Once Estranged, Roy Rogers Jr. and Sr. See Only Happy Trails from Now On
08/17/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT
As a child Dusty woke up in a Roy Rogers wonderland. He would climb out of his Roy Rogers bed and shut off his Roy Rogers alarm clock. Then he would slip out of his Roy Rogers pajamas and into his Roy Rogers shorts (with a likeness of Trigger on the front) before putting on his Roy Rogers jeans. "By the time I was 4, I was paranoid," he says. "I had double R on both my boots, and I never did know which boot to put on my left foot."
A lot of kids had the same cowboy shirts and belts and badges and lunch boxes, but Dusty had something not included among the 125 licensed Roy Rogers products—an official Roy Rogers dad. He even had the name: Roy Rogers Jr., although in an act of merciful diversity he has been known as Dusty since childhood.
Today, at 40, Dusty is a strapping, 6'4", 240-lb. building contractor who lives in Apple Valley, Calif., a mile down the road from his legendary father. Mom, of course, is Dale Evans, the thrush who accompanied Roy Sr. down countless Hollywood and TV happy trails.
"Dusty is a good boy, always has been," says Dale, who helped raise him after Roy Sr.'s first wife, Grace Arlene Wilkins, died of complications six days after Dusty was born. Roy married Dale, who had a son from her first marriage, a year later, and together they mingled the families. Between adoptions and natural children, they eventually had a brood of nine kids.
In his book, Growing Up With Roy and Dale (Regal Books, $10.95), published last year, Dusty gives a gripping example of how Dale kept a firm hand on two unruly boys: "On Saturday afternoons, Dad would take Sandy [Dusty's adopted brother] and me over to his gun range.... By that night, we were so wild we were almost beyond redemption. We threw ourselves on the floor, rolling and hollering, really tearing up the place.
" 'Okay, boys, enough's enough,' Mom shouted one night. We ignored her. 'Knock it off!' she shouted. We kept it up.... Suddenly, we heard an explosion.... Mom was standing like a statue, with her stage pistol pointed to the ceiling.... 'I said,' she whispered through clenched teeth, 'it's time to stop.' " Dale was not the only disciplinarian. "Dad used the belt on us but he never did it in anger," recalls Dusty. "He never hit us hard."
Roy, 75, and Dale, 74, who co-starred in movie Westerns and in The Roy Rogers Show on TV until 1957, tried to shield their children from the pitfalls of fame. "I think it was because Dad kept us away from the Hollywood scene that I didn't realize we were anyone special," says Dusty. "We moved from the Hollywood Hills to Encino in the San Fernando Valley, then into a ranch in Chatsworth. We always moved away from the encroaching population because Dad liked his privacy. He wanted his kids raised on a ranch, where they could have horses and pigs and chickens and cows."
Roy Sr., who spends his time these days attending the openings of restaurant franchises and overseeing his museum, believes his son led a normal life. "Dusty and Sandy and I used to go out for a couple of weeks at a time and hunt and fish and live off the land," he recalls. "If you spend time to teach kids right and wrong when they're little, it's much easier for them to grow up, and it shows you love 'em."
Even in that atmosphere of love, the trails haven't all been happy. In 1965 Sandy, then 18, died in a freak accident while serving in the Army in West Germany. Robin, Roy and Dale's only natural child, was born with Down Syndrome in 1950 and died before her second birthday. And Deborah Rogers, who was adopted, was killed in a bus accident in 1964, at the age of 11. There are now six surviving children, 16 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
There was also a period of estrangement between Dusty and his father. By the time Dusty graduated from high school he had made two movies. He wanted to study acting, but his father wanted him to get a "good job." "The job lasted about two weeks," recalls Dusty. "My main task was to test the seams in napalm bombs. Finally, I quit. That really angered Dad. I got mad and left town with friends."
He settled in Middlefield, Ohio, met a small blond woman named Linda, now 38 (they have two daughters, Shawna, 18, and Kelly, 15, and a son, Dustin Roy, 11), sang on his own TV show and learned the construction business. But he returned to Apple Valley 13 years ago, where he builds custom homes and sings with his own Country & Western band.
About five years ago there was still some unfinished business between Dusty and his father. "I used to wonder when I was a kid what in the world was so exciting about this guy," says Dusty now. "Then I got to going through all the clippings, the fan mail, the thousands of pictures of all the things he's done, the children's hospitals he's visited. It's almost unbelievable. This is the man I had spent my whole life with and never really gotten to know. I didn't even take enough time to see his cut, what he was made of."
They went out for a ride in the pickup. The small talk faded, and Dusty said, "What really worries me, Dad, is I'm afraid you're gonna die and I won't have a chance to tell you that I really love you.
"Dad pulled off to the side of the road. We got out of the truck, hugged and kissed each other and cried. Then we walked down onto a field, kicking rocks together, and we had a long good talk about all the stuff that bothered us through the years."
And there was peace in the valley.