In July, Jerry Russell, the founder of Fort Worth’s Stage West theater, got a new title.
As a teenager, Russell explained, his older daughter had liked to tell customers at the theater’s cafe, where she worked as a waitress, that she was “Jerry’s daughter.” But that had changed for good on June 25, when Wendy Davis, now a Democratic state senator, gave an eleven-hour filibuster that made headlines around the country and gave her father, a well-known figure in Fort Worth’s arts community, a totally different kind of renown.
“People who come to the theater go, ‘Oh my God, you’re Wendy’s father!’” Russell continued, with evident pride. “And that’s the way it is.”
Davis is scheduled to announce her plan for the 2014 elections tomorrow, and it’s widely expected that her plan is to run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Speculation to that effect has been swirling for months; even before the filibuster, she was thought to be considering a run.
The announcement itself might have been made last month, if not for a sad and unexpected turn of events. In August, Russell was hospitalized after undergoing emergency abdominal surgery and contracting pneumonia. He died on September 5, at age 77.
On July 9, however, over the course of a late-night telephone interview, he spoke ebulliently about his daughter’s childhood, her challenges, her political career thus far, and his “absolute awe” of her during the filibuster that vaulted her into the national spotlight.
Russell was from Rhode Island, and was living there when he met Davis’s mother, who was from Texas. He worked for many years at the National Cash Register Company (NCR). Davis was born in Rhode Island, and the family lived in several states before settling in Fort Worth. When the parents divorced, in the mid-1970s, Davis and her siblings–two older brothers and a younger sister–stayed with their mother. Davis has remembered those years as difficult ones for the family, and Russell, for his part, said that he had seen less of his children during that period than he would have liked. But after he left the National Cash Register Company to open Stage West, he explained, he had more opportunities to see his daughter, and the two became close again.
This interview has been abridged and edited for clarity.
So you moved to Fort Worth in 1973 and you started the theater in 1979. Can you tell me about Wendy’s childhood?
Being the first girl in the family, she got older quickly. She became like the second mother hen. Wendy was always a very nurturing child. I often thought that she would be a great obstetrician–at one time she expressed interest in doing that. She worked for an obstetrician for a while, and for a while she was pretty passionate about that possibility before she headed off into the direction of law.
How did the move from Rhode Island to Texas shape her?
You know, maybe that is a question for her, but I don’t remember for her or any of the other kids being unusual or out of the ordinary. Fort Worth’s a bit different than Dallas, as you know, and we lived in North Richland Hills. Richland Hills was a good, middle class-type area, and it was populated by really good kids and working families. It was not an uncomfortable situation, so I don’t think they ever felt out of place.
What were her high school years like?
She was always a really good student. She was always an ‘A’ student. She did a little singing in the chorus. Not too much extracurricular activity. Wendy was always just solid as a rock. She was always one of those children that–you knew that you didn’t have to pester her to do her work, or to achieve, or to want to be good at things. You never had to push her in that direction. She’s always been that way.
Did she read a lot growing up?
I don’t know what’s “a lot”. We were not a big book-reading family, I can say that, but I’m sure she did, at least in relation to schoolwork. Some, but I don’t think you could classify it as a hobby.
Wendy has described her own biography as being one of those high school students “who fell through the cracks,” her mother working at Braum’s, and living in a trailer park. How do you view her own description of her life?
She is who she is, I promise you that. The whole situation with the mother working at Braum’s–that’s all true. See, her mother and I split up somewhere around late ‘74, early ’75, and the kids lived with their mother. Their mother still lives in that house. But Wendy is exactly who she appears to be. And I think that the thing that really set her apart–and why she’s so passionate about it–none of us, myself included, had ever graduated from college. Wendy was the first.
When she finally started to gain an interest in higher education, beyond high school, she started taking classes at junior college, and it’s like a whole ‘nother world started to open up to her. To then get the opportunity to move on to a full four-year-type institution, once she managed to shift over to TCU–she just continued to excel. She was in the honors English program at TCU and graduated there with a 4.0 average, so that kind of gives you an idea about what I’m saying. Whatever position you put her in since childhood, she was going to excel.
Did Wendy and her siblings live with her mother or did they live with you?
They stayed with their mother. That’s the whole part of the story where she says she was raised by a single mother. For those years of her life was absolutely correct.
Did you see the kids a lot growing up?
I didn’t see them as much as I would like to have. But I was always a presence in