DALLAS — Never judge a book by its cover. That’s what Dontryl Alexander taught me, again.
And the 33-year-old from East Dallas, still struggling with the stigma that an autism diagnosis can sometimes bring, hopes you’ll understand that lesson too.
I was standing in the concessions area near the entrance to the Midway at the State Fair of Texas the day before the 2018 version got underway when a man began shouting my name. It was unsettling at first because he knew exactly who I was and began reciting the call letters of every TV station I’d worked for in my career, and could then recite the names of co-workers from every one of those stations.
But my concern turned to amazement when I realized I wasn’t being confronted by a stalker. I was face-to-face with a glimpse of genius.
"I just got a lot of knowledge that's all,” Alexander said with a laugh at the home he shares with his grandparents. They help take care of each other.
“Just helping them live to fight another day,” he told me.
Dontryl Alexander says he was diagnosed with autism as early as three years old. But his limitations in standard educational environments and social settings were soon outweighed by his demonstration of a particular brand of knowledge. Dontryl loves television news.
"One of my all-time favorites is this gentleman right here is Tracy Rowlett,” he said while holding up a photo of himself with the legendary Dallas news anchor.
Dontryl’s bedroom holds a vast collection of old VHS tapes, CDs and DVDs and more than 800 signed photos from news anchors and reporters from across the United States.
"I've been collecting autographed pictures since 1999," he said. "I'm just trying to break a Guinness world record or something."
"Four-and-a-half-years-old I think when I started watching local news,” he said, trying to explain his encyclopedic knowledge of Dallas television news.
"To me Pete (Delkus) and Dale (Hansen) are Abbott and Costello," he continued. "Delkus is Abbott and Hansen is Costello.”
"And more importantly John McCaa, who I'm sad to say is retiring this year and I wish him all the best in retirement. John is my favorite, John McCaa that is.”
Dontryl, when asked, can tell you who was on the WFAA anchor desk any year, any decade, any newscast.
"That would be Tracy Rowlett and Iola Johnson,” he said when I asked about the year 1980.
"Chip (Moody) and Gloria (Campos) anchored the 5,” he said when given another random date in 1985. "John (McCaa) and Tracy (Rowlett) anchored the 6.
And I asked about the day the Berlin Wall came down.
"The Berlin Wall came down in '89, right?” he said immediately. “Because if I'm right it was Tracy and Chip who anchored that coverage."
In his ability to retain an extensive amount of facts and figures, Dontryl hopes that perhaps he can change someone’s perception of what autism is and what an autism diagnosis means.
"All I want to do is just make a difference,” he said of the search for full employment. “That's all I want to do."
"When you have autism, you see challenges," he said. "I'm a human being. I have autism. And I can do things any person can do."
"In broadcasting and what he knows about Channel 8, he's a dictionary,” his father Donald Alexander said. "Anybody with special needs, needs a chance for what they're qualified for. That's my feeling."
If you’re not aware how common autism can be, there are approximately 200,000 diagnoses in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and 1 in 59 children are identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder. And some in the autism spectrum can laser focus on specific things. For Dontryl, it just happens to be TV news.
But in this active brain and deep intellect, and in the caring heart who brought flowers to Gloria Campos her last day on the air, he hopes you see a person – not just a disability.
"I'm still a person," Dontryl said. "And I can still do things I want to do. I just love helping people that's all there is to it."
That is all there is to it, except for this one more thing.
"And Dale Hansen, I'm happy to say is still around,” he said while watching a vintage clip online of Hansen anchoring a sportscast a few decades ago.
“Yeah, we can’t get rid of him,” I joked. Dontryl laughed.
Dontryl, ever the television genius, knows our problems too.