The Frisby Legacy

When the most famous evangelist in Arizona history died last year, his will decreed that his estate be split evenly among his five sons. But there was practically nothing left to split.

Neal Frisby — the guy on TV in the '80s, preaching the Gospel "from Phoenix, Arizona, under the great pyramid, Capstone Cathedral" — once had assets worth more than $20 million. The Pentecostal preacher's ministry, which he controlled completely, owned 20 acres in one of the priciest parts of town, a 4,000-seat cathedral, and the house his family had lived in for 30 years. All were free and clear.

A few months before dying, however, the ailing evangelist gave them all away.

The land. The cathedral. The house.

He did not give them to his sons, even though two of his sons were living in the house at the time, even though one wanted nothing so much as to inherit the pulpit.

He did not give them to his brother, who was the trustee of his estate and who'd been his loyal lieutenant for decades. Nor did he bequeath them to his congregation or any of its members.

Instead, Neal Frisby handed over his assets to a guy he'd met only a few months before. Robert Brooks was a former NFL wide receiver, of all things. (And, as one family friend hissed, a black wide receiver, at that.)

The family was shocked by the old man's decision, and the story only grew stranger to them as time passed.

Brooks, it turns out, was a guy who'd never even read Frisby's teachings. A guy who proceeded to evict from the cathedral the newsletter operation that had made Frisby's name. A guy who made sure that the family manse, which sat adjacent to the cathedral, was torn down.

During Neal Frisby's life, his word was law. "He wanted things a certain way, and there was no dealing with him if it wasn't that way," recalls Zan Pauley, who attended Frisby's services for more than 30 years and was eventually appointed to his board of directors.

No one challenged Frisby, even as his work habits led to exhaustion, even as he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars seeking relief from chiropractors.

But after Frisby died, people started questioning practically everything about his last decision.

Could "Brother Frisby," as everyone called him, possibly have wanted the world he created to change so dramatically? And how could he possibly have intended that his beloved cathedral — the "great pyramid" from those old TV commercials — go to a stranger, not to mention the family home?

A year after Frisby's death, his family and friends remain deeply divided.

His sons, who were left in the cold, are convinced that the gift was an act of senility, the irrational act of a 71-year-old man who'd long been wracked with pain and was incapable of safeguarding his interests.

But others, like Pauley, see the bequest as nothing less than Neal Frisby's final leap of faith — the perfect signature to a life lived in total service to God.

At first glance, the two positions seem to be in stark contrast.

But much of the evidence — files from three court cases, minutes from Frisby's board meetings, property records, and interviews with just about everybody who knew Neal Frisby well — points to a more complicated truth.

After all, seemingly crazy behavior and true devotion to God have never been mutually exclusive. Anything but.

Neal Frisby's life was a perfect example of that.

Frisby, as it turns out, was almost always irrational. He was convinced that his success owed everything to his willingness to hear God's voice and obey it. Often, that meant doing things that seemed, well, nuts.

And as Frisby grew older, his obsessive quest for God's voice left him incapable of doing things that anyone else in his position might have prioritized. He failed to nurture his congregation, take care of his health, and even pay attention to his family — because he was in pursuit of something bigger and better. Something with eternal significance.

And no one knew that better than Neal Frisby's sons.

Even as his final sacrifice for the Kingdom of God came at their expense. Even as it galls them today.

As a young man, Neal Frisby was a barber, and a boozer. Never had a day of college; didn't even finish high school. Other than a stint in the Naval reserves, he seems to have traveled little beyond Paso Robles, the central California farm town where he'd grown up.

He married young and had two kids, Deborah and Allen. But, horribly, 29 days after Allen's birth, his teenaged wife committed suicide. More booze followed.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske