It's hard to keep secrets when you grow up in a town as small as Pawnee, Okla. - population around 2,000.
Which could explain why Dan Marries, one of Tucson's most recognizable TV celebrities and a proud hometown boy of Pawnee, didn't think twice last winter about letting people know that he was going through one of the biggest hurts of his adult life.
Marries' dad, Kurt is dying of skin cancer. It's the same cancer that took his great-grandmother, his grandmother, an aunt and a couple of his uncles.
"Cancer runs in my family," the 41-year-old KOLD Channel 13 news anchor says, sitting one recent Friday evening at the kitchen table of his tidy Marana home.
In February, Marries brought his father to Tucson's VA Hospital from his Grand Junction, Colo., home. He had hoped that the VA doctors would find a cure for the cancer that was ravaging his 64-year-old father.
He posted a photo of the VA on his Facebook page with the simple message: "My dad is here now. He's going to be fighting cancer at the VA."
A handful of people - mostly from Tucson - chimed in with good wishes.
A few days later, he posted a picture of his father in his hospital gown, and more Tucsonans posted comments.
By the end of the first week, Marries started posting videos of his father in the hospital, usually of the elder Marries holding a stuffed duck and joking with nurses or chatting about the tubes sticking in him.
"In the beginning there were a few comments. But if we didn't put up a video one day, people would comment, 'Oh, how's your dad?' So it literally became a daily ritual for five to six weeks," he says.
"I remember the last video I put up was the plane taking off" as his dad returned to Colorado to continue his cancer treatments, he says. "And I said, 'That's my dad taking off. That's his last flight, literally.' That one got a lot of comments."
Marries says he didn't have a plan when he started posting his pain on Facebook. At first, it was a way to document the miracle cure he prayed would come from doctors in the community he's called home for 14 years. Within the first week, it became apparent that there would be no happy ending.
The Facebook postings became a way to document his father's final days.
"I thought I'm kind of ... creating a memory for not only our family but for other people," Marries says. "Because cancer is one of those things that really affects everyone. If it's not you directly, it's a family member ... it affects everyone."
Memories of a father
Dan Marries spent his first nine years in San Diego, where his father was a helicopter pilot. Kurt Marries worked on a tuna ship and would fly his helicopter ahead to find schools of tuna. He would then fly low to the water to wrangle the fish into one spot until the ship arrived with the nets.
Each fishing trip took him away from home for two to three months, leaving Marries and his two younger siblings alone with their mom, Judy.
There would be plenty more separations throughout his childhood. His father traded in his fish-wrangling job for wildland firefighting and moved the family from San Diego, where Kurt Marries was born and raised, to Pawnee, where he had relatives. Marries says his dad wanted his young family out of the fast-growing West Coast city.
Two years later, the family moved again, this time to Colorado, where his parents eventually divorced. Dan, who was in junior high school, stayed behind in Pawnee, living with his grandmother.
"It was a little hard at first, but I had my own room. I was in the eighth grade and I just loved my grandma," Marries says.
"It was just nice. I loved hanging out with my uncles and going around town."
Marries spent summers in Colorado and the school years in Pawnee. His life was typical of a small town: He played sports and when he was old enough, he and his friends got jobs at the family-owned grocery store. On Friday nights, they drove their trucks; sometimes they would park in a field and light a bonfire. Every once in a while someone would pass by and spot their trucks and rat them out to their parents.
It's impossible to hide in a small town.
"By the time I got home, my grandma knew where I had been," Marries says.
When he got a speeding ticket, "I walked in the house and handed my grandmother the keys to the truck," he says.
"I didn't even ask how long I would be grounded."
When he was in Colorado he, his brother and their dad spent all their time outdoors.
"We rode motorcycles and four-wheelers," Kurt Marries said in a series of text messages last week. "Anything outdoors was our motto."
"I've got a lot of happy memories with him as a kid," Dan Marries recalls. "We've always had that camaraderie. Growing up he was always such a great dad."
When Marries finished high school, he moved to Colorado and enrolled in Mesa State College where he met his first wife, Stephanie. He spent four summers as a wildland firefighter with the Bureau of Land Management, following in his dad's footsteps. He even considered firefighting as a career, along with business management and a couple of other options as he bounced around majors. It wasn't until he stepped foot into the local TV station to film a commercial for the scuba shop where he worked that he found his calling in broadcast journalism.
Hearing the police scanners and watching the reporters in action - including Kris Pickel, with whom he would later reunite in Tucson - gave him an unquenchable adrenaline rush.
"That day I changed my major for the fifth and final time," he says.
"He was always the curious one in the family," adds his dad. "Where, why and how come should have been his middle name."
In his junior year, Marries landed a job with the Grand Junction station as the morning anchor and producer. His first full-time job out of college was in frigid Minnesota; he lasted a year before seeking the warmer climes of Yuma, where he was the main anchor.
As he recalls, "I called my dad and said, 'You ever heard of Yuma?' "
" 'Yeah. Why?' "
" 'I just took a job there.' "
" 'Why?' "
Tucson came calling in June 1999. Marries was married and had a son, Kurtis - named for his father - when he joined KOLD. His first day on the job fell on his son's first birthday; the station let him start the following day.
"I was nervous about moving to Tucson," Marries admits. "But after a few months, I really fell in love with this town."
Five years down the road, as people were asking if Marries planned to seek greener pastures in a bigger market, "a little voice inside of me said, 'You gotta stick around,' " he says.
Two years later, in 2006, longtime KOLD anchor Randy Garsee left the station and Marries landed in the anchor chair. He continues to anchor the 5, 6 and 10 p.m. weekday newscasts with Teresa Jun at 5 and Heather Rowe at 6 and 10. The 5 and 10 p.m. shows are consistently ranked No. 1 among the highly coveted 25-to-54 year-old audience, station officials said.
Marries lives near KOLD in Marana, where his son attended Ironwood Elementary School before moving to Gilbert after Marries and his first wife divorced. He had been active with his son's school and continues to volunteer with the Marana Unified School District, emceeing school carnivals.
He donates his time to other community organizations. That includes several years serving with the Casas Adobes Optimist Club, which adopts needy families during the holidays, providing gifts for children and holiday meals. He's also a founding trustee of the Greater Tucson Fire Foundation.
"When you are around in the community, when you have a stake in the community, it tells people you care," says KOLD producer Christopher Francis, who has worked with Marries for a dozen years. "You are in tune to the kind of issues people are facing. Dan connects with the community."
Marana residents are used to seeing Marries at the grocery store or in neighborhood restaurants. They aren't shy about asking for an autograph or photo op, and Marries is quick to oblige.
"Dan loves people. Me and his son have this joke. We'll go to the supermarket and we'll be in the car. And we'll go, 'Where's Dad?' Of course he's talking to somebody inside. He loves it," says his second wife, Jennifer, a Tucson Unified School District counselor whom Marries met after she sent him an email at the station a few years ago.
In many ways, Tucson has replaced Pawnee as Marries' hometown, which is why he didn't hesitate to share his father's story with the hundreds of Tucsonans who follow him on Facebook.
Marries understands that his father will not beat cancer. He was diagnosed two years ago, but the disease has raged in recent months and will not be stopped.
"It's really hard thinking about losing my dad," he says, tears welling in his eyes. "This has sort of defined me over the last few months. We've said our goodbyes three or four times."
Through the pain that has wracked his father's body and made it nearly impossible on some days to speak, his son sees strength. "He never complains," Marries says.
But the younger Marries also sees his possible future.
"I don't want that," he says. "It's definitely made me take a second look at how I want to live. I want to be healthier. I don't want to be 64 years old in a hospital with cancer."
His father's illness has led Marries and his wife to dramatically change their lifestyle. They added more fresh fruits and vegetables to their diets and started juicing. They researched genetically modified foods and started cutting back on red meat.
Whenever they leave the house, Jennifer Marries insists that her husband slather on the sunblock.
"She's a stickler now," Marries says, patting Jennifer's hand as she nods. "I can't hardly go out without her slapping that stuff on my face."
The Facebook postings changed the way many Tucsonans view Marries. He is no longer just the handsome newscaster reading the day's headlines.
"Now, instead of asking me about the news, they're asking me about my dad," he says. "It all changed from just being the news guy to, 'Man, I know what you're going through. Can I help?'
"This is why I love Tucson so much. They have rallied around my dad. There has been so much goodness coming out of the badness."
Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at email@example.com or 573-4642.