Matthew J. R., My Hero

Matt R. is one of my heroes, one who, following his recovery from alcoholism, made a significant contribution to the field of alcoholism.

-Nancy O.         

He was born and raised in the Buffalo, New York, area, and graduated from the University of Buffalo in 1933. In 1934, he went to work for the U.S. Government in Washington, D.C. a career that would span the next forty years.

Matt arrived in D.C. in the early days of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. He first worked for the Committee on Economic Security, then for the Works Program Administration (WPA). When World War II began Matt moved to the War Production Board, and at the end of the war went to Japan for five years working on economic aid to that country.

In the 1950's Matt's drinking caused him to lose his government job and he started a business venture which failed because of his drinking.

Finally, in 1958, Matt entered AA and began his recovery from alcoholism. He returned to government service with the Census Bureau. After several moves to other government jobs, Matt began working for the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), part of President Johnson's War on Poverty.

This is where he was working when I first met him and his wife, Christine, in 1967. He immediately impressed me as a modest, gentle, humble person, one not eager for the spotlight, but content to work quietly and let others take the credit.

He had a shock of white hair, and a kind face which showed that he was one who had known suffering. When he spoke at AA meetings, which was rarely, he simply shared his experience, strength and hope, never mentioning his many contributions to the field of alcoholism.

Soon after Senator Harold Hughes entered the Senate in 1969, Matt visited him and told him that the OEO authorizing legislation would soon come up for renewal in the Senate, and said he thought it would be a good idea if Hughes tried to amend the bill -- which was in the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare on which Hughes served -- to earmark funds for alcoholism.

This was brave of Matt. It could have cost him his job. The Nixon Administration was adamant that no federal employees, except official lobbyists for the government, could visit Capitol Hill to try to influence legislation.

Hughes liked Matt's idea, and took it to Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, who chaired the Employment, Manpower and Poverty Subcommittee, on which Hughes also served, and which had jurisdiction over the OEO bill.

The Rose Amendment -- as I like to call it -- to the OEO bill was part of the package reported from the committee to the full Senate. During the October 14, 1969, debate on the bill, Chairman Yarborough described it like this:

"Mr. President, another significant outcome of our study of the OEO program is the recommendation that a new national program of alcoholism counseling and recovery be undertaken in conjunction with the war on poverty. Small authorizations of $10 million in 1970 and $15 million in 1971 are included to get this effort underway. Such an addition is necessary if the assistance provided through the other programs is to have any effect on those families suffering the ravaging effects of alcoholism. It is clear that a worker, a housewife, a family cannot fully benefit from services provided by OEO or community agencies if each step forward is to be canceled out by debilitating effects of alcoholism or problem drinking."

This amendment passed the Senate during the brief period when I was still a volunteer on Hughes's staff and holding down another full-time job. But when I was appointed to the staff of the Subcommittee on Alcoholism and Narcotics a few weeks later, Matt came to my office and gave me a full briefing on the OEO legislation. When I later thanked him, and told him how helpful the briefing had been, Matt smiled gently and replied: "I believe in educating my friends."

Matt R. had responsibility for the earmarked alcoholism funds at OEO and he put them to good use. When President Nixon abolished OEO, almost 200 grants serving residents of low income areas, American Indians, and Alaskan natives were transferred to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which by that time had been created by the law introduced by Senator Hughes, the Comprehensive Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation Act of 1970.

But the grants from OEO were the first federal grants for services to persons with alcohol problems and provided primarily outreach and linking services or outpatient care or both. The poverty grant program became the largest of NIAAA's special population categorical program areas. They were transferred because they were seen as the group least likely to continue to receive funding when categorical grants were discontinued, because their approach was not consistent with the treatment approach favored by state or third-party funders.

Many of the counselors who worked in these programs had no professional training. Most of them, however, had developed impressive skills in working with alcoholics and other addicted people as a result of their experience in Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 Step programs. So Matt R. also established five training regions in New Jersey, Louisiana, California, Utah and Illinois.

Matt retired from government service and, in 1973, he began talking with former colleagues in the OEO program and others throughout the country who were forming state counselors associations. In 1974 he formally chartered the National Association of Alcoholism Counselors and Trainers (NAACT), the forerunner of what is now the National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC).

For the next three years, Matt served as Executive Director of NAAC, operating from his home in Arlington, Virginia, on a shoestring budget and drawing no salary for his services.

When the Finger Panel began studying the issue of national credentialing for alcoholism counselors in 1975, Matt was named to that group.

He remained as NAAC's Executive Director until 1977. When he retired a dinner was held in his honor. Senator Hughes, who could not be there, sent a warm congratulatory message to Matt, acknowledging his many contributions to the field of alcoholism.

Matt was only one of many who worked humbly and quietly to enhance the lives of alcoholics. But he was one I knew and loved, and who today, sadly, is remembered by few.

-Nancy O.   

* Re-printed with permission by Nancy O., moderator of The AA History Loverse-group.