Public displays of affection?

By Amanda Palleschi
Published April 20, 2007

Deborah Joswig did a double take when she saw her name inside a gigantic heart on a billboard along a busy street.

"Deborah & Eric Joswig. Always & Forever," the billboard read. "Ephesians 5:25. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church."

She begged her husband to turn around so she could get another look.

That billboard, put up in September on Ulmerton Road in Largo, was the first of six in the bay area. There was one for her birthday in December. There was one on Tampa's John F. Kennedy Boulevard, which Deborah first saw lit up at midnight, on Valentine's Day. Now, there's one on State Road 60 in Brandon.

For Eric, the billboards are the ultimate public confession that he cheated on his wife for almost a decade. They're meant to show that he still loves the woman he married nearly 27 years ago.

But as the number of billboard's grew, Deborah rolled her eyes.

"I said, 'No more, no more,' " she said. "He does one nice thing and then you say, 'Is it something you can believe in, or is it just a game?' "

A secret life

Though his wife sometimes questions his sincerity, Eric Joswig insists he'll spend the rest of his life showing that he loves her and that he's sorry. The six billboards cost him nearly $10,000, but years of infidelity nearly cost him his marriage.

While Deborah was busy being a mother and working full time, Eric was busy working in construction. His lunch hours, he said, were spent having sex with women he'd met at traffic lights while riding his motorcycle or at bars. By his count, there were seven to 10 partners in one five-year span. He said he stopped having affairs 10 years ago but didn't come clean until Deborah got suspicious.

"It was a secret that ate me up inside," he said. "I wasn't respecting my wife and my marriage."

Their marriage had been rife with troubles even before he revealed the affairs. For years, Eric was a different person in public than the fun, caring father he was at home, Deborah said.

"If we went to an event together, he'd tell me to go away. He'd put his arm around other women and tell dirty jokes," she said. "It was like I wasn't his wife."

At work and home, the most burdensome jobs were left to Deborah. "He resented that I was just not the woman that he could tell to sit and behave," she said.

Then, three years ago, Deborah heard Eric take a call.

"It's just a business call," he told his wife, but she thought otherwise.

Little by little, the truth began coming out, Deborah said.

Eric confessed to her a year ago that the woman on the phone that day hadn't been the only one. They began seeing a marriage counselor and a therapist.

Now, she combs through his past with questions in her mind.

Old day planners tell her when he took off work to see another woman. She looks at pictures of them smiling with their daughters and thinks, Was he really happy on that ski trip? Was he looking for something out there?

Starting over

In August, they closed the business and are now planning to move to their 400-acre ranch in Ocala.

It will take the rest of his life to finally be a good husband, Eric said. Leaving a successful construction business is a small gesture on the path to redemption.

"Nothing else matters in life except my marriage now," he said. "If you can lie to your wife, how the hell could anybody else in the world trust you?"

For many years, Eric didn't give friends and coworkers reason to trust him, either, he said.

"A lot of people know the rotten side of me that my wife didn't know," Eric said.

That includes former colleagues who knew about - and condoned - his infidelity. The billboards, Eric said, were also aimed at them.

"These are the people who need to know that I'm no longer who I was," he said.

The women he once slept with need to know it too, he said. That's why there's now a billboard in Brandon. It's miles from the Joswigs' Seminole home, but near where some of the other women live.

He said he'll continue to put up billboards for special occasions, persevering just as he did when he first noticed Deborah working at a Kmart back in high school near Pittsburgh.

"Please don't think my wife has forgiven me. I devastated her," he said. "But we are finding each other again."

For Deborah, the billboards aren't a quick cure-all. Repairing their marriage is an ongoing process, she said. She sees the billboards as a public-service announcement. "We are coming out and letting people know it's okay to move on from something like this and fix it," she said.

Eric, Deborah said, is now a different person than the man who hurt her so many times. He has removed himself from the places and people that brought him down and worked on finding himself and his faith in God.

"I've seen him change," she said. "Why should I leave him now, now that he's trying?"

Amanda Palleschi can be reached at 661-2456 or apalleschi@sptimes.com.