By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Ho'opuka E-ka-la Ma Ka-hikina. Ho'opuka E-ka-la Ma Kahikina.
On the second floor of an old Oak Lawn house, a primal chant resonated through a room where 35 women and men sat in a circle of chairs. Incense filled the air, and several candles on a corner table flickered in the dim light.
After the last powerful notes of the Hawaiian Huna chant spilled forth from Sheryl Sterrett, the room was still.
The 59-year-old former model and one-time secretary, wearing blue jeans and a denim shirt embroidered with small colorful birds, encouraged those gathered around her to breath deeply --and to surrender only to their higher selves.
A small man with dark wavy hair closed his eyes. He sucked in air through his nose and then, rounding his lips into a puffy o-shape, exhaled an elongated swiiiiiish of air. Eyelids still shut, he repeated his personal breath mantra. Almost everyone in the room was doing the same.
Sterrett stood in the middle of the circle, her eyes scanning the room, her head nodding approval. "All of you are here as 'light workers,'" she advised the New Age congregants; her job, she explained, was simply to help them along their journey.
This was her mantle of leadership, a leadership running deep in her blood--if in a vastly different realm.
A tall woman with reddish-brown hair and rust-tinted eye glasses, Sheryl Lew Sterrett is one of Dallas' foremost New Age "guides." She is also the daughter of a staunchly conservative, rigidly Baptist Dallas political icon: Lew Sterrett, the man for whom the county's jail complex is named.
The late Walter Lewis Sterrett served 53 years in Dallas county government--more than half of those as county judge. And he was decidedly Old Age. Nick-named the "Little Judge," Sterrett became a legend as a feisty cigar-chewing politician. When he died in 1981, he was regarded as one of Texas' most enduring political powers.
His daughter Sheryl now enjoys her own recognition as a leader in the metaphysical realm of religious practitioners, both locally and across the nation. For more than a decade, she has earned a living as a healer, a "light worker," a psychic therapist, a "conscious channeler," and a palm reader.
Twice a year, she visits Hawaii, where, with "the masters," she studies the ancient mystical religion of Huna, based on positive thinking. And if, on a full moon or a new moon, you pay a visit to a cozy retail shop in Richardson or Fort Worth, you can participate in an evening meditation ceremony led by this New Age guide.
It's hard to imagine a less likely life for Lew Sterrett's daughter. He was, after all, a man who scorned the notion of women's liberation--and a staunch believer in traditional faith.
The clash of attitudes took its toll. Sheryl suppressed her New Age beliefs until her father died. Her mother told friends her daughter was an artist. And Sheryl's sister, who lives in Connecticut, sued her in probate court, claiming Sheryl improperly induced their aging mother to give Sheryl the lion's share of her estate.
Sheryl Sterrett calls herself a visionary and a "Christian mystic." A minister of her family church, Park Cities Baptist, calls her a tool of Satan--and her work the dance of the devil.
She is unperturbed by such references, saying, "It kind of goes with the territory." The words and actions of visionaries, she says, always threaten adherents of the status quo--whether in the realm of religious belief, or in the equally murky world of 1950s Dallas County politics.
The summer sun was roasting the city of Dallas at noon on August 11, 1951. And Dallas County Judge Lew Sterrett was about to find out how much his political style could heat things up.
Sterrett stepped into the office of County Commissioner John Rowland, who was in the company of his 260-pound son, District Attorney Investigator John A. Rowland.
According to the following day's Dallas Morning News, commissioner Rowland and the cigar-chewing Little Judge "had political differences over the administration of the county's road and bridge system." Those "differences" quickly came to fisticuffs. Behind closed--and locked--doors, the Rowlands pummeled the county judge.
When Judge Sterrett emerged from the office he was "bleeding profusely from a cut on his nose and a deep gash over his right eye." The newspaper reported that a "preliminary examination indicated that Sterrett may have suffered a broken nose, a fracture over his eye and a fractured rib." As he waited to be taken to the hospital, Sterrett commented to the quickly gathering crowd of reporters: "I've been trying to tell you boys that it's rough out there on that court."
Like his daughter, Sterrett probably would have argued that he was in the middle of a fight between good and evil. When he took office in 1949 the courthouse was rife with corruption and cronyism. Newspaper editorials anguished over election fraud and gambling, which reportedly took place in the back rooms of saloons and bars while officials turned a blind eye. Sterrett, a five-term justice of the peace, had pledged that, as county judge, he would root out the forces of evil lurking in the back rooms and corridors of the county courthouse.
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.
So she kept her burgeoning interest in alternative beliefs mostly to herself. Her father "would have worried about what I was doing," explains Sheryl Sterrett. "We were a political family. I never wanted to...make any problems for him."
Following graduation from the Greenhill School in 1953, Sheryl left for the University of Texas at Austin, where she studied art before leaving to work in Houston as a model, exhibiting daily wear, evening wear, and swimsuits. "I was real popular then because I am real busty and that was in style--the Jayne Mansfield look."
In Houston, she met her first husband, who became the father of her only child, Shelley. The couple divorced after just four years. Sterrett took her daughter with her back to Dallas--and moved in with her parents.
Then three, Shelley would remain in her grandparents' home with her mother until the age of 19. As an adult, she would go to court to take her grandfather's name. "It was almost like being in fairy land when I was a little girl," she says. "Everything was so ethereal...I felt really loved by those three adults."
After Shelley moved out, her mother remained. During the mid-'70s, she met her second husband at a large Dallas public-relations firm, where she worked as a secretary to the president and where her father served as a consultant. Her second marriage lasted six years.
Sheryl Sterrett says she worshiped her father. "My daddy was my hero." He enjoyed "rattling cages," she adds. "What I saw was a man who was willing to say whatever he believed in, whether it got him in trouble or not."
Yet Sheryl Sterrett waited until her father's death before publicly pursuing what she considers her true vocation. "I was brought up in a time where women did not 'get out there'...It was so ingrained, so instilled in us that women were not to make waves...I don't remember any resentment and I don't remember feeling repressed."
Yet Hazel Sterrett, her own mother, was sufficiently embarrassed by Sheryl's calling that she told her friends her daughter was an artist. She went to her grave last May, at the age of 94, says Sheryl, without acknowledging what her youngest daughter did for a living.
Yet Sheryl insists she and her mother shared a close, loving relationship until the end.
That relationship was at issue in a bitter 10-month legal battle with her sister, Terry Adrion, over their mother's will. Adrion, 10 years older than Sheryl, has lived with her husband in Connecticut for more than 30 years. She declined to be interviewed for this story.
But Sheryl describes her relationship with her sister as "estranged" since early-childhood days. "We are totally, totally opposite. She is traditional, strait-laced, a member of the garden club." She and her husband "are pillars in the church."
The will Adrion contested named Sheryl as the primary beneficiary. "Mother wanted to make sure that I was taken care of and that Shelley was taken care of, " says Sterrett. "I am the one who took care of her."
Hazel Sterrett named Sheryl executrix, left Sheryl what money she had in the bank, and directed that the two daughters share equally in a lake lot in Grapevine and five lots in the East Texas town of Como. Sheryl was to get two-thirds interest in the "family farm"--157 acres of land in Sulphur Springs--and her older sister the remaining one-third. The family home in University Park is not included in Hazel Sterrett's estate because in February 1988, six months after signing her will, Hazel transferred the property to Sheryl, who has since sold it.
In court papers, Adrion argued that their mother was not competent when she signed her will on August 12, 1988, and remained incompetent when she signed a codicil to that will in 1990. Adrion asked the court to declare that her mother died intestate--without a valid will--and to split the estate equally between the two daughters.
In February, the two settled their dispute out of court. Sheryl agreed to give her sister 40 percent interest in the family farm, instead of the 33 percent the will specified.
Sheryl Sterrett's daughter, Shelley, now 37 and living in California, blames the fight on jealousy. "My mother was always there for Nonnie and Terry was not. My mother took care of Nonnie, visited her in the retirement home...took care of her bills. My mom was Nonnie's baby and so was I, and Terry just resented that."
Hazel Sterrett left what she had to Sheryl because she thought she'd need it, says Shelley. Her grandparents were old-fashioned. "They worried about my mother because she wasn't married. My aunt was, and they felt her husband would always take care of her."
Were he alive to see it, says Shelley, the lawsuit would have made Lew Sterrett "extremely upset."
Sheryl Sterrett is a light worker with a mission.
"It's assisting people in the ability to trust in their own wisdom," she says. "Everybody has inner wisdom."
Her role is "to get the message out that we are moving into another dimension," signaled by changes on earth, such as natural disasters and changes in government programs. She and those like her, Sterrett explains, can "help others go as peacefully as they can into this new dimension."
It is a mission with similarities--in purpose, if not in method--to that of Park Cities Baptist, the 6,000-member church in which she was raised, and where Sheryl Sterrett remains on the formal membership rolls.
The Rev. Don Dendy, minister of education at Park Cities Baptist, views metaphysics and New Age spirituality as a fad that is incompatible with Christianity--in short, the devil's work. "It's another idea that Satan will use to distract from the real truth," he says. "It is a definite break from the tradition of what we call Christianity."
Sterrett, who once taught Sunday School at Rev. Dendy's church, says that as a Christian mystic, she is seeking to encourage independence--"to raise people's consciousness into higher levels to help [them] remember who they really are...and realize they are responsible for their actions."
That is completely at odds with Baptist teachings, notes Dendy. When someone decides "to take control of their own life," he says, it is impossible then "to give it up to Jesus Christ."
Sterrett dismisses the label of guru often applied to New Age leaders. "Over here, when we say guru it usually [identifies] some person who has a following" and "whatever he or she says is law.
"I don't want to be anybody's guru. If a person is not willing to take responsibility for themselves I'll send them to somebody else because I'm not going to take responsibility for somebody's life...What I think we should be doing now is to create a space where [people] can find their own answers."
Sterrett says she stopped going to church about 10 years ago because it "felt extremely limiting and oppressive...It just wasn't for me anymore. I grew beyond it."
To Rev. Denby, it is clear that Sheryl Sterrett has strayed. "It's possible for anyone who takes their mind off of what I would call the biblical concept of man." Those who embrace New Age spirituality are foolishly trying to generate a spiritual god within themselves, he says. They think "that gives them the power to be as God. That's the biggest deception that can be put out there."
It is in her condominium, just a few blocks north of the Park Cities Baptist Church, where Sheryl Sterrett practices what her family church views as heresy.
Dark antique furniture fills the living room of her second-story home. Paintings and photographs line the walls. Among them is a painting of her father by the late Dmitri Vail, portraitist of the Park Cities rich and famous.
A white cat with a tail that's almost translucent near the tip greets Sheryl Sterrett's clients. Her name is Tata (pronounced Ta-da). Sterrett says she is an integral part of her counseling team. "She knows energy. She works with energy [and is] extremely, extremely intuitive. Cats know how to take energy and transmute it.
"She's not really aging," Sterrett says of Tata, whose time on earth already exceeds 13 years. "You don't age fast in this energy."
When a client sits down for a reading, Sterrett's cat usually jumps up in his lap. The psychic says it's all for a purpose: "During the session she usually jumps down two or three times to release energy and then she comes back."
Relying on referrals, Sterrett makes her living through a diverse array of services, as a sort of New Age circuit rider spreading a modern-day "word." There are the twice-monthly moon meditation sessions held at various metaphysical retail shops; the all-day psychic development classes she conducts once or twice a month; the guest appearances before various metaphysical networking groups; and, of course, her individual clients (Sterrett has a two-to-three week backlog for scheduling sessions).
Occasional suburban newspaper articles featuring her revelations have helped build her business. She writes an occasional column in the Plano Star-Courier. And on the last day of 1993, she was featured in a front page story of the Mesquite News with her predictions for 1994: an upswing in the economy in September and the possibility of a tornado touching down in June or July. A tornado did touch down, but it was in Lancaster, in south Dallas County--and it arrived in the spring.
Years of visits to psychic fairs, practicing palmistry, and learning at the feet of well-known local teachers have made Sterrett one of the respected senior members of Dallas' New Age community.
Respectable psychics do not encourage their clients to see them on a weekly or even monthly basis--and, in fact, shun such repeat business. Excess "devotion" to a spiritual guide, says Sterrett, can lead into the darker side of the psychic and spiritual world--as in Dallas with Terri Hoffman.
A former client of Hoffman is among Sterrett's friends and clients. Hoffman "used the Eastern tradition in which you are totally devoted to your teacher as a way to attain enlightenment," the ex-follower said. It led to a "subtle seduction...I am lucky to be here."
When she discussed the matter with her long-time friend Sterrett--who she describes as "a pure spirit"--"she just listened and said it was best that she not get involved and that it was not for her to judge," but advised the woman not to give up control of her own life.
Sterrett charges $120 for an initial visit, which lasts about two hours. Any return, or "maintenance visit," as she calls it, is $83 for 2 hours. The digits "83," she explains, add up to eleven, "which is a master number." The eight is prosperity, the three creativity. In adding up to 11, they create a number which is "highly, highly spiritual."
Numerology, the study of numbers and their supposed influence on humans, plays a role in Sterrett's work. But the heart of a session is her deck of "image" cards, which she uses in place of Tarot Cards. Sterrett made her deck of cards using pictures from magazines and art books, images, she says "that don't frighten people" like Tarot Cards. The images she chooses include corralled horses, children, flowers, clocks, and hands. She says her cards are "a puzzle that turns into a tapestry."
With New Age music playing softly in the background, Sterrett invites her client to sit at the formal round mahogany table in the dining area of her home. An ornate crystal chandelier hangs over the table. It is the same table and chairs where she ate her meals with her parents and sister while growing up.
After her client is situated, and Tata the cat is in place, Sterrett turns on a small tape recorder, then begins the session by explaining the numerology chart she has prepared. Then it is time to weave the tapestry.
But first, "I take them through a little meditation to where they can actually begin to feel their own guides and their angels...I try to keep it sometimes funny and yet we get real deep too at the same time." Sterrett gives the client a cassette tape of the session for future reference.
Sterrett calls her work "psychic therapy." And she is well aware "that there are a lot of psychologists who wouldn't approve of me doing this without credentials." But "as far as I'm concerned," she declares, "my credentials are established by God and by my own higher self."
She estimates she's read from her deck of image cards for thousands of clients. Montana Walsh is among them.
"I like the way she lets me direct [the session] in the way that I pull the cards," explains Walsh, a 39-year-old Spanish instructor who has been visiting psychics for a dozen years. "They are always very appropriate to what's going on."
Walsh says Sterrett is different from others she's encountered "because she doesn't give specific information about what is going on in my life. With [her], it's something that I feel like is on a more internal core experience." Sheryl Sterrett, says Walsh, "is how I fly through the universe."
While Sheryl Lew Sterrett never did discuss her inclinations with her father, she feels certain he shared her special gift.
Several years before Lew Sterrett's death in 1981 at the age of 79, Sheryl read her father's palm. "He had a nice long life line," she recalls. "He had a good balance--a nice balance between logic and intuition.
"He was very psychic.