By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
During his first run for the post, in 1948, a Morning News endorsement proclaimed him "clean, sober and fearless," at a time "when timid but blameless officials [are] terrorized by strong-arm threats of bodily harm and of political ruin." Then the anti-establishment candidate, Sterrett upset incumbent Al Templeton by 2,119 votes.
Once in office, Sterrett racked up a number of firsts--buying the first fleet of automobiles for the sheriff's office; establishing the first county lunacy board; hiring the first traffic engineer and fire marshal in Texas county government; building Dallas County's first juvenile home; and establishing the county welfare system.
Equally skilled at cajoling and twisting arms, Sterrett became Dallas' leading practitioner of the political arts, in an era when conservative Texas politicians were still Democrats. The cigar-chomping Little Judge reached his heydey during the 1950s, personally charting the county's course.
Dirt began flying. Parkland Hospital rose on its present site. Highways and roads began to loop and crisscross the county, thanks to unheard-of multimillion dollar bond programs. Sterrett asked for them, and voters gave their blessing.
Lew Sterrett easily won reelection six more times, serving as county judge for a quarter-century. He became the establishment. But he rebuked the notion that he controlled a slick political machine, saying he simply had a lot of friends.
In the 1960s, Sterrett directed his ire at the decade's changing ways. He attacked the increasing activism of big government, the federal courts, welfare cheats, hippies, radical blacks, women's liberation--anything, as his obituary in the Dallas Times Herald put it, "that contradicted the beliefs of conservative white Southerners like himself who recalled simpler times.
"Sterrett's brand of rural East Texas Conservative politicking," the paper noted, "had begun to seem faintly out of tune with the times and out of step with a younger and increasingly cosmopolitan constituency."
A penny-pincher, Sterrett for years fought bitterly against the construction of new county jails--an irony, considering that Dallas County's huge new jail complex would bear his name. "With the price of bread approaching a dollar a loaf," Sterrett argued, "the people are not going to spend more money to coddle murderers."
Detractors branded him a demagogue. Admirers saw him as "a man who'd charge hell with a bucket of water."
In 1974, following his defeat by Republican John Whittington, County Commissioner Roy Orr informally suggested that Parkland Hospital be renamed after the judge. Sterrett dismissed the idea, saying, "I never have been much on naming anything after anyone until they are gone."
Five years later, though the Little Judge was still living, Orr proposed naming the new county jail, set to rise at Industrial and Commerce, for Sterrett. The commissioners' vote was unanimous.
"He was the toughest man I ever met, but he was the fairest," says Orr, now 61 and an Austin lobbyist. "But you know, he would draw a line in the sand and say, 'Now look, I've been fair and that's as far as I'm going to go.'"
How Lew Sterrett might have reacted to his own daughter's untraditional predilections is anyone's question; until her father's death, Sheryl kept her leanings hidden in the closet.
The past decade in Dallas has been tough for New Age mystics.
The well-publicized investigation of guru Terri Hoffman, whose clients had an unfortunate habit of dying after leaving valuable assets to her in their wills, has taken its toll. Hoffman was convicted last year of federal bankruptcy fraud.
But Sheryl Sterrett for decades endured the stigma of her own family.
Lew and Hazel Sterrett's younger daughter says she knew from her very early years that she was "different"--and began to explore those differences while a teenager in the early 1950s.
While reading a Readers' Digest article about what at the time was a rarity--a female minister--Sterrett seized upon a set of words the preacher used. "There was this affirmation saying I see better, mentally, physically and spiritually," she explains. "I started saying that over and over.
"And the next night when I was in bed--it was during that twilight time before you really fall into sleep--I saw this vision." The vision was of Jesus, she says. The following night, a second vision appeared--an apparition that "no makeup man in Hollywood could have duplicated."
She looked for books that might help explain what was going on, what these visions might be about. She could find only a few books on astrology and palm reading. Years later, she began talking to well-known Dallas psychics. She became certain she possessed psychic abilities herself.
But she said little about any of this to her family. Though she read the palms of her friends, her parents' friends, and even her grandmother as a teenager, her mother and father humored her, treating her interest as merely a cute parlor trick.
Her father, raised as a Southern Baptist in East Texas, attended church for seven decades. When he came to Dallas to enroll at the Metropolitan Business College, "the main thing he brought with him was an unshakable Baptist faith," Morning News columnist Dick West once wrote. "A man needs it," Sterrett explained.
The Sterretts, who lived in a modest one-story brick home in University Park, were loyal members of Park Cities Baptist, near Preston Road on the University Park side of Northwest Highway. Along with her older sister, Terry, Sheryl grew up listening to sermons about hellfire and damnation.