These neighborhood residents have left their mark on our community
“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Andy Warhol coined the expression back in 1968, and it rings true today in the age of social media and reality television. These Far North Dallas neighbors, however, have enjoyed more than 15 minutes — and for good reason. They don’t have to wear a cap and sunglasses in public to avoid the inevitable gawking from starstruck passersby. But they have, no doubt, made their mark on popular culture.
Nella Pitts Phillips
Former host of “The Romper Room” and area voice actor
For a few years during the early 1970s, a fiery redhead known as Miss Vicki taught local youth to be good boys and girls on the TV show “The Romper Room,” which was beamed into living rooms across the city.
Decades later, Nella Pitts Phillips still receives letters of appreciation from families and even is recognized around town.
“It’s amazing,” she says. “People tell me it’s my voice. They recognize it right away.”
The nationally syndicated program used one script, but each show had its own local host and children, handing down lessons on everything from table manners to respecting your parents.
For Phillips, though, it wasn’t an act. She has always had strong moral principles while pursuing a career as a performer.
“When I graduated high school, my peers said, ‘Nella Pitts will be a night club singer with a Peter Pan collar.’ I loved to sing, but I was so conservative.”
Every morning, Phillips walks around her Valley View neighborhood, picks up newspapers from the lawns and brings them to people’s doors, praying over each household, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and with the love of Jesus …” She covers more than 100 homes in about one-and-a-half to two hours.
“I feel I’m a representative of Jesus. This is the way I want to live my life.”
Phillips, a Dallas native, graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School and Colorado State University and then took a job overseas with the American Red Cross. She participated in a program that provided variety show entertainment for military troops stationed in Korea and France during the early 1960s. Most of the soldiers were just happy to see American women.
“It was the most fun job for a young, single girl. No matter what you looked like, you were beautiful.”
Next, she tried her hand as a stewardess for Braniff International Airways for about two months.
“I got to make the announcements. That’s where I began loving the microphone.”
Phillips was back home working for Xerox when she auditioned for Channel 11. She walked right up to the front desk, cassette tape in hand. The production manager came out, listened to it on the spot and asked her to come back for an on-camera interview.
“They sat me down and had me talk. That was easy. I had things to say.”
She ended up as the host of “The Romper Room,” which was known for its special ending to each show. Using “the magic mirror,” Miss Vicki turns her attention to all the children in “televisionland.” She recites, “Romper, bomper, stomper, boo. Tell me, tell me, tell me, do. Magic mirror, tell me today, have all my friends had fun at play?” Then, she points to those watching at home and calls them by their names submitted before the show. The last episode aired on May 26, 1972.
“It was a wonderful experience,” she says. “I can tell you about one boy I loved, Scott Sager. He ended up becoming the pastor of Preston Road Church of Christ.”
Most of the children behaved, except one.
“He was awful. He would throw things. He’s the only child we had to ask to leave the show. He had blond hair and blue eyes — he looked like an angel. But that’s what they say about Satan.”
Later, Phillips lent her voice to Montgomery Ward, Luzianne Tea and other advertisements. She made another television appearance in 1999.
“I was on ‘Walker, Texas Ranger,’ but who wasn’t?”
She had a few lines as the pianist in the episode, “A Matter of Faith.” She still receives a check for $1.98 about every three months.
Now, she works with the Dallas Professional Book Reviewers Association, a group that dresses up and performs portions of selected material for book clubs in the area.
Phillips also hosts a show on KAAM 770 AM radio called “Wonderful Words of Life,” which airs weekdays at 8:25 a.m. It lasts only about five minutes. The “moments of inspiration” are usually shaped around Bible verses, devotional books or sermons from her Park Cities Presbyterian Church.
The highlight of her day, however, is time spent with her husband, Charles. Although they’ve been married for 38 years, Phillips’ face lights up when she speaks of him as if they’ve just met.
“I have to tell you about our Saturday dates,” she says. “We go to Sam’s Club and get hot dogs or we go to Braum’s for ice cream. We bring our books, and we sit across from each other and read. People think we don’t like each other, but we do.”
Phillips reads mostly mysteries by David Baldacci or Dean Koontz. She has read only about 25 books this year, which is not as many as usual, she says. Each year, she and her husband race to see who can read the most books.
“My life is so blessed. I don’t deserve it.”
Dr. Kenneth Cooper
Father of aerobics and world-famous champion for public health
People often recognize health and fitness icon Dr. Kenneth Cooper, which means he has to be careful when he goes out to eat. Someone recently spotted him at Liberty Burger.
“I ordered the veggie burger,” he says. “I limit my red meat intake.”
He’s often stopped for what he calls “curbside consultations” at his Prestonwood Baptist Church, but he doesn’t mind. Cooper has a Type A personality, so he loves to talk.
“My wife is a Type A+. I’m always trying to finish a sentence before she does.”
After 50 years of research in exercise science, the Far North Dallas resident still has a lot to say. Mainly: Get your head out of the sand, America.
“We don’t have a choice,” he says. “We’re facing a terrible future.”
The idea of exercise as a health benefit has never been an easy sell.
Cooper introduced the concept of aerobics, publishing the first groundbreaking book on the subject in 1968. He built his fitness empire, The Cooper Institute, in Preston Hollow and just marked its 42nd anniversary. The research drew criticism as late as 1984. During a debate on “Nightline,” New York cardiologist Henry Solomon spoke about his own book “The Exercise Myth.” He challenged Cooper, saying there is no data to prove that exercise really works.
By 1989, though, the Cooper Institute released a landmark study in the Journal of the American Medical Association confirming that physical fitness reduces the risk of death by all causes by 58 percent.
Cooper can recite statistics like they’re the alphabet and seems to enjoy it, despite that he has probably repeated them hundreds of times over the years — but it has paid off. In 2002 he convinced PepsiCo, owner of Frito-Lay, to remove all trans fat from Frito-Lay snack products.
Still, he says he’s disappointed at how rapidly the obesity rate has risen in the United States even while health awareness grows. Cooper himself almost went “the typical American way.” He grew up in a suburb near Oklahoma City and walked — often ran — to school every day. He played basketball and ran track and cross-country.
Then, he grew up, and life happened. Succumbing to the stress of medical school, Cooper packed on 44 pounds, reaching his highest weight, 204, by age 29. One day, while water skiing, he thought he was having a heart attack. Turned out, he was just incredibly out of shape. Cooper dropped the weight in six months and ran the Boston Marathon the following year.
“You can get addicted to exercise just like you can get addicted to drugs or alcohol,” he says.
That’s when he chose to enter the field of preventive medicine, an area that he believed needed more attention. His research changed the way the world exercises.
Over the past several years, however, he has turned his focus to children.
“I’ve given up on the adults,” he says.
Legislation was passed in 2007 to provide mandatory physical education testing in Texas schools, but only after Cooper raised the money himself through private funds. His program, FitnessGram, draws a direct correlation between exercise and students’ academic performance. That caught the attention of the Chinese government, which is using Cooper’s expertise to create better fitness programs in its schools.
“It’s frustrating to see the success I’ve had in China but don’t have in this country,” Cooper says.
They’re singing his praises in Brazil, too, where he may expand the institute. Cooper made a name for himself after the Brazilian soccer team trained with his aerobics program and went on to win the World Cup in 1970. Down there, they call running “doing the Cooper.”
His proudest moments, though, have nothing to do with revolutionizing the health and fitness field.
“People ask me what my greatest accomplishment is. I say it’s having two amazing kids and five amazing grandkids. That’s what lives on. Fame is so short-lived.”
Former CEO of 7-Eleven and Blockbuster
If it weren’t for one convoluted corporate love triangle, James Keyes may not have ended up as CEO of 7-Eleven.
He had just begun his career in the early 1980s, landing an unusually high-level gig for a recent college graduate in mergers and acquisitions for Gulf Oil. The company entered an agreement with Cities Services but later withdrew the bid after a controversy over how much the struggling oil company was actually worth. Meanwhile, rising oilman T. Boone Pickens, known as a “corporate raider,” had his eye on Gulf Oil.
Keyes sat in on the historic shareholders meeting in 1984 that would change the course of his career. He says it resembled a scene from “Wall Street.”
“I heard Boone Pickens make an impassioned speech to shareholders. It was like something from Gordon Gekko’s ‘Greed is Good’ speech. It was a fascinating experience.”
After the acquisition of Gulf Oil, Keyes followed his boss and went to work for Citgo Petroleum Corporation, which had bought Cities Services’ refining, management and transportation assets. Then, Southland Corp., the Dallas company that launched 7-Eleven, purchased Citgo.
“The company I was originally trying to buy [Cities Services] I ended up working for. There’s almost a movie in there.”
Keyes ventured into the retail side of the business, working his way up at 7-Eleven until he became CEO of the world’s largest convenience store chain in 2000. He went on to lead the struggling Blockbuster corporation from 2007 to 2011.
Before he donned a suit and tie, traveled by private jet and took up residence in the prestigious Bent Tree neighborhood, he says he was a poor kid growing up in rural Massachusetts with five siblings in a house with no indoor plumbing.
“I remember playing with all these amazing toys at the rich kids’ houses. It turns out, they had just as much fun at my house playing in my dad’s junk car collection.
“What it gave me was the ability to interact with anyone — from billionaires to people on the street.”
Keyes excelled at just about every job he had. One of his first jobs was at McDonald’s, where he quickly became a manager. At 17, he was hired as a truck driver, delivering produce to grocery stores before dawn.
He attended College of the Holy Cross and received his MBA from Columbia University. He scored an internship with Gulf Oil, which hired him after he graduated, leading to his subsequent CEO titles of a thriving convenience store chain and a failing movie rental company.
Although he resigned from the executive position in May 2011, Keyes insists that Blockbuster is down but certainly not out of the home movie industry. In fact, he predicts it will come back as the leading provider. The company is now owned by Dish, which has much stronger relationships with movie studios than Netflix. Once everything goes fully digital, Blockbuster will be the go-to source, he says.
“It’s in transition right now. Five years from today, when most people have internet-ready TVs, Blockbuster will have the most offerings. It’s about reinventing the brand. I remind people of Apple in the 1990s. You wouldn’t use a Mac for anything more than a doorstop.”
These days, Keyes is running his own company, Keyes Development, in an office building near the Addison Airport. He needed a place to store his Citation CJ3 and ended up buying the whole building. He’s renovating a space there for a new retail concept he’s working on that will be announced within the next few months.
Keyes has been married to his wife, Margo, for 20 years, but they never had any children.
“If I could go back, I’d find a better life balance between family and career,” Keyes says. “I contemplated that years ago, coming to grips with not having a legacy with children or grandchildren. So, I began to give back to other children through philanthropy.”
He founded Education is Freedom in 2002, a program that provides college readiness resources for underserved Dallas ISD students. The goal is to help young people realize their potential no matter their backgrounds.
“Anyone can achieve the success that I did. It’s not a cliché.”