Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Bakker Messner are on “Larry King Live” tonight. I used to work for Jim Bakker, back in 1985 and 1986 when Heritage U.S.A. was at its heyday. I was just a college student, then, with no awareness of who the Bakkers were, but some recruiters came to my college to find students to work for the summer. I had no plans–and I didn’t want to work as a nanny again as I did during my first college summer–so I went to the interview.
That’s how I ended up driving across the Smoky Mountains with a guy named Bill Potts in May of 1985. My roommate was a girl from Iowa named Lisa Beasley and we lived in student housing in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Our apartment complex had once been a Motel 6, I think. Our door opened to the outside, to a balcony. We had aqua shag carpet. It was a cheap hotel room. But we loved it anyway.
Once all the students had arrived, they herded us all into interviews to determine exactly where we’d work. All the girls with really big hair and small waists wanted to work in Public Relations. I had hoped to work with children, but when it came down to it, I volunteered to work on the grounds crew, because the grounds crews were promised overtime and overtime meant lots of money and I needed money. Besides that, the alternative was to work at a restaurant on the grounds of Heritage and I didn’t come all the way to South Carolina to work in a greasy fast-food place. I already did that in high school.
A girl named Kendra and I volunteered to work on the grounds crew, so there we were, two college girls working with a bunch of men. After the first day, I hardly even noticed them staring at us. I kind of liked working outside, digging around in the dirt, smoothing long pine needles into little nests around trees. I’d only been working a couple of days when I noticed Jim Bakker and his entourage driving up to the Grand Hotel. I said to Kendra, “Hey, I should go introduce myself to Jim Bakker.” And she said, “I dare you.”
She dared me. So, I did it. I put down my gardening tool and marched my dirty self right over to Jim Bakker and stuck out my hand. I said, “Hi, my name is Mel and I think you know my uncle.” My uncle was a well-known missionary, and in fact, he was now employed by Heritage U.S.A. Jim Bakker did not really acknowledge me, but another man said, “You’re S.J.’s niece?” And I said, “Yes.” And then he told me that he knew my uncles and my grandparents from way back. His eyes crinkled as he smiled at me. His name was Dick Dortch.
A few days later, all the college students attended an orientation of sorts. By then, I regretted my work on the grounds crew (no days off, working ten hour days) and I wondered if there were some way I could finagle myself a job working with the daycare. I spotted Dick Dortch when the meeting was over, so I made my way to him and said, “Hi, remember me?” He did, so I said, “Hey, are you important here? Because I really want to work with children.”
He burst into laughter when I asked if he were important. I didn’t realize then that Dick Dortch was the number two guy at Heritage U.S.A. In fact, he served prison time when the whole empire collapsed a few years later.
Dick Dortch led me to another man, Eric Watt, and explained to Eric that I wanted to work with children. He told Eric to make this happen. Eric did. The Human Resources woman was extremely perturbed with me and yelled at me in her office, but she transferred me to the day camp, where I worked for the rest of the summer.
Later in the summer, I met the man who would become my husband. My roommate, Lisa, pointed him out to me one day. I peeked out from behind our curtains and saw a dark-haired man, sweating profusely, dressed in shorts and running shoes. And then he spit. She thought he was cute. I thought he was a sweaty guy who spits. Yuck.
Tammy Faye Bakker Messner has now been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.
I only have a sore throat which will not go away. When viewed in this light, that is good news, indeed.