Growing up in Decatur, Charlie Tibbels was regularly asked, “Is Dr. Tibbels your dad?”
It’s the plight of small-town kids. Most everyone knew longtime physician Dr. Kelly Tibbels, and wanted to know Charlie’s connection.
“Then it was, ‘Is Dr. Tibbels your brother?’” Charlie said, in reference to his brother Jason, who is also a physician.
“Now it’s, ‘Are you Zack and Marlee’s dad?’ And I prefer it that way,” he said, smiling.
Charlie, who veered from the family business of medicine into a thriving law practice, is the proud father of two – but there were days when the possibility of fatherhood was uncertain and a law degree was distant.
A LONG ROAD
Tibbels graduated from Decatur High School in 1988 and went to Texas Tech University in Lubbock to play trumpet in the Red Raider band. He played for a couple of years and then quit to be Raider Red – the Tech mascot.
“I was out there long enough to graduate, but I just had a little too much fun,” he said. “I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Honestly, I probably should have gone to the military or something because I just wasn’t ready for that level of commitment in school.”
At the end of four years, Tibbels found himself back in Decatur. He and Misti married in 1994 and he began working for James Wood in Denton.
He said he sold cars for a while and also worked in finance when the opportunity came up for him to attend the University of North Texas and finish his undergraduate degree.
He went into UNT as a business major. Despite what seems to be a family inclination to practice medicine, he said he never felt that calling.
“Dad knew at 10- or 12-years-old that that’s what he wanted to do,” Tibbels said. “And Jason knew very young that that’s what he wanted to do, and he was focused on that goal. I was always more interested in business and that avenue.”
Toward the end of his undergraduate work, he became intrigued by law and signed up to take the entry exam, the LSAT, two months before graduation. It was an exciting time as Misti was expecting their first baby.
On Oct. 2, 2001, their son, Jaxon, was born.
The family was devastated to learn that the infant was born with Dandy-Walker syndrome, a genetic disorder that largely affects the cerebellum. But Charlie said the baby had multiple problems.
“He had a hole in his heart, his cerebellum was mouse ears and he was on a ventilator pretty much the whole time,” Charlie said. “He never left the NICU in Fort Worth.”
Six days after Jaxon was born, Charlie took the LSAT.
Twenty-six days later Jaxon died, and the grief was overwhelming.
“I dropped out of school that last semester,” he said. “Just the whole ordeal … it was too much.”
Determined to finish, he reapplied to UNT and started classes again in January.
Less than a month into the new semester, parenthood came back into the picture.
His mother, Sandy, called and said, “Are you ready to be a dad again?”
He answered without hesitation. “Yes!”
Sandy knew of a young woman in Lubbock who was having a baby and wanted to give it up for adoption. She had called Charlie to let him know that the birth mother had chosen him and Misti to be the parents of her son.
They loaded the car and drove all night.
“The first time I held him he was an hour-and-a-half old,” he said. “For me, it was instantaneous. When that moment hits and you realize this boys is yours, it was an awesome feeling and humbling at the same time.
“It was just one of those feelings of fulfillment,” he said. “We had just lost Jaxon three months before that, but there was never really a gap there.”
Charlie said Jaxon laid the foundation for their family. He said the question has been asked if Zack was in any way a replacement for Jaxon, but he and Misti are adamant that each boy is unique and holds a special place in their family.
“Zack was an addition, not a replacement,” Charlie said. “Jaxon never really came home, so none of those things (in his nursery) ever felt like his.
“But it was all there for Zack. It was his from the beginning.”
Charlie and Misti adopted Zack in February of 2002 and Charlie graduated from UNT that May. Shortly thereafter he went to work for Solaris Hospice in Decatur as chief information officer. Although he was still drawn to law school, he didn’t want to put unnecessary stress on Misti with a new baby while they were still grieving the loss of Jaxon.
“Plus, after losing a son, I just didn’t feel motivated to pursue it,” he said. “The desire never left; the timing just wasn’t right.”
LAW, MORE FAMILY
Charlie worked for Solaris for six years, and although he enjoyed the job, the desire to go to law school still gnawed at him.
In 2008, he decided to take the LSAT again and apply to law school. That’s when Misti discovered she was pregnant.
“So it was kind of the same story,” Charlie said with a laugh.
The couple found themselves welcoming a new baby just as they prepared for another big change in his career.
Charlie enrolled at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth as a full-time law student in the fall of 2009. Zack was 8, and little Marlee was 1. Charlie was faced with balancing family life and studying.
“If you do it right, law school is 12 to 16 hour days, seven days a week,” Charlie said. “I wanted to maintain that relationship with Misti and the kids and keep that solid, so I tried to take every Sunday off. It was a challenge to maintain that and still prepare for class on Sunday.”
His desk at home was in the middle of the family’s living space, between the kitchen and living room, which meant his study time was rarely quiet unless he stayed up late at night.
“I’d call them over and say, ‘There’s a pretend wall here, and you can’t cross this wall until the clock says 9,’” he says. “They were pretty good. I’m really thankful for the way they handled things.”
Charlie said Misti has a photo of him sitting at his desk, baseball hat and headphones on, but the cord is dangling. He wasn’t actually listening to anything, but it helped block out some of the noise and was a visual reminder to the kids that he was studying.
“I think it was hardest on Zack because he was older,” he said. “But Marlee only knew dad as a law student.”
Charlie’s schedule consisted of driving to Fort Worth for mid-morning classes and staying until early evening or occasionally a late night class before driving home to Decatur. He said he was fortunate that he didn’t have to work while he took classes, and he credits Misti with keeping the household running during that time.
“It hasn’t been an easy journey,” he said. “There are a lot of ups and downs through the whole process and even in law school, some major ups and downs. But for it to all finally be realized, it’s remarkable.
“The journey’s not over by any means, though. Misti and I have talked about how blessed we’ve been to not only come back to our hometown but to have our parents with us and for me to come work at a law firm and work with someone like Mike (Carrillo), who is an excellent mentor.”
He and Carrillo formed a partnership in January 2013. Zack, 12, is going into seventh grade at McCarroll Middle School, and Marlee, 6, will be a first grader at Young Elementary in the fall.
“As a spiritual person, I can say that God has definitely blessed our family and put things and people in our path and experiences in our path that have brought us here,” he said.
He admits that balancing work and fatherhood continues to be a challenge – but he relishes every moment, and credits his father with showing him the way.
“He was an example to me in how to relate to my kids because he related to each one of the four of us differently,” he said. “He’s also given me good example of how to love a wife.”
Although Charlie won’t be leaving his mark in medicine, he hopes to emulate his dad in his own field of practice.
“If I can be the Kelly Tibbels of the law profession as he is in the medical profession here, then that would make me happy.”
The way he’s balanced the roles of husband, father and professional, it’s a good bet someday Zack will get that question: “Is Charlie Tibbels your dad?”
And it’s one he’ll answer proudly.