On the edge of Kansas’ windswept prairie, near a nondescript grave, sits the most recent token of affection.
It’s a tube of lip gloss.
Since her death on July 20, 2007, fans and friends of Tammy Faye Bakker Messner occasionally make pilgrimages to where the ashes of the Christian television celebrity were laid to rest. There, they leave the types of cosmetic items – lipstick, mascara – that helped give Tammy Faye her distinctive look.
In a Harper County cemetery, remote and unmarked, Tammy Faye’s gravestone is far away from the glamor, controversy and cameras that followed the woman who helped build three Christian television networks: the Christian Broadcasting Network with Pat Robertson; the Trinity Broadcasting Network with Paul Crouch; and Praise The Lord ministry – and ultimately the ill-fated Christian theme and water park Heritage USA in Fort Mill, S.C. – with Jim Bakker, her first husband.
“I took her down there and showed her Waldron, she thought it was a quaint little community,” said her husband, Roe Messner, a mega-church builder who for decades was based in the Wichita area and in more recent years moved to a suburb of Kansas City, Mo.
“She was glad to see where I grew up and all. She thought it was kind of neat.”
‘A personal thing’
Waldron the town is a throwback in time. Houses, storefronts and garages are in varying degrees of neglect along the dirt-covered streets that lie quiet until a passing vehicle stirs up rooster tails of dust.
It was once a thriving town with a railroad, two banks and two newspapers. Its population is now 10.
“It is a nice quiet place to live,” said Mayor Shirley Nelson. “Most people here are second and third generation, raised here or very close by.”
It is a tight-knit community where neighbors watch out for one another and are both protective and proud of their town’s most famous celebrity.
Roe Messner grew up in Waldron. He buried Tammy Faye’s ashes next to his mother, Nellie. When it is his time, Messner – who is in his eighth decade – said he will be buried next to Tammy Faye.
“That’s our family plot,” Roe Messner said Tuesday. “I buried her next to my dad and mother. My little brother is buried there.
“The press never did know Tammy. It is a shame what the press had to say. She was not anything at all about what has been written.”
Harold Waldschmidt, the cemetery sexton, said he’s seen the lipstick and mascara when he mows.
“I don’t bother it,” he said. “I feel like that is a personal thing.”
‘She was so sharp’
In the late stages of the failing Heritage USA and PTL empire, Tammy Faye was often portrayed on TV in tears, mascara running down her cheeks. She divorced Jim Bakker in 1992 while he was in prison for defrauding millions of his followers and after his widely publicized infidelity with Jessica Hahn.
In the meantime, Messner – who had been the chief builder of the Heritage USA theme park – was convicted of bankruptcy fraud and spent two years in prison.
Tammy Faye married Messner in 1993. In 2004, she appeared on the reality show “The Surreal Life” and re-emerged as a television and cult personality, this time embracing gay men infected with the AIDS virus and appearing alongside ex-porn-star Ron Jeremy.
Her faith never wavered through controversy or failing health.
“You wouldn’t believe when Tammy passed away, you know those big mail sacks?” Messner asked. “I got 12 mail sacks the week she died. It was literally thousands and thousands of sympathy cards.
“She was the most common, down-to-earth person you ever saw. The press always made her out to be some nitwit type of person. She was totally different. Her IQ was 165. She was so sharp and different than everybody thought she was.”
Even now, he said, people will sometimes write and say they have visited her graveside.
“I was down there this summer, and I could see several people there had left stuff,” he said.
Getting to Waldron, which is about 95 miles southwest of Wichita and nearly on top of the Oklahoma state line, requires back-roads determination.
Washboard roads slow SUVs to covered-wagon speeds. There are seldom any road signs, and cellphone coverage is spotty.
“You have to be kind of familiar with the area,” Nelson, the town’s mayor, acknowledged. “Some roads you can’t take all the way.”
She pointed recent visitors down the road and to the right, to the unmarked cemetery.
“I’m tickled to death,” Nelson said of people who come to visit.
“I never did meet Tammy Faye, but I always heard stories about her,” Nelson said.