FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Early Setbacks

with Jim Daly | June 2, 2008
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Today on the broadcast, Jim Daly, president and CEO of Focus on the Family, tells Dennis Rainey about the tragedies that marked his childhood and left him longing for stability and peace.

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  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Today on the broadcast, Jim Daly, president and CEO of Focus on the Family, tells Dennis Rainey about the tragedies that marked his childhood and left him longing for stability and peace.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Today on the broadcast, Jim Daly, president and CEO of Focus on the Family, tells Dennis Rainey about the tragedies that marked his childhood and left him longing for stability and peace.

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Early Setbacks

With Jim Daly
June 02, 2008
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Bob:  A dad is supposed to be trustworthy, and when he's not, it can rock a child's world.  Here is Focus on the Family president, Jim Daly.

Jim: I think that's one of the biggest wounds a child can bear is the broken promise of a father.  I think moms are predictable, you know, Mom patches your knee when you scrape it, Mom is there to put an arm around you; to hug you.  Dads are the wild cards.  You don't know where you're at with your father often, and when they're breaking promises like that, I think it just takes away from that child's self-esteem.  It certainly did mine.  I didn't feel good enough that my dad would keep his promise for me.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, June 2nd.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll hear today the compelling and challenging story of the early years in the life of the president of Focus on the Family, Jim Daly.  Stay tuned.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us.  You know, at our Weekend to Remember Marriage Conferences, we have an opportunity to get the guys off by themselves for a little while on Sunday morning, and as we talk to them, one of the things we ask them at the end of the message is – as you look back on your life, you have a decision you've got to make, are you going to be a victim or a victor?

Dennis:  Mm-hm.

Bob: And you look at some of the circumstances people have experienced, and you can see how somebody says, "Well, my experience is I'm captive to my background, I'm a hostage to it."  But we don't have to be, do we?

Dennis: We don't and, you know, as I was reading our guestbook, Bob, for today's broadcast, I had that same thought.  I thought if anybody could claim, "You know what?  I just need to kind of tuck it in and people need to take care of me," it's our guest.  But, instead, he's turned that around because of the great grace that he has received, a great Savior he met along the way, and this is a great story.  Our listeners are in for a real treat.

Jim Daly, the CEO and president of Focus on the Family joins us.  Jim, welcome to the broadcast.

Jim: It's great to be with you.

Dennis: He's been with us before, Bob.  We did a series of broadcasts with Dr. Dobson and with Jim Daly around orphans, and our collaborative efforts there and our partnership with Focus on the Family really trying to give voice to the orphans.

Bob: And that's an issue that is near and dear to your heart, right at the center of your own story, right?

Jim: Absolutely, that's the reason I sparked the interest, you know, that's the reason at Focus we decided to get engaged with that, and thanks for setting the pace.  I mean, FamilyLife really was out there in front for many years, and we just didn't even realize what the problem was with the orphan.

Dennis: Well, you know, all roads lead back home as you guys have said for years, and the orphan bears the imprint of a lack of a home and, Jim, as I was reading your book, "Finding Home," I was thinking, like Bob, you could easily, you could easily just be a victim.  Why do you think you aren't a victim today?

Jim: You know, Dennis, that is the toughest question that I get asked about the story because I think it's what you said at the setup – it's really the Lord's mercy and grace.  There was nothing – I never felt responsible for what was happening to me – that it was my fault that my dad left; that he was an alcoholic; that my mom was an cultural; that their marriage was destroyed.  I felt they were making bad decisions way back when I was five, six years old.

And I think that was really the Lord saying, "It's not you.  It's those around you making these bad decisions."  And somehow, deep inside my heart, I felt that.  I felt, generally, I was okay, and I can't explain why.

Bob: You grew up in an environment where most kids would just learn how to cope not how to thrive.  You faced physical danger; you faced emotional hardship and abuse.  Unpack for our listeners a little bit of the first decade, the first 12 years of your life.

Dennis: Well, actually, what I want you to do is take our listeners to where you start the book – in your bedroom that night and what took place just a few inches away from where you slept.

Jim: Right, my mom had remarried a gentleman – Hank.  I called him "Hank the Tank," and they decided to save some money, and so we moved into a place in Southern California called Compton, which is probably the roughest city in all of Southern California, certainly, if not America.

Dennis: Did you have a sense of that when you were growing up – that it was a rough place?

Jim: I knew it was rough as an eight-year-old going to school, and just being chased from school every day.  I had a guy that would just – he was three or four years older than me.  I called him "Jack the Ripper."  I had nicknames for everybody as a kid.

Dennis: Yeah, in fact, in fact, this is kind of a funny story – in a way, kind of funny, but there is story about him chasing you home?

Jim: Yes.

Dennis: We'll get to what took place that night.  Just tell this story real quickly.

Jim: Well, sure, this guy, I mean, he literally frothed at the mouth.  This guy – he made everything inside me just cringe with fear because he was kind of the neighborhood bully and, for some reason, he decided I was his target of opportunity.  So every day from Star King Elementary School I would run home looking over my shoulder to see if this older boy was chasing me and, sure enough, one day he tried to get me.  Fortunately, I was faster.  But I told my sister about it, my sister, Kim, and …

Dennis: And she was how much older?

Jim: Oh, she's probably eight years older than me. 

Dennis: Okay.

Jim: So she's in high school, but she's a little woman, she's not a big woman at all, and I told her about it.  And one day I was racing home and Jack the Ripper is right behind me, right on my heels, and I went by this bush, and I could my sister's image behind this bush, and she jumped out and punched him right in the face.

Dennis: Ooooh!

Jim: And just decked the guy.  So she was standing over him on that sidewalk in Compton saying, "Never touch my little brother again."

Bob: Was that it?  Was that the end?

Jim: Yeah, he never bothered me again.  So I've got to chalk one up for my older sister.

Dennis: Jack the Ripper became Jack the Vanished.  He didn't show up again for the rest of his days.  Okay, take us back to your bedroom then.

Jim: Well, yeah, in Compton that year, we lived there for a year, and there was one particular night, I remember, I slept through it, but the next morning I woke and went out.  I could see the yellow chalk outline, and it was only a few feet from my bedroom window, and someone had been shot, shot to death with a shotgun, and there was the dried puddle of blood and the whole bit right in the back alley.  And I remember all the tape was there, the police tape, and the chalk outline and investigative units looking around, and that was the neighborhood.  That was the way it was – people just fighting with each other. 

Every night – we lived in this apartment complex with an asphalt quad, and you would just hear these families going at it night and day.

Bob: Were you fearful as a child?

Jim: I was.  Living there, I was fearful.

Bob: For your life?  You thought you'd get beat up, you thought, "Somebody is going to get me one of these days?"

Jim: Absolutely, and there's gang activity, this was 1969, so there was already gang activity occurring.

Bob: And it wasn't just outside the walls of your home, but you had to fear for things that were going on inside the walls.

Jim: Yeah, Hank was a typical stepfather.  I'd hate to say it that way.  Hank was a stepfather that fit the image of what a horrible stepfather would be.  He didn't beat us, but he just – for all the love he had for my mother, he had utter dislike for the kids.

Dennis: I want you to take our listeners all the way back to how your mom and dad met.  I think this begins to explain a good bit of how you end up in Compton, California, in a very dangerous place.  How did your mom and dad meet?

Jim: Well, they met at an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting way back before I was born.  I'm the last of five kids, and there's six years between me and the closest sibling, so I'm the "Oops" baby, as we say.  And the four of them ran as a pack – my two older brother, two older sisters.  They're only one year apart, so they kind of ran together.  I was almost like an only child six years later.

And, there, my mom had made that commitment.  Before I arrived, the state had considered taking the kids away from them as being unfit parents, and my mom, she just sobered up.  She said there's no way I'm going to let my kids be taken away, and she made a commitment that she would not drink any more, and she stuck with it.  My dad made that commitment as well but when I was five, he couldn't maintain that promise, and he went off the wagon, and my mom was fed up with it, and she just said, "We're outta here," and so she took five kids in 1966 and worked two or three jobs just to put some food on the table.  We always didn't have much to eat, even, but my father, I mean, it was just broken promises after broken promises, and that's just unfortunately who he was.

Bob: As a five-year-old, when you knew Dad was leaving, were you thinking, "Good," or "I'll miss him," or what?  What was going through your heart?

Jim: You know, Bob, the thing that I remember feeling is nothing, ambivalence.

Dennis: Just numbed over.

Jim: Just numb.  I mean, that was – I just remember him saying, "I'm not going to be around much," and it was just like, "Okay."

Dennis: You mentioned that ambivalence.  There are a number of stories you tell that really explain, I think, why you had to protect your heart and not feel a great deal, but one of them was a broken promise about a ball glove.

Jim: I was seven years old and, again, I just loved sports, I loved them – I loved playing baseball, football, the whole bit.  My dad had said on one of his visits, he just say, you know, "I'm going to bring you a mitt for your birthday, for your 7th birthday," and I thought, "Oh, that's incredible."  You know, that longing in a boy's heart for that experience.

And I remember, every 15, 20 minutes, running to curb with Ricky, my neighbor, looking up and down that street looking for my dad and, of course, having my friend there, my best friend, made it all the more embarrassing when I was saying, "I'm sure my dad will come."  "Oh, yeah, I'm sure he will, Jim, I’m sure he'll come," and he never came.  And that just left such a big hole in my heart, and it just reinforced all the things I knew my dad was.

Dennis: You know, as I read that story, I reflect back on my father, and, Jim, you don't know this, but my dad – integrity was his middle name.  I mean, he was a remarkable man whose father had deserted him when he was a boy, and his eight siblings, in Southwest Missouri where the winters got pretty cold.  And I often wondered if it was the broken promise of his father who deserted him that made him decide that when he looked a young lad in the eye, like he did me, and he made a promise to go fishing, to play catch, to coach my Little League baseball team, as he did for three years, that he did it.

And, you know, I just remember looking into his face, and I remember, if my dad said it, it was as good as gold.  But there are a lot of children today growing up in homes where just because Dad says it, doesn't mean it's so.

Jim: Absolutely, and I think that's one of the biggest wounds a child can bear is the broken promise of a father.  I think moms are predictable, you know, Mom patches your knee when you scrape it; Mom is there to put an arm around you to hug you.  Dads are the wild cards.  You don't know where you're at with your father, often, and when they're breaking promises like that, I think it just takes away from that child's self-esteem.  It certainly did mine.  I didn't feel good enough that my dad would keep his promise for me.

Bob: Your parents weren't reading "Dare to Discipline," or "Hide and Seek" or any of the books that were coming out from Dr. Dobson?

Jim: It was a little ahead of their time, just a couple of years.

Bob: They didn't – I guess it sounds like your mom had some sense of what being a mom was supposed to be all about, and maybe the moral compass that was inside you was planted there, in part, by your mom.

Jim: Absolutely.  I think my mom, you know, she used a lot of humor.  We had tough situations, like we've talked about.  She used humor to defuse the family stress, and lots of different things that she would do, but I think she was the one that really instilled in us that idea that, a, it's not our fault; that these things happen in life, and that we can go on.  And, I mean, my mom did a wonderful thing before she died.  There I was, a nine-year-old, and we didn't understand what was happening.  Mom was just in the bedroom a lot, tired.  And, Hank, our stepfather, would just – you know, would guard her time and told us not to tire her out, "Don't spend time with her because it really tires her out."  That's what he used to tell us.

So I would live weeks in the house and not see my mom in the back bedroom.  He would …

Dennis: What was going on there?  What do you think he was trying to do – protect her or …?

Jim: Protect her and spend all the time he could with her so that when he got home from work – he was a chef, he would come home, he would just go right into the bedroom.  He didn't care about the kids; he'd go right in the bedroom and spend those last – the evening hours with her there.  And I think he just was so jealous of her, he didn't want to share any time with the kids, and so he'd lock the door.  I mean, when he would leave for work, he'd lock her in.

Dennis: You know, as a man who looks back on a period of time when, again, you described all the different forms of family you'd experienced – a two-parent family intact, then a single-parent mom, single-parent dad, being an orphan, foster care – added to that was an additional issue of identity confusion around your last name.

Jim: Yeah, that's true.

Dennis: And you don't think of that being important to a young lad, growing up, but your name really is important, isn't it?

Jim: Well, it's that sense of heritage – who am I?  Where did I come from?  What am I about?  And I think the Lord puts that in our heart, you know?

Dennis: I think we want to know our address.

Jim: Yeah.  We just never had that.  We had no extended family – only our mom and dad and the five kids.  We had no aunts, no uncles, no grandparents.

Dennis: So what was the confusion around the – your last name?

Jim: Well, for us, I mean, my oldest brother's birth certificate has the last name of Evans, and then the rest of us have Daly.  And my dad always said that the Daly name was an assumed name for reasons he didn't want to tell us, but he never explained it, and when he died …

Bob: That's all you know today?

Jim: That's all we know?

Dennis: Didn't you have some kind of FBI or some kind of protection – supposedly, of your family?

Jim: Yeah, there's some – you know, my dad lived in Chicago when he was a kid.  He'd tell stories about running for Al Capone as a young boy, and, you know, we don't know if that was factual.  He had a lot of colorful stories about it, and then, sure enough, he was working the furniture business, that was Al Capone's business.

Dennis: What do you think?

Jim: You know –

Dennis: I couldn't really tell from your book  – if you were a betting man, okay …

Jim: That's a low blow.

Dennis: It is, it is, but let's just say you had to say this or that.  Do you think he really had those experiences with Capone?

Jim: I do.  I think he was a kid that was – that hung around those people, and I think that's where he learned a lot of the bad habits that he learned.

Dennis: And, see, there's where bad company corrupts good morals.

Jim: Absolutely.

Dennis: I mean, you look at your father, he grew up in circumstances not unlike what you grew up in, but he didn't meet the Savior and so, as a result, those people turned his heart toward evil, and ultimately it damaged you.

Jim: Absolutely.

Bob: Let me ask you about an errand your mom asked you to run – or something she asked you to do for her right before she died.

Jim: Again, a great lesson from my mother where, in that home in Long Beach, with Hank locking her in the back bedroom, not letting us spend time with her.  I remember, one day I got home from school, and I heard her call out to me, you know, "Can you come back?" and my first thought was, "Where is Hank?"  That's just how drastic it was, you know, am I going to get in trouble for going back and talking to her?

But she had me come into the bedroom, and she said, "Can you run to the nursery and buy some flower seeds?"  Chrysanthemums, I'll never forget, because I couldn't spell it, and she spelled it for me, and I went and bought the seeds, and then she asked me go to out to the flower box under her window, outside in the backyard and plant those seeds.  And I did it very carefully.  It was like a special project for my mom and I.

And I finished up, and I went in, and she said, "Thank you, thank you for doing that."  And that was the end of it.  It was probably six to eight weeks later that she died.  I think she fully knew what she was doing. 

And I remember the day of the funeral, we got back, Hank was so distraught emotionally he couldn't go to the funeral, because he did love my mother, I did see that.  We got back from the funeral, all this chaos going on, Hank's coming out of the bedroom, "I'm going to leave, I can't take the pressure."  He jumps in a cab and leaves.  There are the five kids, nine to 19, and I remember, in that chaos, just running out to that flowerbox and, sure enough, there were these little, probably 1.5 to 2-inch high shoots, these chrysanthemum shoots, and my sent me a very clear message at that moment, which was life will go on, things will bloom …

Dennis: Finish growing up, son.

Jim: … not to worry.  Yeah.

Dennis: Jim, what would you say to the young man, young woman, who maybe didn't experience all the same things you did, but their lives, looking back, really takes on the characteristics of being a victim – someone who is always blaming others?  What would you say to them?

Jim: It's easy to fall into that trap, and I think what the Lord does for us – in the Psalms it says "He saves those who are crushed in spirit," and I think the Lord allows these things to occur to put us through the knotholes of life, so to speak, in order to crush our spirits in a way that we become tender toward Him.  So I would encourage them not to be resentful for those experiences.  In some ways, I am grateful that those things occur, because they shaped me, and they helped me to better understand who I was as a human being and who others are, as human beings.

One of the dings I got on the book is that I suggested people should keep their expectations low, and I think that's scriptural.  It says, "Don’t put your trust in mere man, put your trust in God," and that's true.  People, we let each other down.  My father constantly let me down, and there are other people that came along that let me down, whether that was Hank or Mr. Real, the foster care family we lived with.  It was just consistent. 

And through that, though, I think I learned that man is – you can't put all your eggs in that basket, and I think for those folks that have struggled with that, it would just – my encouragement would be to take a step back, know that people are flawed.  I'm flawed, we're all flawed, and that we need to take that in stride.

Bob: You know, 2 Corinthians, chapter 1, reminds us that one of the purposes for our own suffering is so that we can comfort others with the comfort that we've received.  Of course, that means you first have to receive the comfort of the Savior in your life and then you can take the scars, and they can become trophies that you can use to comfort others.

Dennis: And Jim Daly has hope to pass onto others because he received hope.

Jim: Absolutely.

Dennis: And I think that's the real message of our book, Jim, and the real message of your life.  In fact, another passage I was thinking of in the Scriptures – "I know the plans I have for you, plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope."  You know, Christianity and the message of Christ in the Bible, is a book about broken people.  We are all broken.  There is none righteous.  Paul said, "No, not one."  We are all broken.  We've all failed in our own ways, either privately or publicly.  Some grew up in great families and others grew up in families where they struggled, but the mark of Christianity and the message of Jesus Christ to us all is "Come unto me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest, and I'll give you a purpose, and I'll put a song in your heart, and I'll give you peace and praise," and, Jim, I'm just glad you're not a quitter.

Jim: Oh (chuckles.)

Dennis: It's cool.  I've admired you and your leadership from afar, but hearing your story and reading about it now, I just really appreciate the courage that you've exhibited, and I think you're giving courage to others right now.

Bob: Well, and I think there are a lot of people who are going to read Jim's book and are going to say, "You know, I had circumstances like this," or maybe they'll say, "Mine weren't this dramatic; this dark or this desperate, and yet you have found, in Christ, not only hope but also strength to rise above those circumstances, and your book is a testimony to that.

I would encourage our listeners, this is a compelling story to read, it's called "Finding Home" by Jim Daly, who is president of Focus on the Family, and we have copies of the book in our FamilyLife Resource Center.  You can go to our website,, and if you click on the right side of the screen where it says "Today's Broadcast," that will take you to an area of the site where there is more information about Jim's book and how you can get a copy of it.

You can find transcripts of this program, you can listen to it again on the Internet, in fact, there is even a place where you can interact with today's program.  You can leave comments about what you've heard or about what you read in the transcripts.  Just follow the transcripts all the way to the bottom and post a comment, if you'd like.

Again, the website is  If you're interested in a copy of the book, "Finding Home," click where it says "Today's Broadcast" on the home page, or call us at 1-800-FLTODAY, 1-800-358-6329, that's 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY.  When you get in touch with us, someone on our team will make arrangements to have Jim' book sent out to you.

You know, I think about the number of our listeners, particularly the men, who may have grown up in circumstances where a dad was absent, or where they did not see manhood modeled for them, and I wonder, "Where do you get a picture, where do you get a vision of what manhood ought to look like?"  And I know one of the places where I've gotten that picture is from listening to a message by Stu Weber, who is a former Army Ranger, a Green Beret, now a pastor of a church in suburban Portland, Oregon, and Stu has a great message on helping us understand what manhood looks like in balance and what it looks like when it gets out of balance, as well.

The message is called "Applied Masculinity," and this month we're making a CD of that message available to our listeners when you help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today with a donation of any amount.  When you go to our website to make a donation, or you call 1-800-FLTODAY and make a donation, we want you to feel free to request a copy of this CD fro Stu Weber on understanding the basics of masculinity and manhood.

If you make your donation online at, you will see a keycode box on the donation form.  Just type in the word "Stu" there – s-t-u – and we'll know that you want the message from Stu Weber, or call 1-800-FLTODAY, make a donation over the phone and ask for the CD that's begin offered this month and, again, we're happy to send it out to you.  We appreciate your financial support of this ministry and your partnership with us.

Now, tomorrow we're going to continue to unpack more of Jim Daly's story.  We're going to hear about the years that he spent in foster care.  I hope you can be with us for that.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas – help for today; hope for tomorrow.  


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