It’s Berney Seal night in Corpus Christi, and 350 Berneymaniacs have packed a bay front hotel ballroom, eager to roast my father, crusading realtor and local pro-growth TV-news evangelist Berney Seal. Protestants and Jews, Hispanics and Anglos, priests and politicos, insurance agents and con artists—all the characteristics of his vainglorious life—are giving Berney a taste of what he’s given them in his 29 blustery years in Texas’ sleepiest major metropolis.
“Berney,” says then-mayor Betty Turner, “is what you get if you cross Joan Rivers with Jaws.”
As usual, my dad gets the last laugh. When he finally takes the podium—245 pounds of rowdy Texas realtor on a rampage—the preceding jokesters seem like amateurs. A hurricane of humor, he gusts gale-strength on politics, business, local issues—all the inside jokes of this insular town. “Laugh on,” he commands his audience, who rise up to embrace him with what Berney calls the clap-laugh, riotous laughter that explodes into applause. It should be a supreme moment. But while he couches his life in comedy, Berney Seal is at war.
Hurricanes, floods, lost elections, and his real estate signs and house foundations sinking and cracking in the black gumbo ground…my father has survived the plagues of Corpus Christi. But the current economy is about to kill him. After arriving in 1962 with nothing more than a suitcase and a dream, he has become Corpus Christi’s mightiest residential realtor, a superstar in his own back yard. But faced with a dwindling sales force, sliding annual home sales, and such a slow market that foreclosures are often the only properties moving in the tropical breeze, he finds that his fame is frequently more a burden than a blessing.
“Business is so bad,” he tells his audience, “I’ve spent six months writing this speech.”
The way Berney sees it, Corpus has one chance for greatness, and its name is Berney Seal. Tonight is yet another whistle-stop in his campaign for what he calls the Great Awakening of a new Corpus Christi, a city of endless wealth and opportunity, the Miami, the Las Vegas, the Hong Kong of the new Texas.
Once, Corpus could ignore him or merely vote against him—this flashy, charismatic super salesman and thrice-failed city government candidate who stars in his won TV commercials (“Berney Seal—a House Sold Word!”). But now Daddy has a forum, a four-year-old two-minute news spot called Berney’s Second Opinion, and old conservative Corpus is running for cover. Twice a week on KRIS-TV Channel 6, the NBC affiliate, he glares out at his city through aviator glasses, gesturing with monogrammed cuffs and diamond-encrusted Rolex, ranting, raving, a lone salesman baying at they bay front for the good times to return.
“Have you ever noticed that when something really good is about to happen to our city, somebody comes along to screw it up?” he groans on TV. He paints a portrait of his city as Texas’ Cinderella stepchild, ignored by progress, tax dollars, and newcomers. He compares Corpus’s economically war-torn downtown to Beirut. He calls Corpus’ stretch of Padre Island the Forgotten National Seashore. He laughs that the only way to go international from Corpus Christi International Airport “is to taxi to the end of the runway, then jump out and catch a bus to Mexico.” With his viewers humbled, he calls them to arms. “We need a yuppie invasion in Corpus Christi!” he cries, advocating economic development, taxes, bonds, windsurfing festivals, RV parks, and, since he is a board member and former chairman of the Corpus Christi Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, such a phenomenal onslaught of tourist attractions that the big-city behemoths—San Antonio, Houston, Dallas—will look south in utter envy. To arms!
The applause is deafening as Berney ends tonight’s verbal assault with a zinger. “Do y’all remember my son Mark?” he asks. “Mark attended every college in the south. But he still hasn’t realized that Corpus Christi is his home.”
How appropriate that he concludes with me, the eldest of his three sons, the only Seal who resides outside of Corpus, outside the force field of Berney. For years he has been trying to convert me—from writer to realtor, from Dallasite to Corpus Christian—as desperately as he has tried to convert his own town to his views. “Mark’s the son who got away,” he laments. Which is more than he can say for himself. Because Berney can never get away from Corpus Christi, the city whose destiny has become forever fused with his own. When my father was young, Corpus laid its bountiful gifts at his vagabond feet. But now Berney Seal is 63, Corpus is still shaking off the oil bust, and the city’s struggle has become more than a metaphor of my father’s life. It is his life. In order for Berney Seal to succeed, so must Corpus Christi. And he has so little time.
“What can’t get up, can’t get out,” Berney booms at my bedside.
Six in the morning on a Corpus Christi Saturday, and my dad is waking me up to accompany him on his day. I don’t think he has ever slept past five-thirty or stopped cursing those who do. “Sleepers!” he roars. “Sleepers all suffer from bad backs: Their backs are stuck to the bed sheet. There ain’t nothing in that bed after six o’clock, Mark. Get up, if you’re coming with me.”
Rising, I feel as if I’m in a Berney Seal museum, for my father’s home is a temple of totems that testify to his local fame. It’s his thirtieth Corpus Christi home. “Like a car dealer, a realtor always sells his demonstrator,” he tells people. He lives here with his third wife, Gail, who has long served as the stabilizing rudder in his turbulent life and has decorated their home in a Hollywood-glitz-meets-Berneymania style. The swimming pool fence is lined with campaign signs from the 1980 mayoral race (Snoopy on a rooftop, proclaiming, “Happiness is Berney Seal for Mayor”) and a giant neon sign from his disco-era nightclub called—what else?—Berney’s. Walking