In this story from September 1971, talk-show host Mike Douglas shares how his brother taught him to pray.
- Posted on Mar 20, 2014
Some boys grow up resenting an outstanding older brother. That isn’t the way it was in my family. My older brother Bob was a star in everything he did and he was my hero. He was my special champion and protector. He still is, though that takes some explaining.
There were three of us: Bob, who was five years older than I, my sister, Helen, two years older; and I was the baby. We were all scrappy, healthy Irish kids growing up on Chicago’s west side during the Depression years, though having no money didn’t seem to have much meaning for us then.
My father, who worked for the Canadian Pacific railroad, was away from home a lot, which may be one reason why early in the game Bob assigned himself the job of watching over me. I never thought I needed watching over, but he did, and there were times when I was not sorry.
Bob was big and tough and kind and had a wild temper that could work for my advantage or disadvantage. One of my favorite memories is of the day an English bulldog charged at me as I was walking home from school one afternoon.
The dog’s owner was sitting on his porch and I went up and told him he ought to keep his dog on a chain. The man got so mad that he slapped me. Boy, was it exciting when I told Bob! He did some charging of his own.
I can still see him standing on the man’s porch, that terrible temper steaming, the man peering out but refusing, wisely, to come out.
There was another time though when some pals and I were out joy-riding and we dropped into a honky-tonk.
Somebody saw me there and told Bob and the next day Bob got hold of me and shook me and sat me down and told me exactly why I was not to go into such places. And if I ever went again, and he found out, he said, the shaking I had just survived would seem like child’s play. The point was well taken.
Bob was directly responsible for the greatest thrill of my childhood. He was 17 and a basketball star playing with the Question Marks–that’s what they called their team–and I was 12 and sitting admiringly on the sidelines during a big tournament.
The Question Marks came down to the final minute with a decisive lead when suddenly Bob left the game. He came over to me and shoved me onto the floor in his place. The ball was passed to me, I took aim and scored!
Most kids just dream about things like that but Bob had the touch for making them come true.
We were a sports-mad family and athletics were the biggest thing in my life until the afternoon mom took me downtown to a vaudeville show at the Chicago Theater. That’s the day the show business bug bit. By the time I was in my middle teens I was picking up money on local singing dates.
Before I was out of my teens I was working on an Oklahoma City radio station, WKY, and it was there in Oklahoma that I met Genevieve and we were married. She was a sophomore in high school and I was 19.
The years passed, and though I was only intermittently in Chicago and our life styles were utterly different, Bob and I remained close. He married, fathered five children, worked as a tile salesman.
He came to be an effective and popular member of his community, as I knew he would, and a strong member of his church. I used to look with respect at the way he conducted his life.
On the other hand, like so many other show business people, I spent the years struggling, hoping, angling for the big break. Eventually it came, but not until I was 35.
From 19 to 35 is a lot of years of waiting; that’s a lot of food cooked in hotel rooms and a lot of pants pressed by Gen in cramped backstages. It’s a lot of maneuvering to keep our twin daughters and Gen and me together as a real family, the way Bob’s family was.
When the break came, Gen and I had almost decided to give up show business–we had an infant daughter then, Kelly–and Gen and I were both taking real estate courses in a California night school.
Once The Mike Douglas Show came into being, however, I worked like a demon. I drove myself like a machine to make sure that what I had achieved for us did not get away.
One reason I didn’t trust the meaning of the TV ratings and the publicity and the money coming in was that I seemed to be living on a treadmill. It was exhausting.
Life as a TV star wasn’t that rich, it wasn’t that enjoyable or satisfying, even though in subtle, sneaky ways I began to be pleased by the power that TV success can bring. Yet I was to learn that it can be a deceptive power. I was to learn it suddenly.
In September, 1969, we faced one of those crises that most people think happen only to other families. Bob went into MacNeal Memorial Hospital in Berwyn, Illinois, for an operation. The doctors suspected cancer.
Mother and Dad were on their way to his bedside when their car was struck by a mail truck. Mother was hurt seriously in the crash and an ambulance rushed her to the very same hospital where Bob lay gravely ill.
And so it was that there in MacNeal Memorial Hospital, mother on one floor, Bob on another, the family gathered. It became a time for whispering, for deep thoughts and long silences, a time for looking hard at life and at oneself with fresh curiosity.
The word came for certain that mother would be all right. She was in traction and she was in pain, but she was safe. Bob was not. He was dying.
I paced the halls of the hospital in confusion. I was fully aware that this was my chance, at last, to reverse the roles: This was my opportunity to be Bob’s champion and protector. But I was powerless.
During that night I came to terms with some of the subtleties of success and power that I had been grappling with. The very day I had left the show in Philadelphia to fly to Chicago, I honestly had the feeling that I could do something. I could get the best surgeons. I had money and connections…
But I was powerless.
I can’t remember how I happened to do it or what made me do it, but somewhere in the middle of those long walks down antiseptic corridors, I began to pray. I knew little about prayer. It had never been like me to rush to churches and light candles; church had always been Bob’s department.
He had always tried to make me think more seriously about religion, but I had resisted.
My prayer, fumbling thing that it was, was not a begging one. Somehow I just wanted to feel, wanted Bob to feel, the presence of God. I wanted God to know–as if He needed my help–what a fine man Bob was and how grateful I was for him.
Strangely, in the midst of approaching death, mine was a prayer of gratitude.
Bob died. As soon as I could after his funeral, I got back to Philadelphia and went to work again. But it wasn’t the same kind of work. From the outset I discovered that I had changed. Seeing Bob’s wife and kids and feeling once again the texture of his life made me look more closely at my own life.
I saw the treadmill clearly this time, and in perspective, and I set out to slow the machinery. I found more time, surprisingly lots of time, to be alone with Gen and with the only daughter still at home, our little Kelly.
In learning to accept and enjoy the blessings at hand, no day since then has passed that I have not said my prayers and thanked God for my family and my health and my job. I am new to it and I do not understand the great ramifications of its power, but today I would not live without prayer.
I find it intriguing that ever since I stopped running so hard, ever since Bob died, people have stopped me repeatedly to say, “Mike, you never looked better.” I think I have always seemed fairly calm on camera, but it has only been in the past two years that I have discovered that I am calm.
Even my golf game has changed. For the better. Are all of these things coincidence? I doubt it.
Before every show there’s always a moment or two when I go off into a corner to say a very private prayer. Sometimes then I remember it was Bob, really, who taught me to pray. When this thought comes to me, I smile. You see, he’s watching over his little brother still.
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