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Dr. Phil's ex-wife opens up

Dr. Phil's ex-wife opens up

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The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Debbie Higgins McCall saw herself mentioned in the press for the first time last month. She was surprised, frankly, that it took so long.

She is, after all, Dr. Phil's first wife, the ex-cheerleader he married Nov. 27, 1970, at Southridge Presbyterian Church in Roeland Park, Kan.

That's Phillip C. McGraw, the TV psychologist Oprah made famous. The "get real" guru whose "Dr. Phil" show is considered the most successful new daytime series in a decade, serving up insta-consults to quarreling siblings and boyfriends with roving eyes.

McCall, who manages a liquor store in the Kansas City suburbs, sometimes calls herself the "secret first wife of Dr. Phil."

She had never spoken publicly about their four-year marriage, which she claims failed because he had a roving eye. In recent years, friends advised her to "call Oprah." But, she said, she wasn't emotionally prepared to go public.

McGraw mentioned the failed marriage in a recent Newsweek cover story: "I was the big football player, and she was the cheerleader. This was just the next thing to do." It just didn't work out, he said.

McGraw has not given interviews since the show began last month, his publicity staff said last week.

In previous interviews and his own books, he has mentioned his Kansas City connection only in passing.

In fact, McGraw spent his formative teen years here, playing football and being just one of the guys in the Class of '68 at Shawnee Mission North High School and working part time at Hallmark Cards Inc.

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When his classmates tell people they went to high school with Dr. Phil - and they do so proudly - people often don't believe them.

In his first book, "Life Strategies," McGraw wrote that when he was a teenager, he moved here with his father, who was on an internship in psychology. McCall remembers that McGraw did not want to be here.

"Daddy made him come up here because he wanted to keep an eye on him," she said.

Classmates remember that the McGraws at one time lived in an apartment complex next to the school. McCall said they eventually moved into a split-level house not far from where she grew up on Buena Vista Drive in Roeland Park. In the school's alumni directory, he's still listed at that address.

At North he was known mostly for two things: being a jock and being Debbie Higgins' boyfriend, according to classmates.

She was the cute, vivacious head cheerleader and homecoming queen with the million-dollar smile. He was the newcomer who spoke with a cowboy drawl from Oklahoma; some of the kids made fun of him for sounding like a hick.

One classmate described him as the strong, silent type, literally standing head and very broad shoulders above his classmates. At 6 feet 4 inches, he towered, too, over his 5-foot-2-inch cheerleader girlfriend.

"He had a physical presence that you wouldn't miss," said Charlie Chamblin, a digital printing salesman in Overland Park who knew the couple in high school. "He was not arrogant, he was not cocky. He was just a regular guy."

In an interview with a student reporter at North last year, McGraw said he was not a highly motivated student.

"I did not distinguish myself academically," he said.

Janet Warman of Bonner Springs, Kan., a cheerleader with McCall, was surprised when she saw McGraw's career as a TV psychologist take off "just because he didn't talk a lot," in school.

"He wasn't the one that had his hand up all the time," said Warman, a registered nurse at Providence Medical Center. "He seemed to be a very smart guy, but that was just a perception, not because I knew it for a fact. You just got the impression that he was smart. He really kept to himself."

McGraw is remembered fondly by his coach and the guys who played football with him. He played all three years, recalled Larry Taylor of Overland Park, Kan., former head football coach and teacher at North.

McGraw was a tackle his senior year on a varsity team that finished 9-0, the best in Kansas in 1967.

Ed Dallam was the quarterback of that team.

"(McGraw) was really an outstanding member of that team, high-quality, hard-worker type of player," said Dallam, now a dentist in Kansas City. "I think he was singularly focused. I think he saw, obviously, furthering his educational pursuit was going to do things for his life and make his life better, easier, more fun. And that sports was a vehicle for him pursuing that. I think that was a major motivating factor for him."

McGraw, who went on to play football at the University of Tulsa, has credited sports for keeping him on the right path in high school. He had to follow Taylor's rules. Teachers had to sign eligibility cards each week, confirming that each player was doing well in his studies.

No smoking. No drinking. And the No. 1 rule: Whatever the head coach says, goes.

"I had little or no supervision," McGraw has written about those years. "And if it had not been for athletics, I would probably have never finished high school."

On TV, reviewers have noted how McGraw's steady, steely gaze has caused grown men to look down at their shoes. Dallam could see the determination in McGraw's eyes, even then.

"Every time we would huddle, I would have the opportunity to look in my teammates' eyes," Dallam said. "You could kind of tell by people's looks if they were fearful, worried, confident, ready to play or not. And he was dedicated and focused at that age."

Taylor didn't realize that the Dr. Phil on TV was the same Phil McGraw he'd coached until a former classmate pointed it out to him. It's the same reaction other classmates had when they saw his star begin to rise.

"I thought, 'You gotta be kidding,"' Taylor said. "Anyone who has made it to that level has taken a lot of steps, and I had never heard what he had done beyond high school.

"The people who knew him never anticipated that he would be the talk of the world. It's hard to get away from him these days."

Other than the time he spent on the field, Taylor's dominant memory of McGraw is "seeing him and the gal that was the cheerleader. They spent a lot of time together as time went on through his school career."

In fact, that gal - Debbie Higgins - and McGraw were inseparable once they started dating in their junior year. Mr. and Mrs. McGraw, some people called them, years before it became official.

Though McGraw's publicity handlers say he has talked about his first marriage on several occasions, those mentions have gone largely unnoticed by his classmates.

It was the reference in Newsweek last month that started McCall's phone ringing. Lots of friends called. So did reporters. And to avoid the media, she got caller ID. She has since heard that out-of-town reporters trying to get the story have offered her friends as much as $200 for their high school yearbooks.

"If he had mentioned our marriage from the very beginning," she said, "I think the public would not have made an issue of it and find it more endearing that he had some insight being involved in a failed marriage."

McCall's parents didn't allow her to date until she was 16. Even then dating was slow. She quickly discovered that her older brother was threatening to beat up any boy who asked her out.

So when McGraw asked her for a date one day between classes, she said yes, even though she didn't know him. McGraw was taller than her brother so she figured he wouldn't be intimidated.

On their first date, McGraw got her home five minutes late and her mother grounded her for a month. But he called her every day.

As a boyfriend, McGraw was kind and sensitive, McCall said, a gentleness captured in a yearbook photo of them dancing at the 1967 homecoming dance. McCall is wearing her homecoming queen tiara, and McGraw, in a white dinner jacket, is holding her close.

They continued the romance long-distance after they graduated. In the fall of 1968, she moved to Springfield to attend Southwest Missouri State and he went to play football at Tulsa. Unable to pay for more than a year in Springfield, McCall moved home to Roeland Park and enrolled at Johnson County Community College and hairdressing school, she said.

McGraw, injured while playing football at Tulsa, had also moved closer to family. He went to Texas, where his dad had begun practicing psychology.

McCall said McGraw asked her to move to Lubbock, where he had taken a job at a health spa. In November 1970 they returned to Roeland Park to get married in McCall's childhood church. Both were 20 at the time.

Eventually they moved to Topeka, where McGraw built and owned a health spa, McCall said. In marriage he was not the kind, sensitive boyfriend he'd been in high school, she claims.

He did not allow her to get involved in the business; her domain was their home. He wanted her to always "look nice," which included lifting weights to bulk up her chest, she said.

McGraw, who has been married to his second wife since 1976, has admitted that as a young man, his entrepreneurial efforts in everything from health clubs to motivational seminars often came at the expense of his second family.

He and his wife, Robin, have two grown sons. He and McCall had no children together.

Under his domineering personality, McCall said she felt like a tightly coiled spring that finally popped back to life. The marriage ended when friends and neighbors questioned his commitment to the marriage.

"When I confronted him about his infidelities he didn't deny these girls and told me that it had nothing to do with his feelings toward me, to grow up, that's the way it was in the world," McCall said.

The relationship ended when she left him in 1973 and moved back to Kansas City, she said.

"I understand that in any relationship there are two sides to the story," she said. "In my relationship with Phil, I have kept my side quiet for all these years because I couldn't see any good coming from sharing it."

For his part, McGraw told Newsweek: "We never had a cross word. We just sat down and said, 'Why did we do this?"'

McCall is talking about it now because people and the media are asking. The last time she saw McGraw was at their 30th reunion a few years ago, just as he was making a name for himself as Dr. Phil.

Hey, isn't that guy on TV, some classmates said.

As curious classmates watched, McGraw and his first wife spoke only briefly.

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