During her 24-year stint as an investigative reporter for KDFW/Channel 4, Becky Oliver has knocked on doors in seedy apartment complexes, only to have them slammed in her face; confronted strangers with allegations of wrongdoing; yelled questions at people driving off as she and a cameraman pursued them through a parking lot.
A good deal of the people Becky Oliver has talked to did not want to talk to Becky Oliver, who had a reputation for aggressiveness and toughness in her on-camera work.
So it’s a bit surprising to hear her describe herself as “kind of a softy.”
“I always wanted the focus to be on the stories,” says Oliver, who is retiring from Fox 4 on July 29. “Look at the stories, look at what we’re doing, focus on that. I was always uncomfortable being front and center. Anybody around here knows,” she says during an interview at Fox 4’s Dallas studios. “I never really liked being on TV.”
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Often, she says, what people remember is the station promos showing her at her most aggressive, not the actual stories themselves. But it has to be pointed out that there’s some theater in what Oliver is best-known for: asking, sometimes shouting, questions at people she believes to be guilty of unethical or illegal behavior.
“That’s just kind of what came natural to me,” Oliver says. “But it wasn’t theatrics. That side of it was always what made me uncomfortable. I never wanted the focus to be on me. This makes me uncomfortable. This makes me uncomfortable that you’re interviewing me about me. Talk about my stories, and I could talk to you all day long.”
But after a 33-year career, most of it in Dallas, Becky Oliver is trying to figure out the next chapter of her own story. Part of it has started: She and her husband, Gerald, are going to further pursue a real-estate business. But she’s curious about the rest.
Times of passion
In conversation, Oliver is emphatic, often leaning forward, repeating words to underscore her points. An observation about how difficult it is to investigate someone without them being tipped off leads into how so many state and government agencies are now insulated by public-information officers, so that it’s difficult to directly contact anyone official.
It’s clear that Oliver is frustrated by this, and the passion with which she talks about it makes it easy to wonder why she’s leaving something she obviously still cares so much about.
“I think that I just have passion for so many things,” she says. “It’s just my personality. Do I love journalism? Yeah, this has been my life for 33 years. I was a passionate GA reporter ... I’m passionate about my children. I think that passion is just something that runs in my blood. I’m passionate about purpose. And that’s what I’m focusing on right now, finding, at 55, where that purpose is in my life, and living the rest of my years in a very purposeful manner.”
Last year, Oliver went on a mission trip with Orphan Outreach, a Plano-based Christian organization working to help children living in dire conditions in Central America, Africa, Eastern Europe, India and the United States. She was at first a little reluctant to go on the trip to Guatemala, but when a friend told her it would be a mother-daughter trip, she realized that she could take her 16-year-old daughter, and that there would be other mother-daughter duos whom she knew on the trip. So she went.
“Life-altering,” Oliver says. “I emceed [Orphan Outreach’s] year-end dinner, and I got up and said — I was ad-libbing, ‘When they say to you, ‘You’re going to go on this mission trip and it’s going to be life-altering,’ that’s an understatement. The profound impact it has on your life and how you come back from something like that, working with orphans in Guatemala, and you want to just change the world. You’re like, ‘Now I want to rescue every orphan in the world.’ ”
Oliver says she plans to continue working with Orphan Outreach after her retirement. What she doesn’t plan to do is slow down. She has other ideas — possibly writing a book about her reporting experiences, maybe even politics.
“Where am I going?” she says. “I don’t really have the foggiest idea. I’m excited about the thought of having my fingers in a lot of things. People are saying to me, ‘You need to run for the Legislature. Imagine what you could do down in Austin.’ ... My husband says, ‘I don’t think you have the skin for it, Beck. I don’t think you have a thick enough skin to go into politics.’ ” (That’s what led to the “kind of a softy” remark.)
Because of the risks involved in her job, Oliver has been pretty private about the fact that she has six children.
She has kept it off her station bio, where you’ll find no mention of her being married or having a family (her husband was the station’s attorney during her first couple of years at KDFW). Although only one of her children has even mentioned a passing interest in journalism — he was editor of the paper at St. Mark’s in Dallas — she has worked hard to pass some of her personality traits on to her kids.
“The passion I have for investigative reporting — I’ve raised my kids that way,” she says. “I have a child in medical school, I have another one heading to Duke right now, I have another one who’s a lawyer. I said to them, ‘Live your life with passion. Whatever it is, do it, and do it well.’
“Am I going to feel that same way in real estate?” she continues. “I don’t know. Can I be passionate about selling houses? We’ll see. My life has moved in a lot of weird directions over the years.”
Although Oliver says she doesn’t want to be the focus of her stories, to most viewers, she’s the face of investigative reporting on Fox 4 — but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.
Her longtime producer, Donna Ressl, retired a couple of weeks before Oliver announced that she was leaving the station, and Oliver gives her a lot of credit for the work, as well as the photojournalists and editors who have been along for the ride.
“I am nothing without those people behind me,” Oliver says. “[Donna is] an absolute pistol. Smartest person I ever met in my life. A photographer who can sit out in a burning hot car for hours without the air conditioner on, because you can’t have a car running if you’re trying to get pictures of Lockheed workers that are drinking on their lunch break. You have to sit there burning to death in the back of a hot van to get that one shot of beer cans flying out the window.”
She’s even had her kids work undercover on her projects; her second-youngest was part of a report on a teen club that operated from 3 to 7 a.m., when, Oliver says, teens would stumble to their cars and hit the highway after an all-night drug fest. Sometimes, she’s had no choice but to bring the kids along.
“There are those times when a photographer will call and you’re not even at work,” she says. “You say, ‘Well, I’m driving my kids to school’ and they go, ‘Well, the guy’s here! He’s here right now! He’s on the porch!’ So I’d [makes peeling-out sound] and tell my kids, ‘Lock the door and don’t get out of the car!’ ”
Things have changed: Viewers used to have to call or mail their compliments or complaints; now they can email, text, tweet, post on Facebook, and when they’re not happy, they can be vicious about it.
Oliver says that after the teen-club story ran, she had to “delete, delete, delete” comments on her Facebook page from the teens. The Internet has made it easier to pull public records; increased media savvy has made it harder to get to the people she really wants to talk to.
Oliver isn’t social-media averse, but it doesn’t exactly play into her job. “I can’t tweet during the day: ‘Oh, I’m out on a stakeout,’ ” she says with a bit of a laugh. “It hasn’t worked for me, because I’m trying to be quiet until the very end. I’m on Facebook — I have a personal page and a station page — but I haven’t been on my page saying, ‘Oh, I’m so proud of my kid, just graduated from high school!’ because I didn’t want everyone knowing where my kid was going to high school. I didn’t want people knowing I had kids, period.”
With her children older now — the youngest is about to get her driver’s license — Oliver sees the chance for a shift. She talks about a commencement speech Jim Carrey gave in 2014 at the Maharishi University of Management.
In the speech, which became popular on YouTube, Carrey spoke about listening to what the universe is trying to tell you. Oliver, who says she has been working since she was helping register voters at age 14, was listening when Orphan Outreach jumped into her life, and she’s listening for other messages.
“I said to my husband, ‘There’s a whole ’nother world out there that I don’t know,’ because I’ve been taking kids to school, getting up at 6 o’clock, throwing the kids in the car, getting them to school, getting into the office, running around at the office all day long, sometimes staying till 9 o’clock at night, being on the 9 o’clock news, going home and falling into bed,” she says. “And running in between to a parent-teacher conference or to a recital at school or trying to be the mom that’s there and making sure my kids know I’m there for them: Going to a softball game, getting them to a music lesson. That’s been my life, six kids, and juggling this job at same time.”
Robert Philpot, 817-390-7872