I never met Tammy Faye Bakker Messner, who died of cancer last week, but I feel as though I have.
In 1987, I made several trips down to Fort Mill, SC to cover the breakup of Jim and Tammy Bakker's PTL Club and Heritage USA amusement park and chronicle the Rev. Jerry Falwell's part in that sad saga.
Nearly 20 years later, I heard Tammy Sue Bakker, the couple's daughter, speak at the Lighthouse Church in Lynchburg.
In between, like everybody else, I was alternately outraged and amused by the flood of publicity that turned Tammy Faye in a caricature.
It was her makeup, for one thing. She wore lots of it, as everyone knows, and a popular T-shirt from the late 1980s consisted of random blobs of various colors and the words: "I ran into Tammy Faye at the mall."
She cried a lot, was another thing. She cried when she was happy, when she was sad, when she felt the rush of the spirit take her over.
Of course, a lot of people -- including state and federal law enforcement authorities -- thought that the Bakkers were crooks. I was one of them, and I've often reprised a classic pronouncement Tammy Fay once made during a healing service.
Looking out over a vast field of believers, she blurted out "Someone out there has just been healed of cancer, and they didn't even know they had it."
Now, wasn't that special?
The interesting thing to me, though, when I visited Heritage USA, was how loyal many of the Bakkers' followers remained to the couple even after the bad news hit the fan.
"Jim and Tammy would never do anything to hurt us," I remember one woman telling me.
Actually, they wound up hurting each other. Jim had a fling with a church secretary named Jessica Hahn (who was so traumatized by the experience that she went on to pose for Playboy), and the couple was eventually divorced. Tammy Faye then married Roe Messner, another PTL figure, who was later convicted of financial wrongdoing himself.
Tammy Faye was never convicted of anything, though, and the arc of her life continued -- from evangelism to pop culture icon. She appeared on several reality shows, occupied Larry King's guest chair on a number of occasions, and became a sort of latter-day Judy Garland, adopted enthusiastically by the gay community.
Even her lingering death from cancer became a public spectacle. Periodically, Tammy Faye would appear on Larry King Live to report of the progress of the disease.
So what did all this mean?
To me, Tammy Faye's career provided an object lesson in the fraility of humanity. By all accounts, she and Jim started out on the right path, only to be lured into the underbrush by the onslaught of riches that suddenly came their way.
The Bakkers showed the world that it is always more advisable to follow the message and not the messengers. In the end, though, Tammy Faye managed to fight her way through the notoriety and the silliness to emerge as a redeemed and triumphant figure.
"She's a good person," Tammy Sue Bakker said of her mom last year in her visit to Lynchburg. "She really is."
I believe her.