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Tammy Faye Messner, ex-wife of disgraced evangelist Jim Bakker, dies of cancer at 65

Sunday, July 22, 2007

(Photo)
Tammy Faye Bakker Messner in 1990.
(MUG)
In 2004 she cooperated in the making of a documentary about her struggle with her illness.

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Tammy Faye Messner, who as Tammy Faye Bakker helped her husband, Jim, build a multimillion-dollar evangelism empire and then watched it collapse in disgrace, has died. She was 65.

Messner had battled colon cancer since 1996 that more recently spread to her lungs. She died peacefully Friday at her home near Kansas City, Mo., said Joe Spotts, her manager and booking agent.

A family service was held Saturday in a private cemetery, where her ashes were interred, he said.

She had frequently spoken about her medical problems, saying she hoped to be an inspiration to others. "Don't let fear rule your life," she said. "Live one day at a time, and never be afraid." But she told well-wishers in a note on her Web site in May that the doctors had stopped trying to treat the cancer.

(Photo)
Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker posed at their rented home in Malibu, Calif., in this Nov. 19, 1987, file photo. Tammy Faye, whose last name became Messner after her second marriage, died Friday, said her booking agent, Joe Spotts.
(Associated Press file)
In an interview with CNN's Larry King two months later, an emaciated Messner -- still using her trademark makeup -- said, "I believe when I leave this earth, because I love the Lord, I'm going straight to heaven." Asked if she had any regrets, Messner said: "I don't think about it, Larry, because it's a waste of good brain space."

For many, the TV image of then-Mrs. Bakker forgiving husband Jim's infidelities, tears streaking her cheeks with mascara, became a symbol for the wages of greed and hypocrisy in 1980s America.

She divorced her husband of 30 years, with whom she had two children, in 1992 while he was in prison for defrauding millions from followers of their PTL television ministries. The letters stood for "Praise The Lord" or "People That Love."

While not charged, his then-wife shared during the 1980s in the public criticism and ridicule over the couple's extravagance, including the reportedly gold-plated bathroom fixtures and an air-conditioned doghouse.

Jim Bakker said in a statement that his ex-wife "is now in Heaven with her mother and grandmother and Jesus Christ, the one who she loves and has served from childbirth."

Messner's second husband also served time in prison. She married Roe Messner, who had been the chief builder of the Bakkers' Heritage USA Christian theme park near Fort Mill, S.C., in 1993. In 1995, he was convicted of bankruptcy fraud, and he spent about two years in prison.

Through it all, Messner kept plugging her faith and herself. She did concerts, a short-lived secular TV talk show and an inspirational videotape. In 2004, she cooperated in the making of a documentary about her struggle with cancer, called "Tammy Faye: Death Defying."

"I wanted to help people ... maybe show the inside [of the experience] and make it a little less frightening," she said.

Her autobiography, "I Gotta Be Me," recounts a childhood as Tammy Faye LaValley, one of eight children of a poor family in International Falls, Minn. Her biological father walked out. She was reticent about her age, but a 2000 profile of her in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis said she was born in March 1942.

More recently, Tammy Faye kept in the public eye via her Web site.

"I cry out to the Lord knowing that many of you are praying for me," Messner wrote in a July 16 post in which she indicated she weighed 65 pounds. "In spite of it all, I get dressed and go out to eat. ... I crave hamburgers and french fries with LOTS of ketchup! When I can eat that again, it will be a day of victory!"

Messner was never charged with a crime in connection with the Bakker scandal. She said she counted the costs in other ways.

"I know what it's like to hit rock bottom," she said in promotional material for her 1996 video "You Can Make It."

Survivors include her husband and her two children, Jamie Charles Bakker of New York City and Tammy Sue Chapman of Charlotte.

Spotts said that the family is considering a public memorial service for the coming weeks, but that nothing had been finalized Saturday.


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