Focused On His Career, Limbaugh Has Been Unlucky In Love

In 1976, Rush Limbaugh went on a blind date with Roxy Maxine McNeely, an outgoing woman with long, reddish-brown hair who was then working as a sales secretary at WHB, another Kansas City radio station. It was her first job in town since a concern for her mother's poor health had prompted her to return from a seven-year stay in New York.

Her New York experience helped make her, like the gypsy jock Limbaugh, independent-minded. Like him, she had toughed it out, sharing a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in Queens with seven women.

"He was lot of fun," Roxy recalls of their first get-together. "He could talk the entire evening away. He would draw you out, find out what your interests were and then start arguing with you. Because I was just back from New York City, there were a lot of New York jokes from him. `How could you live there?' Or he would say to other people, `She has no opinions, she lived in New York.' It certainly was ironic when you think that he ended up there himself."

The wedding took place on Sept. 24, 1977, at the Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau, with a reception afterward in the church social hall.

"It was huge," Roxy remembers. "All his family were there, plus about half of Cape Girardeau and the other towns around."

The newlyweds bought a house in Overland Park outside Kansas City. "Rush was not a fix-it person, so we had to have someone in any time something went wrong. But we had a lot of stereo equipment all over the living room. And magazines everywhere. And newspapers from various states. Newspapers and magazines on the tables and the floors."

Removed from radio

Personally, however, Limbaugh was hurting. Under self-imposed pressure and the influence of his father to make something of himself, he worked as a public relations executive for the Kansas City Royals, a job far removed from his first love, radio. "He would joke a lot about the mentality of ballplayers," Roxy says. "There was no growth for him there."

Or at home, either. "We just sat down one day and decided our marriage was over," she remembers. "It was mutual, nothing ugly." Although the excitement and the love had faded, Limbaugh clearly was the one being dumped.

They had been married only a year and a half when she filed for divorce, in March of 1980. Her petition to the District Court of Johnson County, Kansas, said that she and her husband were incompatible.

Rush put up no fight, and agreed to let the court hear his wife's case without further notice to himself.

The case moved swiftly. On July 10, 1980, Roxy appeared with her attorney in an Olathe courtroom to bring things to a close. Limbaugh stayed away. The judge granted the divorce.

"Rush and I just took each thing that we owned in the house and whoever had it originally took it," she says.

"I think we left as friends," Roxy says.

"I don't see him married with kids," adds Roxy, who eventually remarried and has two sons. "He devotes so much time and energy to what he does that there's nothing left for anyone else. Hindsight is always clearer, but I just don't think he has the energy for a relationship. We were just getting started, two people that ended up together. Now, looking back, I think he was happier on his own. Relationships are hard for Rush. People are hard."

It was later in Limbaugh's stay with the Royals that he caught the attention of Michelle Sixta, who was helping to pay her way through Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg by working as a stadium usherette. "I thought Rush was arrogant when I introduced myself to him," she later told The Sacramento Bee. "He heard I thought that and later came over to apologize. . . He'd clown around in the press box. You knew who he was."

The feeling was mutual. Before going to give a talk about the team one night in Sedalia, Mo., Limbaugh asked his secretary, Louise Adams, if her daughter, Suzy, another usherette who was college suitemate of Michelle, would like to drive over from Warrensburg to see him in action. She said yes. Then, on second thought, Limbaugh called back wondering if Suzy would bring Michelle. She did.

With Michelle occupying the center seat next to Limbaugh, Suzy felt like the odd woman out on the passenger side to her friend's right. Indeed, the courtship began that evening.

Michelle, a graphic-arts major who came from a large South Kansas City family, dated Limbaugh on weekends, and they also saw each other when she drove in from campus to usher at games. She was 10 years younger than him, but mature for her age - a tall and dignified woman with big, light eyes who would fall in love with the quietly suffering Limbaugh.

They married in 1983 at the Stadium Club in front of about 50 friends and relatives - a much smaller affair than the wedding with Roxy six years before. Afterward, Michelle moved into the Overland Park home in which Limbaugh had been rattling about alone.

Michelle described him as sensitive and serious, while he quipped that she was the right woman for him because she knew not to take him too seriously. However, behind the rosy picture that they presented, after Rush caught on at Sacramento's KFBK, was a marriage starting to splinter.

Poisoned by fresh air

In 1986, two years into their stay, Michelle confessed that the couple was having problems, partly because she wanted to forge her own career outside her husband's widening shadow of fame and importance. His egocentricity and housebound ways also took their toll. Here they were in sunny California, and much of the time he preferred to head home to the air conditioning and to his computer. On a day when he did take to the outdoors, going along on a boat ride with KCRA-TV anchorman Stan Atkinson and other friends, he wore a blue blazer in the bright sunshine and looked as if he was being poisoned by the fresh air.

"Michelle was a very attractive, energetic woman who preferred to be out," an associate recalls. "She totally subordinated her interests to his. Her role in life was to say, `Yes, Rush.' "

Not that Limbaugh's own affection started to ebb along with hers. One day at KFBK his producer Kitty O'Neal drew his attention to a magazine ad showing a model with long, beautiful legs and commented that it was impossible for anyone to look so fine. But Limbaugh disagreed, saying, "Michelle looks just like that." Although he was almost completely self-absorbed, it was obvious that, in his own way, he worshiped her.

Michelle, however, suffered as a result of his preference for couch-potato living. Or she finally decided to suffer no more. She appeared embarrassed by his grossly overfed size. During an early visit to WABC where Limbaugh launched his national career in 1988, colleagues did double-takes on seeing his slim and attractive wife. Apparently sensing the reaction, she said to one of them, "Everyone wonders how he got someone as beautiful as me."

Indeed, their marriage, which had been stressed by Limbaugh's eclipsing fame and sedentary ways in Sacramento, deteriorated further in New York. Although Michelle sat in on some of his early broadcasts, not everyone realized that she was, in fact, his wife. The conversation between them was so stiff, or so centered on the topics being discussed on the air, that she appeared to be his consultant or his publicist.

It became apparent soon after their arrival that the marriage was crashing. He didn't talk about Michelle; he talked about Rush. As Roxy had observed during his marriage to her: "Relationships are hard for Rush. People are hard."

The gulf that grew between Limbaugh and Michelle prompted him to conclude that she had been happy amid the distractions and the social network that they shared in Sacramento but that she did not love him when it was just the two of them acclimating to New York. This analysis of the problem may have overlooked his own inability to invest in the relationship. Nevertheless, the breakdown cut deeply into his self-esteem and made him excessively wary and often intimidated in his dealings with women afterward.

(From the book "The Rush Limbaugh Story," by Paul D. Colford. Copyright 1993, Paul D. Colford. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, St. Martin's Press. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.)