Getting out of Dodge: Former multimillionaire Kristina Dodge’s journey of love, loss and rising from the ashes
There is hubris and there is kindness and when the two collide, the destruction can be devastating. But never count out a woman who grew up with immigrant parents in a small town in Nebraska.
Kristina Dodge didn’t just live the high life. She lived the highest life.
Dodge and her banker husband, Larry, rented a 747 jet to fly in guests for their sumptuous wedding, traveled to Europe in private Gulfstreams, became friends with people like Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger, were invited to the White House and gave away money like it was yesterday’s candy.
They pledged $5 million to the Kansas City Art Institute near where her husband ran a private bank. They promised $10 million for the Lawrence and Kristina Dodge Education Center at the Segerstrom arts center in Orange County. They gave $20 million to Chapman University to build a film school that still retains their name.
But it all came crashing down in the Great Recession of 2008. And it never stopped crashing.
Two years later, she found herself in a lawsuit battling to keep her triplet daughters born through surrogacy. Five years after that, the family was evicted from their foreclosed 7,000-square-foot mansion in tony Monarch Bay.
At her wits’ end and with no money to raise her four daughters, Dodge fled the limelight with her children for cheaper digs and a place where she could rebuild. For a time, she even worked on a pot farm.
“If I could live my life over again,” she admits, “I would do it differently.”
Now 57, Dodge smiles grimly and begins her story of love, living with a controlling husband, betrayal and rediscovering who she is.
When the Soviets moved into Lithuania in the 1940s, Dodge’s parents made their way to the United States and freedom.
With little more than an eighth-grade education, the couple built a remodeling business after moving to a small town in Nebraska. But there wasn’t enough to put their seven children through college.
So Dodge put herself through college.
She came out of the University of Nebraska with a bachelor’s degree in business and a burning desire to see a larger world.
Dodge moved to Kansas City, Mo., quickly landed two jobs and started working her way up the sales ladder.
One day, a girlfriend told her about a huge party at Lake of the Ozarks. She said it was being thrown by a man who was wealthy enough to pay everyone’s bill.
Her friend also promised it would be a harmless, easy-going, fun weekend. And that is exactly what it was.
“There were 50 of us,” Dodge recalls. “Larry had a huge open boat and there were boxed meals for everyone.”
At the time, Larry Dodge already was considered a wunderkind in the world of high finance. At age 27 in 1969, he became the youngest CEO of a national insurance group. Soon, he turned to building his own company and named it American Sterling Corporation.
The organization handled everything from banking to real estate, from insurance to film production.
When Dodge arrived back at work, she found her desk buried under a massive array of flowers. A note read, “From your secret admirer.”
Of course, it was a no-brainer who the admirer was — the same guy who wowed everyone by proving himself the best water skier on the lake.
Larry Dodge was a seasoned 47. She was a young 24.
A few days later, Larry showed up in Kansas City and asked for a date that very night.
She brushed him off. “I’m busy.”
But Larry Dodge wasn’t the type who gave up easily. Undaunted, he dispatched a round-trip ticket to California and — curious as well as interested — Dodge agreed to come.
When she landed in California, she stepped off the plane and saw a long, luxurious stretch limo. Inside, there was enough food for an entire family. There also was Larry.
Soon, they were on their way to Laughlin, Nev., to gamble and check out the entertainment.
“It was like somebody transported me to a fantasy land for a weekend,” Dodge remembers, emphasizing the trip “was chaste.”
But that was just the beginning.
Ring on third date
Despite an age gap of more than two decades, in many respects Kristina and Larry Dodge were a match.
Both grew up poor; both wanted more.
As a kid, Larry Dodge lived on a farm outside Redlands, a town with railroads, orange groves and a population of 18,000 in 1950. As soon as Larry was old enough, he left to discover the world by enlisting in the Marine Corps, toughest of the tough.
By the time he spotted his future wife, he’d made a fortune. Yet the trip to Laughlin didn’t impress her, certainly not enough to make Dodge change plans.
Dodge was offered a promotion to beef up her company’s Minneapolis-St. Paul office and immediately accepted. Larry didn’t miss a beat. Once again, he showed up out of the blue and this time he presented a ring.
It was their third date.
“We are going to be married,” he announced. Dodge’s reaction was, say what?
Little by little, though, Larry, who died in 2016, made headway. After a long-distance courtship, the couple married in 1988 at Lake of the Ozarks — one year after they first met.
“He never saw the cup as half-full,” Dodge explains. “He always saw it as full-full.”
It was an attitude that allowed Larry to build an empire, marry a woman he was infatuated with and convince himself that he could succeed against all odds.
It also was a philosophy that led to his — as well as his wife’s — downfall.
When the couple first met, Dodge estimates, her husband’s wealth hovered around $4 million. Within a decade, it ballooned to over $200 million.
By then, Larry had changed the long-time name of his private bank near Kansas City from Sugar Creek to American Sterling to better reflect his vision of a fast-growing, multifaceted company.
As Foothill Ranch-based American Sterling expanded, a Bloomberg report offers an account of just some of its operations at the time: personal and business banking services, all kinds of home loans, self-insured benefits, commercial insurance, risk retention.
The couple bought and remodeled their home in Monarch Bay and in the late 1990s had a daughter. Along the way, Kristina Dodge co-founded American Sterling Productions, a film company. In 2000, she produced a comedy called “The Annihilation of Fish,” starring James Earl Jones and Lynn Redgrave.
Kristina also served as director of the Hearst Castle Preservation Foundation and collaborated with then-Chapman University President James Doti on the public television series “Dialogue with Doti and Dodge.” It featured such luminaries as Sen. George McGovern, “Angela’s Ashes” author Frank McCourt, Broadway star Carol Channing.
But with great wealth, the couple believed, also comes great responsibility.
Along with donating to Chapman University and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, the couple also pledged $10 million to St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano where their daughter went, as well as $2 million to a school in Redlands that Larry had attended.
Larry was making money so fast, Dodge allows, it seemed he wanted to help everybody.
In Dodge’s eyes, however, one of the most challenging aspects of their marriage was that her husband was not only controlling, but that he also “enjoyed attention and power.”
Sure, she thought, giving back is good. But even for millionaires, there’s a limit.
“All these organizations ask for money,” Dodge explains of the life of the very rich. “But Larry was pledging today and planning to give it out over time.
“It made me really nervous,” she recalls. “My parents were cash people.”
Then the world turned.
Getting in hot water
There is a fable about a frog who slips in a steaming cauldron and immediately jumps out. But when the frog lands in water that gradually heats up, it fails to feel the danger.
Dubbed “Orange County’s power couple,” Larry and Kristina Dodge in the years leading to the Great Recession were like that frog.
“I stayed too long,” she frowns, “when the ship was sinking.”
As early as 2005, she started to wonder if Larry’s financial decisions made sense and worried he might be suffering from dementia. The couple, she told her husband, carried too much risk.
Still, Larry assured there was nothing to worry about. His company, American Sterling, was flush and all financial indicators, he said, showed there was nowhere to go but up.
“Trust me,” Larry said. “Have I ever led you wrong?”
In her mind, Dodge turned over his question. She had to admit Larry had never made a significant mistake. But she also knew her husband was a high roller when it came to risky finances.
Still, she agreed to several large donations and also agreed to sign her name to pledges that were legally binding.
One of those pledges was to the Kansas City Art Institute for $5 million to build studios and drawing rooms. But what started out good still haunts.
There was no back-out clause, no “force majeure,” a term that means parties are free from obligation when an uncontrollable, extraordinary event occurs.
That is exactly what happened when the Great Recession swept across this nation. For millions of Americans, it was a massive mess.
For the Dodges, it was nuclear.
Banned from banking
To use the frog analogy, the water in the Dodges’ pond started to heat up several years before the Great Recession.
Dodge says the couple poured $22 million of their own money into the bank in an effort to keep it afloat. It wasn’t enough and Larry kept that a secret — even to his wife.
Already stretched beyond the limit, according to a federal investigation Larry’s bank in 2007 experienced a loss of $2 million.
That year and the following year, the feds contend, he filed false documents to cover up the losses.
In 2009, the feds seized his bank.
Then the art institute filed a lawsuit for the $5 million pledge.
“The most disgusting thing about it is, without an explanation, they filed a lawsuit,” Larry told the Kansas City Star in 2012. “Since that time, they’ve been absolutely horse’s behinds.”
Kansas City Art Institute countered that they “built a building based on a contract that the college had with the Dodges, and we still expect them to live up to the contract.
“That’s why we’re leaving the name on the building.”
After several years of legal wrangling, the art institute wound up working with bankruptcy creditors and ended the dispute. Today, the only visible sign on the building states, “Kansas City Art Institute Painting Studios.”
The couple’s string of other unpaid pledges, according to bankruptcy filings and confirmed by Dodge, included $3 million to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, $2 million to Redlands school district, $1 million to St. Margaret’s school, $275,000 to University of California, Irvine.
By then, the couple had gone from having tens of millions of dollars, to having, like, zero dollars.
The feds even went so far as to ban Larry from banking forever.
“It was,” Dodge says, “catastrophic.”
Losing almost everything
To pay bills, the Dodges sold furniture on eBay and relied on Larry’s Social Security checks.
Some of the first items to go were three pianos Larry had given his piano-playing wife as birthday presents. One was made of Lucite with a gold interior. Its value was $70,000, Dodge estimates. The couple gave it away in exchange for attorney fees.
Another item was a Lalique crystal table valued at $100,000. It sold for about $20,000.
“We paid for groceries and car maintenance,” she admits, “by selling keepsakes and old designer clothes and, eventually, food stamps.”
Dodge allows she only kept it together with the support of a core group of friends. “Maria Shriver called,” she quietly shares, “to see if I was OK.”
Dodge was far from OK, but her can-do Midwestern upbringing didn’t allow her to say otherwise. Still, her closest friends knew better and helped keep her going.
In a letter to the Kansas City Art Institute asking for mercy, Dodge wrote, “It’s crazy to think that a family that owned a bank was left with no secret nest egg waiting under their floorboards.
“But when you’ve gotten pristine reviews for nearly 40 years, you develop an unshakable belief in your company and clients.”
Characteristically, she concluded, “I don’t need you to feel sorry for me – not a shred – but those are the facts.”
Then things got crazier in a very intimate way.
Battling for babies
Despite the financial pummeling, Dodge desperately wanted another child.
While trying to sort out the couple’s financial ruin, she endured bouts of in vitro fertilization, but it wasn’t to be. Then – in a very different way – it was to be.
A friend who lived at the Dodges’ home, DeAun Nixon, volunteered to serve as a surrogate. With four children of her own, Nixon was impregnated with donor eggs fertilized by Larry, 71 at the time.
In 2010, three healthy girls were born. For a time, it was as cozy as a commune.
With 11 people living under one roof and in what some would call either a desperate move for cash or an “only in south Orange County” decision, the Dodges and Nixon even pitched a modern-day “Brady Bunch” to television.
But when finances turned blood red, the bonds disintegrated and so did the TV dream.
Yet even then, Dodge recalls, her husband wouldn’t give up his leased Lexus, continued to declare himself “the consummate deal maker” and vowed, “I’m going to make a million dollars.”
During an “Inside Edition” show in 2012, he went so far as to describe his former worth as “$1 billion.”
Privately, his wife counseled, “We just need each other.”
For a while, her prophesy proved true. Battling for custody of the triplets on top of financially washing out was almost too much to bear.
But finally after two years, Superior Court Judge Mary Fingal Schulte ruled in the Dodges’ favor for the babies.
“Ms. Nixon claims that the surrogacy agreement is fraudulent,” Schulte wrote, “that she didn’t sign it or agree to the terms, that she was not given proper notice of the adoption proceeding, and that the intent of the parties was for her to be a co-parent.
“This simply is not borne out by the evidence.”
In 2015, the Dodges were evicted from their mansion.
The action left Kristina asking herself, “How am I going to survive?”
Picking up the pieces
If you start poor, you usually know how to handle poor and if things go south that can be a very good thing.
After years of struggle, Dodge finally arrived at the conclusion that she had no choice but to divorce her husband of 28 years.
If that sounds callous, it’s not. It’s just real.
“You want to go down with the captain of the ship,” she allows. “But sometimes you need to jump ship.”
At the time, she didn’t know her husband, 23 years her senior, would die from cancer nine months later at age 77.
She just knew she needed to survive for her children to thrive.
“Thank God I have a great work ethic,” she explains, “and a strong self-concept.”
She also understood she needed to, so to speak, get out of Dodge.
“When I was in my deepest, darkest hole,” she shares, “a friend reached out and introduced me to a farmer.”
The plan was platonic. But on a farm things grow.
With her children, she drove to the farm in Humboldt County and started to regroup. Best of all, her children fell in love with the land.
With fruit trees, cows, horses, chickens, organic crops – and an acre of marijuana – Dodge found a new beginning. She even made money helping with the weed crop.
“It was a place that was good for me spiritually and a place where my children learned a lot,” Dodge says after recently moving back to Orange County. “They were growing up in nature – not surrounded by Louis Vuitton purses.”
Dodge also fell in love with the farmer. But after two years, Dodge knew it was time to leave both farm and farmer, who remains a friend.
“I’d repaired much of the damage,” she confides, “and my self-esteem.”
She returned to Orange County, the place where her children were born, a place where Dodge had old friends.
Less is more
Today, life for Dodge is simpler, less stressful and in many respects, perhaps ironically, richer.
Instead of being the “first lady” of private banking, Dodge now works as a real estate agent. Instead of an expensive private school, her triplet daughters attend a public school.
Instead of the upscale markets she once frequented, Dodge shops at Costco. Instead of a mansion, she and her children bunk with a friend who offered to share her home in south Orange County.
“I look back,” Dodge says of great wealth, “and I don’t miss it. My only regret is that my children have been through hell and back.
In her letter six years ago to the Kansas City Art Institute, Dodge wrote, “Remember that the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression was indeed a game changer.”
It’s a cautionary statement that reminds all of us that almost anyone at any time can get slammed, whether it’s a financial loss or something worse.
“Pain, anger, betrayal, acceptance,” Dodge says. “I’ve been through them all.”
Putting the pieces together
It is a few days before Christmas 2018, and Kristina Dodge drives a Subaru toward Nebraska with her college-student daughter riding shotgun and her three eight-year-old girls squeezed in back.
The kids are exhausted from the long drive. Still, they can’t wait to visit grandma and grandpa, old-school and old-fashioned in the best ways.
Dodge knows rough weather is coming but presses on. She grew up on the prairie and knows how to handle a car – especially a four-wheeler – in rugged conditions.
Skies grow dark, snow starts to fall. Soon, Dodge, finds herself in a full-blown blizzard. She pulls over to the side of the road and assures the kids that everything will be fine. They will just wait out the storm.
“I’ve been here before,” she tells her children. And it’s true. For a woman like Dodge, a blizzard is nothing.
“It’s not who we know,” Dodge confides. “It’s who we are as human beings.”
With hard-earned lessons behind her, Dodge in many ways has rediscovered the woman she was when she stood strong and on her own – and she really liked that woman.
The whole world was in front of her then and it still is today. The differences?
The world is more in focus, more clear and Dodge is far more wise.
She also has her laugh back.