He’s the guy with the biggest laugh in the room. The quickest wit. The best stories.
Bill Poindexter, better known as Dex, began his broadcasting career when he was a student at Rossville High School. Captivated by the disc jockeys of the 1960s, Dex never had the deep voice or polished delivery of his idols. But armed with ambition and charm, he climbed the radio ladder in the 1970s, became a top record promoter, then re-entered radio at US-101 almost twenty years ago.
David Earl Hughes had generously offered him co-host status, noting the unmistakable chemistry and laughter they created during Dex’s traffic reports. Since then, he had won almost every country radio award imaginable, and his afternoon show continued to dominate the Chattanooga ratings. He had it all. Until one day, in the blink of an eye, everything changed.
Saturday, December 22, 2012 was a great day for the Poindexters. Dex and Shelia, high-school sweethearts married 41 years, enjoyed a family get-together, one of many that were to take place as Christmas approached. Daughter Christy Poindexter Wallin describes a close-knit family, constantly in touch. If they weren’t hanging out together, they were on the phone, exchanging texts or on Facebook, just checking in.
Along with her own family, as well as those of her brothers Will and Nick, Christy was preparing for the holiday at their parents’ house. On that Sunday afternoon, Will dropped off some groceries, making sure his mom had everything she needed for the gathering that would include herself, Dex, their three children, their spouses and five grandchildren ranging from age 2 to early 20’s. “Everything seemed fine,” he said.
As late as 5:00 p.m., Shelia was on the back porch posting on Facebook, chatting with her sisters and her kids. A few minutes later, she was on her cellphone with her sister Glenda. There was no sign anything was wrong. Then it happened. “Hang on Glenda.” She paused. Again she said, “Hang on Glenda,” twice more. Those were her last words. Shelia’s sister heard her take her final breath. Dex found her a few minutes later, and called 9-1-1. The emergency operator talked him through CPR procedures, but it was too late. At 58 years of age, Sheila had died of an apparent aneurysm.
Two days later, the family gathered on Christmas, still in shock. This had to be a bad dream. Surely, she would walk out of the kitchen any moment. They opened the presents she had wrapped for them, and then tearfully filed out, one by one. It was gut-wrenching. Everybody just needed some air.
At the funeral home the day after Christmas, Dex greeted friends, listeners, and country music stars. He was as positive as he could be, after losing the love of his life. “Her parents had long illnesses before they died,” he told visitors. “Shelia always said she wanted to go quickly, and she did.” Quickly, yes. But far too soon.
He was back on the radio within a week. “That’s what we do,” he told his friend and former boss Sammy George. Work seemed to be good therapy, and he loved his “work family” as he did his own. Above that, his listeners provided support too. Besides, it was better to be busy than to stay in the house all day, with reminders of Shelia at every turn.
Just before Shelia’s death, Dex had gotten the phone call every country deejay dreams of. He had been selected to the Country Radio Hall of Fame. Dex was the first Chattanoogan to earn this honor. No one was happier than Shelia. He saved her text message on his phone: “I love you and I am so proud of you.” On February 26, Dex received his plaque before a room full of the biggest names in the industry. Shelia had attended other award ceremonies with Dex, but this was the big one. “I know she’s proud of me tonight,” Dex told the audience, to a standing ovation.
(I know many of you couldn’t be there in person. Here’s a video clip, so you can share this great moment)
For the next few months, he and his co-host “Mo” (Melissa Turner Wagner) continued to amuse thousands of listeners each afternoon. Then one day the laughter stopped. Dex just couldn’t come to work. For several weeks, Mo was on her own, and when I asked about Dex, she told me, “He’s just not feeling well. I can see it in his face, he’s really grieving. I worry about him. I check on him every day.” Some days he would return calls from friends, but other days this great communicator just couldn’t bring himself to talk. Friends would call other friends: “Is Dex going to be okay?” No one knew the answer. “I sure hope so.”
Dex’s kids said his spirits seemed lowest around the prized family days they had celebrated for decades. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and their wedding anniversary in August. A guy can put on a happy face for just so long, but then reality set in. Christy said, “People had stopped coming around as much, and he was alone a lot. I think it just hit him all at once, she’s not coming back.”
Dex admits he was overwhelmed. Shelia had literally run the household. “Shelia was the rock,” he said. “She kept everything together. I had never written a check. She paid the bills, she got the groceries, she cleaned the house.” Daughter Christy laughs when she recalls, “He had never done the laundry, he had no idea how to start the washer. He was inviting me over a lot, and I finally figured out he would get really persuasive around the time he was out of clean underwear.” In typical Dex-style candor that many 60-year-old men would avoid, he said, “I had to learn how to mow the lawn, I had never done it. That was another one of Shelia’s jobs, and we were both okay with that. It worked out real good for us. Besides, she didn’t want me writing checks!”
US-101, long known for its family atmosphere, could not have been more supportive. Dex’s co-workers knew he needed help. Operations manager “Gator” Harrison encouraged Dex to seek counseling. “Take all the time you need,” Dex was told. For much of the summer, Dex was off the radio, digging out from the depths of grief and depression.
In recent months, his family and co-workers have noticed a difference. The big smile is back, along with the room-rattling laugh. “He’s much better,” Will said. “Christmas won’t be easy for us, the memories are still fresh from last year. But we know she wouldn’t want us to sit around and be sad.”
“Dad’s all about family,” Christy said. “He loves his grandchildren so much. He knows this has been hard for them, and he wants to be there for them. He knows he has to be strong.”
Visiting the WRCB Share Your Christmas food drive on Friday, Dex was doing what he does best: telling stories, smiling, laughing, hugging. For probably the first time ever, he arrived to an event before the always-punctual Mo, who had been stuck in traffic, and that became the funny topic of the day. He is gradually easing back into the comfort zone his listeners know and love. “I don’t know where I’d be without my family, Mo, Gator, all my co-workers and friends,” he said.
Reminiscing about his own early years, Dex said, “I grew up very poor. My dad was killed in a car wreck when I was five, leaving my mother, who was handicapped, with five kids to raise. We didn’t have much, but she had the greatest sense of humor. We laughed about everything. It’s not always easy, but even during hard times I try to keep a sense of humor. If you’re having fun on the radio, people will have fun listening to you on the radio.”
As proud members of Dex’s radio audience, we’re honored to be part of his family. We’ve laughed with him, we’ve cried with him. And we’re right there alongside him, this holiday season. Because like he says, “That’s what we do.”