchy, his hair white and thinning. It was shortly after midnight of what would have been Oral’s 94th birthday.
Later that year, Richard and Lindsay’s house, a cobbled mansion in a gated community a few miles south of ORU, went up for sale for $2.15 million. Soon, there were reports that Richard and Lindsay had decamped for Oral’s condo in Newport Beach. In December 2013, the building in Tulsa where Richard taped his TV show went up for sale. The show goes on—but broadcasting, it seems, from California. Richard still travels a bit, speaking and holding “miracle healing services” at churches and hotels around the country and, occasionally, overseas. Sometimes, his daughters join him on stage.
In Richard’s absence, ORU finally built the student center he had long promised but failed to deliver. It was ORU’s first new building in over 30 years. Designed in a nondescript institutional style, nothing is gold about it. Plans are underway to refurbish the ORU-owned CitiPlex Towers (formerly the City of Faith), swapping the gold-tinted windows for blue. The gilded age is over. The time of Technicolor dreams has given way to more modest aspirations: to be, simply, a normal Christian school.
As this past school year came to a close, Mart Green announced the day had come for him to step down as chairman of ORU’s board. He’ll stay on as a trustee. The school thanked him with a statue in his honor.
The main entrance to ORU is named Billy Joe Daugherty Drive. It is a stately roundabout, lined with the flags of the world. The iconic bronze, 60-foot-tall Praying Hands sculpture sits in the middle—Oral’s healing touch immortalized. There is no Richard Roberts Road, or much of anything else to indicate he was ever there at all.
1.— Copeland was one to talk. Earlier that month, at the behest of Senator Charles Grassley, the Senate Finance Committee launched an investigation into the extravagant lifestyles of six prominent televangelists. Private jets, fancy cars, mansions—all paid for by their respective tax-exempt ministries. (Nonprofits are effectively taxpayer subsidized, and so personal enrichment through them is illegal.) Three of the six televangelists under investigation were ORU regents: Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, and Creflo Dollar—the very people who’d been rubberstamping Richard’s spending.
2.— In the years leading up to the patriarch’s death, Carlton Pearson, Oral’s “black son,” fell from grace in the Pentecostal world after he stopped believing in hell. Carlton and Oral eventually reconciled—albeit on a personal level, not theologically. Pearson’s biopic Come Sunday is in the works, and Robert Redford is in talks to play Oral in the film.
3. — Much was made of Lindsay’s alleged relationships with unnamed “underage males” when the lawsuits hit ORU in 2007. In the years since, Matt Schwoegler, the one-time boyfriend of the youngest Roberts daughter, acknowledged that most of the allegations probably referred to him: the hundreds of late night text messages Lindsay sent teen boys; the nine nights Lindsay and a boy spent in the compound’s guest house; the times Lindsay installed a teen boy in her home, leading the Roberts daughters to put deadbolts on their bedroom doors. (Schwoegler has since racked up several criminal convictions, including credit card fraud, forgery, evading arrest, and possession of burglary tools.) Lindsay maintained she “never, ever engaged in any sexual behavior with any man outside of my marriage as the accusations imply.” Through the Roberts’ attorney, Schwoegler released statements attesting Lindsay had served as a “second mother” and “best friend” to the teen.
“Do I think she slept with him? No, I don’t,” says a relative. “Do I think he replaced Richard Oral? In many wrong ways for her, yeah.” Lindsay couldn’t save her own son, long-ago deceased in infancy, but perhaps she found another lost cause and wanted a second chance.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 18, September 15, 2014.
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