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 from living room to master bedroom, one can view photographs of Berney through the ages: from seventies motorcycle madness to eighties campaign conservatism to nineties local TV stardom. But what sums him up best is a sign in his living room. In swirling purple neon, it spells out the word “Hollywood.” That is the one-word creed of Berney Seal, a comedian who dreamed of going to Hollywood but landed in Corpus Christi instead. Life, according to Berney, is show business. Wherever you are, boldly perform like you’re in Hollywood, and you’ll live like a star. I pause to ponder this a moment, when he appears besides me, wearing his Saturday blue jeans and a ring that flashes his initials—B.S.—in diamonds. Like Rocky, he has the eye of the tiger and the temperament of an agitated bear. “You aren’t dressed yet?” he asks. “Come on! Everybody’s waiting at T&C.”
T&C. That’s how Corpus businessmen begin their day, in the red Naugahyde booths of the Town and Country Restaurant. For twenty years, my father has reigned over an all-male T&C breakfast club, building a better Corpus over coffee and giant “fluffles,” his name for the biggest, fluffiest biscuits in town. Speaking of jargon, to understand Berney Seal, you must first learn his language, a curious code between him and his Corpus cronies, a hybrid of Yiddish, Spanish, and just plain country-boy slang. An introductory glossary might include: “taste” (Berney’s term for sex, as in, “Whenever you see a couple sitting on the same side of an otherwise empty booth at T&C, you know they had a taste last night”) “trash” (to belittle); “spice” (beautiful woman, with the adjective for anything he admires being “spicy”); and “heartbreak” (to divorce).
Berney’s language is not always complimentary. Best of all, he loves to trash opponents, especially the “Aginners,” his term for the elderly, retired, fixed-income masses, “masters of innuendo and misinformation,” the highly vocal minority that Berney contends has long kept Corpus sleeping. Circulating petitions at shopping malls and restaurants, the Aginners work by referendum, and with the signatures of 5 percent of the city’s registered voters, they can force an issue to a ballot. Not surprisingly, the Aginners are against everything Berney Seal is for. Once, the passed tax caps and abatements as easily as passing a Geritol bottle. Now they must endure the TV wrath of Berney Seal.
“I’m like Nostradamus, the man who saw tomorrow, or a reverse Paul Revere—the redcoats have come and they’re among us,” he says bounding into his gold Suburban. The vehicle symbolizes his new austerity and his dogged fight for survival, compared with his flash-in-your face years of commanding the streets in a white Rolls Royce with BERNEY emblazoned on the license plates. When he cranks up his engine at six-thirty in the morning, his battle for Corpus Christi is already raging. “God almighty, Mark, we’re at war!” he shouts. “But remember this, my son: Everything in its time. Corpus will come back, and when it does, I’ll kill ‘em like I’ve never done before.”
At his usual table in T&C, Berney’s first audience of the day is waiting. Huddled around steaming mugs of coffee are several realtors, an insurance agent, a district judge, an oilman, the police chief, the café’s owner, a gaggle of giggling waitresses, and my two brothers, realtors Eddie Seal and B. J. Seal Jr. In the high rolling seventies, members of this breakfast club printed T-shirts with their own logo, the Rolex crown insignia rising in the steam of a coffee cup. Today, with most of their Rolexes gone, they mark time with endless talk about a single subject: Corpus Christi. The men open—“Great speech last night, Berney. Boy, did you trash ‘em!”—and Berney closes, flashing his famous grin. “Can y’all believe that the Aginners are griping about that poster?” he asks pointing to the city’s Spring Break poster, which features a couple in skimpy beachwear striking a belly-to-belly lambda pose. “The Aginners say they’re rubbing their genitals together. But what do they want instead? A poster of a seventy-five-year-old couple wearing leisure suits and getting crapped on by the sea gulls?”
Invigorated by the laughter, we leave T&C and drive a block and a half to Berney’s office at 601 Everhart Road. Entering his Hall of Horns, a two-story lobby filled with wildlife heads, he checks his office’s pulse. With only 1 salesman out of 23 present, the office is barely breathing. “Oooongaowa!”Berney bellows. “Where is everybody? Boy, I’m tired…and the goddam caribou’s crooked.” He glances at me, then at a ladder, and commands, “Mark, you’re the only one who can jump up there and fix it.” Atop the ladder, I see yet another credo, on a poster with a quote from Macbeth: “Send out more horses. Skirr the country ‘round. Hang those that talk of fear. Give me mine armor.” Berney asks, “What does it mean? It means we’re gonna attack! Real estate is a game of numbers. Whoever can capture the most houses to sell, wins. My trouble is, we have the general, but we don’t have the troops.”
His mission is to return Corpus to the glory years of 1970 to 1984, when Corpus Christi real estate really was show business. Spicy agents! Gung-ho clients! Hollywood cars! Fabulous commissions! He stares at a group picture of his 1976 sales force, a road gang of sixty hip young realtors wearing Berney Seal Company T-shirts. “That was the most successful sales team in Corpus Christi history!” he shouts. “But it wasn’t the team. It was the real estate climate. There were so many people coming to town with big money from the oil business that anybody could get a listing. If a gorilla could drive a Cadillac and hold a multiple listings book, he could sell a house. But when things got tight, everybody got scared. They went back to selling shoes. They went back to being teachers, nurses, insurance agents. They went back to doing nothing.”
I snicker, “And this is show business?”
“It is,” he says sternly, “If you treat it like show business, that’s what it becomes. Trying to get a listing is like an audition. If I win, my name goes up on the house. And believe this, my son, I can set their ass on fire! You get me inside that door, and I can make ‘em do most anything. I have a ninety-six percent kill ratio inside the door. When they hear me, they don’t remember anybody else lives. Why? Berneymania. People love the talk, the style, the flair. I got that rap! When I go get a listing, I keep asking for the order. Then I get real quiet. And the first one who breaks the silence is the loser. I’ll say, ‘Will you lemme sell it? Will you lemme sell it?’ Then, I stop talking. You know what happens? The go like this: ‘Ahhhhhhhh.’ Like air leaking out of an inner tube. And then they say, almost whispering, ‘Yeah, I guess so.’”
Ahhhhhhh! My brain is on fire. A few hours with Berney Seal is like years in analysis. He calls this process “breaking ‘em down.” It’s a period of emphatic preaching, followed by comedic interrogation, during which even total strangers tell Berney their innermost thoughts and emotions. Today I am among the broken, a victim of his voice. It’s like a whirlpool, exhausting me, then sucking me into his opinions. This is what he is doing to his city.
“What could we do in Corpus Christi that would cause us to dance in the streets of downtown?” Berney’s voice is booming in his Hunt and Taste Room, a den full of deer heads (from the hunt) and lounging sofas (for the taste). The image on the screen, however, is perhaps my father’s greatest achievement—Berney Seal on television, the showman as shaman. Taking a quick lunch break on this sunny noon, he is airing reruns of his Second Opinions—two-minute prime-time instructions on building a better Corpus Christi, each ending with his now-classic tag line, “And that’s the way it oughta be.”
Berney’s Second Opinion’s greatest hits include diatribes on Corpus Christi’s statewide record of DWI’s the arrest and jailing of the entire Robstown city council for trying to diver utility funds into the city coffers, Donald Trump’s movidas (“mistresses”), and, most frequently, local politics and his kamikaze war cry to rebuild Corpus’ sluggish economy. “We have a community with low self-esteem!” he tells me, watching himself on television. “They say, ‘why can’t we become Houston or Dallas or San Antonio?’ I say we can become whatever we want to be. L.A. Texas. “Someday,” he taunted old Corpus on the tube, “we’ll come back and see how you died.”
Demanding equal time, the Aginners appeared on Channel 6 on Third Opinion, borrowing from Shakespeare (“Berney, we think thou dost protest too much!”) and attacking his pro-growth philosophy. One Aginner ever showed of his cashmere coat and Rolex, snarling, “See Berney, I don’t always wear a leisure suit.”
This afternoon, Berney gives me the names of two top Aginners, encouraging me to judge them for myself. After the first Aginner declines an interview, I visit the residence of Phil Rosenstein, 66, a petition-circulating, newsletter-writing retired merchant marine. In his living room, Rosenstein watches a video tape of Berney’s Second Opinion reruns and tells me how my father is out to destroy his town. “You ask me what I’m for. Really the question should be what I’m against.”
What’s he against? The developer mentality of Berney Seal. Berney “slanders” the elderly interest groups, pronouncing the $50,000 tax exemption on residential real estate for the over-65 as a “greed tax,” Rosenstein says. Berney would “devastate” Ocean Drive with high-rise condominiums. Berney calls referendum a waste of time, “exactly what Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Manuel Noriega said,” Rosenstein declares. “Thank God there was no Berney’s Second Opinion when a group of Aginners signed the Declaration of Independence, or we might not be free today.”
Driving across the Harbor Bridge, the soaring span that connects downtown with the dingy strip-centers of Portland and Gregory, Berney recalls the day he arrived in Corpus in a silver Corvette convertible. He was fleeing a family retailing business in Alabama, heading to Hollywood to become a comedian. But then he saw Corpus Christi. “I came to Corpus in 1962 and thought I was in Miami!” he says. I came across this bridge and saw this bay, and I knew. I felt like Christopher Columbus discovering America. I felt, at thirty-three, like Ponce de Leon when he found the Fountain of Youth. The minute I crossed that bridge, I was starting a whole new life. I knew nobody, and nobody knew me. And I could become whatever I wanted to be.”
He sent for his family a few months later. A couple of plane rides and we were there, trundling into town in our matching blue blazers—three baby bumpkins staring wide-eyed at our flat, arid, new homeland. Only hours before, we had been celebrated scions of Alabama’s leading merchant family. Now we were nothing but the newest immigrants off the highway. I was appalled at what I saw. Where were the cowboys? The saloons? I saw nothing but taco stands, strip centers, and strangers. During our “Welcome Home!” lunch at Luby’s cafeteria, I cried in my strawberry shortcake until it tasted salty. Who were we, and what were we about to become? We went from living in a three-bedroom home in an Alabama pine forest on McBerney Drive, filled with maids, friends, and relatives, to a cramped, one-bedroom efficiency apartment on Lazy Lane, where the salt air cracked like a bullwhip against the thin walls. I can still smell the musty air of loneliness in Sam Houston Elementary, my first Corpus Christi school, but I can’t remember a single classmate. Like my daddy, I knew nobody and nobody knew me.
That was about to change. Upon taking a sales job at KEYS radio and selling his first ad, Berney Seal realized he was born for street selling. Two months and two school changes after leaving Alabama, we moved into our second Corpus Christi home, a two-bedroom rent house at 941 Shephard Drive.
“And here it is,” says Berney, pulling up to a house that today seems no bigger than a cracker box. It is fitting that there is a Berney Seal sign in its front yard, for this is where fate made my father a realtor. One Sunday morning 28 years ago, trying to raise cash, Berney parked his mother’s 1962 Buick Wildcat on this same lawn with a For Sale sign in its windshield. He had quit the radio station. And although he had passed a real estate course, without a broker to sponsor him he was, for all purposes, unemployed.
But then he found his first prospect. A man came to buy the Wildcat and casually mentioned that his recently widowed niece needed a new house fast. Berney took the Wildcat-buyer’s niece and his new license to the instructor of his real estate course, a broker named Vaugh Bowen. The woman bought a $17,500 house; Berney received a $500 commission and a job with Vaugh Bowen Sales. He says, “I came home and told Evelyn, ‘Honey, I’m in the real estate business. I just made more money in one day than I used to make in a month!’”
Berney Seal quickly reinvented Corpus real estate. “I sold six houses straight!” he exclaims. “I made so much money, I went out and bough myself a Lincoln Continental. Oh, man. White, with those doors that opened backwards. Like LBJ’s Lincoln. And someone said, “Berney, you shouldn’t be driving a car like that! You ought to be driving a Chevrolet, so you look like you need the business.’ And I said, ‘Bullshit. I need the biggest goddam Lincoln I can find, and people will remember me because I look successful. Because if you look successful, you are.”
As the Suburban slices through the city where everything is for sale, I have a vision of a moving van, the predominant vehicle of our vagabond life. With Berney’s first sale, we became real estate children, forever in transit. We discovered the city by Mayflower, moving up in status and square footage every time a new contract was signed. Our father was our Moses. With a Berney Seal Company Realtors sign slung across his should and “Thou shalt sell” as his chief commandment, he led us across the desert, always promising that a land of milk and honey lay on the other side of the For Sale sign. Someday, he swore, he’d move us all the way to Hollywood, a vow I desperately wanted to believe. Why? Berneymania, I guess. He was just so damned funny. “What are the three biggest lies of real estate?” he loved to ask us. “My momma’s gonna give me the down payment. The escrow check’s in the mail. And I’ve never done this in an empty house before.”
He parks before our third Corpus Christi home, a brick ranch-style at 509 Fairfield. “I moved my payments up from $100 to $157 a month,” he says. “But I was always looking over there.” He motions to a low-slung pink wall across Alameda Street, the wall enclosing what was once Corpus’s most privileged enclave: South Shores Estates. “I was always saying, ‘We gotta get HTW! ‘Hind the wall!” In those days, when you were ‘hind the way, where else was there to go? Four years after moving to Corpus Christi, we were there.”
Oh, how I remember the move, the grab for greatness. In typical Hollywood-in-South-Texas style, Mr. and Mrs. Berney Seal and sons arrived ‘hind the wall, a moving van trailing Berney’s great Lyndon-esque Lincoln. But the white Lincoln wasn’t Berney’s only LBJ-style accoutrement. He soon sported an 18-carat-gold Rolex Presidential watch, “just like Lyndon’s.” He monogrammed his shirts “just like Lyndon.” And, yes, Berney had a mistress, just like Lyndon, too.
Driving behind the now-crumbling wall toward our fourth Corpus home, Berney passes a white brick adobe, where the woman who sparked the breakup of his marriage to my mother once lived. “She was twenty-eight, I was thirty-eight,” he sighs. “She was what I always liked: spicy, hard-charging. But she had two children, and every time I looked at her two, I realized what I ‘d done to you three, and every time she looked at my three…Oh hell, the marriage lasted seventeen months, and I must have left her seventeen times.”
This is the end of our tour because that was the end of our life as a traditional family. After all, when you were HTW, where else could you go? In our case, it was DIVORCE. My mother, brothers, and I moved to Memphis, Tennessee. But the distance didn’t divorce us from our Dad. Visiting Corpus Christi every Christmas and summer, my brothers and I dined on the abundant fruits of Berney Seal’s success. By the early seventies, he drove a white convertible Cadillac Eldorado, ravaged the streets on a Harley, owned Berney’s nightclub, and had lived in more than fifteen houses.
During those heady years my father’s club was frequented by Mr. Louie, the proprietor of Mr. Louie’s Wig city. Working as a teenage dishwasher at Berney’s one summer, I confided to Louie my interest in a certain waitress. Oh hell, not just any waitress. She was the queen: luxurious black hair, saucy personality, and a wondrous body that the bartenders swore once graced the pages of Playboy. One day, Dad and I were kibitzing in Mr. Louie’s Wig City (“If your hair is not becoming to you, you should be coming to us!” Louie proclaimed on his own TV commercials), when she walked in, white go-go boots clicking as fast as my wildly palpitating heart.
“Want a free wig?” Louie asked her.
“Sure!” she said.
“Then give the boy a taste.”
That night in her bedroom, where Mr. Louie’s wigs lined the walls, I reveled in a wonderland of lava lamps, black lights, and X-rated ceiling posters. The next night at Berney’s, my daddy rigged the dance contest and let me win. Drunk on myself, I roared out of the parking lot with my dance partner in the Formula 400 Firebird that Berney had bought me and promptly got run off the road and beaten up by a carload of cowboys on McArdle Road. When I returned to Berney’s, bloodied, my dad and his cronies celebrated me as if I were Michael Corleone after getting punched by the corrupt police captain in The Godfather. In two days, I had passed the tests of sex and violence. I was Berney Seal’s oldest son, a Texan in the proud Bonanza tradition.
But then I ran. I ran from what I knew awaited me in Corpus Christi. I ran from Texas. I ran from my father and what he expected me to become. I joined what he considered to be the wimpiest profession imaginable. “A writer?” he gasped. Who was I going to emulate? Truman Capote? For years, he shadowed me like a bounty hunter, valiantly striving to bring me back alive to join my brothers in real estate. And in Corpus Christi.
A few years later, I had to return. I was the spring of 1975, and Berney Seal was close to death. His high-stress Hollywood lifestyle, combined with a severe case of gluttony, had ballooned his weight beyond three hundred pounds. Plagued for years with bleeding ulcers, his belly finally cried uncle. I found him in the intensive-care ward, three-quarters of his stomach removed, his mammoth body still, his raging voice silent. He was 46—the same age his father had been when he died—and for the first time, I felt his tempestuous blood stampeding through my veins. We Seals are a family of wheelers and dealers, an immigrant tribe forever wandering in a wilderness we have to sell our way out of. Although our voices serve as our survival weapons, intimate chats have never been our style. But as the loudest link in this crazy heritage drifted in and out of consciousness, Berney and I talked as we had never talked before, like a father and a son. That night I realized how much I loved him. And when he rose from his hospital bed a couple of weeks later, he realized something too: After seventeen years of taking from Corpus Christi, Berney decided the time had now come to give.
In early evening Berney marches onto the lawn of a house he has sold three times over the last 29 years, ready to brand it with yet another For Sale sign. “Another repo,” he says. “Another heartbreak.” He sticks the signpost into the black ground and hits it with a ten-pound mallet. “You know, sometimes I wonder: At eighty years old, am I still gonna be pounding these signs into the ground?” he asks, considering the specter and liking it.
Back at his office, he shows me a final totem, his portrait on a mid-seventies Corpus Christi Board of Realtors poster, complete with the bio line “Community Service: none.” “I had done no community service!” he says. “And I told Gail, ‘I’m tired of being known as a person who only has something to sell and nothing to give. I’m gonna change my image in this community.’ And I worked at it. I volunteered for charities. I volunteered for economic development groups.”
And community service led him into a new spotlight: politics. He worked his first Corpus campaign from the sidelines, backing an ex-cop’s run for sheriff. “I figured if he was sheriff, he’d put me on the posse,” he explains. But when his candidate lost, Berney’s political future stalled. Then he stepped into the arena himself. In 1980 the salesman who came to Corpus knowing no one ran for mayor. “It’s time to give back to Corpus Christi some of what she has given me,” he vowed in his campaign brochures. His platform? Reduce taxes, attract clean industry, sell unsold bonds, promote tourism, and live up to the city’s own exaggerated hype as the Texas Riviera.
His political style was Hollywood flash. His handlers urged him to surrender his extra-spicy white Rover sports car and Rolex for the campaign. But the candidate refused to temper his Hollywood fire. “They said, ‘Get rid of it and get a pickup truck. You look like Batman,’” Berney remembers. “And I said, ‘I am what I am. I’ll never be a pickup truck and a leisure suit.’”
But the flash killed him at the polls. Furor swirled around his campaign war chest—a Corpus record $187,000 in donations. When Berney lost by equally inflated numbers and was later trounced in two city council races, the message was clear: The town comedian ain’t gonna be king.
“They’ll never know what they missed,” he says, as his long real estate day settles into an equally rambunctious night. “But lemme tell you something. Losing matured me. I may not be the most popular boy in the senior class, but I’m certainly in the top three or four; I have ninety-six-point-five percent name recognition in Corpus Christi. You know what I had before I ran for office? Eight percent! Hey, if fifteen thousand people voted for me, that’s an army.” And soon he discovered a way to call his army to war.
Now Berney not only has taken his let’s-get-growing cause to TV but he has personally hit the road. As the most vocal board member of the Corpus Christi Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, he travels across America and Mexico, selling groups on bringing Corpus their industries, conventions, meetings, and services.
Several months after our Corpus visit, my dad has come to Dallas, accompanied by two women associates, determined to win for Corpus Christi the 1993 convention of the Republican women, an affluent crowd of 1,600, capable of bringing $7 million into the city. Having narrowed down their list from a long field of candidate cities, the Republican women would now vote on a winner from two finalists. Corpus’ opponent? Arlington, the Texas tourism giant, home of Six Flags, a city whose motto is “Deep in the heart of everything.”
When the man from the middle of nowhere steps into the Radisson Hotel ballroom, the fight for the Republicans is raging. Arlington is going all-out to woo votes. The city’s reps throw a cocktail party. The place long-stemmed roses on each delegate’s pillow. The toss a Coke and cookie buffet before the two cities make their back-to-back thirty-minute pitches. Corpus Christi is armed with only two weapons: a ten-minute video and the nonstop mouth of Bernie Seal.
While the Arlington group makes its pitch, we stand outside the ballroom and eavesdrop. “They’re pushing kids’ stuff! Wet n’ Wild and Texas Ranger baseball and Six Flags,” Berney whispers incredulously, listening to the speaker. “Duuuuull. How can you pitch Six Flags to a mature group of Republican women? I’m gonna get up there and ask, ‘Do y’all wanna shoot dice and bet on the dogs? Or ride down a log flume?”
“No Berney!” admonishes one of his associates. “Don’t trash ‘em.”
“Don’t trash ‘em,” he asks, wild-eyed. “When I get through making my speech, I’m gonna own ‘em. What should I open with? How about the bit about our airlines? If they ask me if Corpus has enough air transportation, I’ll say, ‘Well, I just flew in from Corpus Christi, and boy, are my arms tired.’”
His associates are nervous. But when Berney struts into the ballroom, to the strains of the video’s Rocky-styled theme song, the crowd switches moods, from somber to celebratory. First comes the video. “Put the wind back in your sales!” it exclaims, depicting a city on the move. Amenities unlimited! The most beautiful ocean drive in Texas! Sixty varieties of sports fishing! Forty-five-mile-per-hour dogs! Ranches as big as Rhode Island! A wonderland of palm trees, seafood, cavorting dolphins, hard bodies, and endless summer. “Look how sunny!” a Republican woman squeals.
Berney watches the video as if saluting a flag, then takes to the podium with passion. “I came to Corpus in 1962 and thought I was in Miami,” he says. “When I drove across that Harbor Bridge and saw the palm trees and the bay front, it was everything I’d ever seen in a postcard. I should also say that I’m a realtor. So if you ever need a house…
Mild laughter revs up Berney’s stage persona. “We’ve got dog racing!” he shouts. “We’re getting cruise ship gambling! On the cruise ship I went on, I watched a guy win $31,000! And you know what? I tried to marry him!”
Now the laughs are sprinkled with sporadic applause. “What about air transportation?” one of the women asks.
Berney can’t resist. “Well, I just flew in from Corpus today, and boy, are my arms tired.”
Later in the day, Berney is rejoicing. “We got it!” he exclaims. “The Arlington group died. The women said we were just more presentable, more exciting. We covered ‘em in spice!” Back home, real estate prices are falling, more Aginners are coming to power, and his youngest son, B. J. Seal Jr., is fleeing Corpus Christi for Dallas. But Berney Seal is one sale closer to revitalizing Corpus, and, thus, himself. “Now,” he tells his associates in the flush of his Dallas victory. “Get me some bigger crowds.”