Father Neustrom pictured on the left
The Story Behind the Story of the Creation of
The Central Kansas Foundation in Salina, May 1967
By Fr. Willys E. Neustrom
In May 1966, I transferred as an Episcopal priest from a parish in Central City, NE, to Salina, KS, where I became the priest in charge of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation here in Salina. I had been ordained a priest relatively late in life at age 45 after serving in the commercial world as a corporation president for 14 years.
One of the most significant challenges I found in my first parish was trying to help those who had severe drinking problems. But, unfortunately, everything I tried failed. It wasn’t until I became aware of A.A. groups (the closest one to my community was 45 miles away) and their dedicated, helpful recovering members that sobriety made possible for those I failed to help on my own. So when I arrived in Salina, one of the first things I attempted to do was to become acquainted with the local A.A. groups, so I could again know where and to whom I could refer persons with drinking problems.
In 1966 there were only 2 A.A. meetings a week in Salina, compared to 50 today. One small group met on Saturday night (more or less a social club), and membership was by invitation only. The other was a small group that met at Christ Episcopal Cathedral here in Salina with about eight members, all having five years or more of sobriety. I attempted to make contact. I told them I had recently moved to Salina from Nebraska, where I had attended A.A. for about three years. When they asked how long I had been sober, I revealed I was not an alcoholic but why I wanted to make contact with them. I was bluntly informed that I was not welcome because their meetings were closed, and only alcoholics could attend.
Several weeks later, I was grocery shopping, dressed in my clericals, when a man who worked in the bakery shop came up to me and said, “I’m an alcoholic and attend meetings at your church.” I responded, “Not at our church, you don’t.” Then I told him how I had been rebuffed. He responded, “I know what you mean. My wife and I are both alcoholics and had recently moved to Salina from California and have never felt welcomed either.” Then he said, “Let’s start another A.A. group here in Salina. I have A.A.’s Big Book.” I responded, “I have the place.” So the first open A.A. meeting was started, meeting at my Church at Max and Norton, and we gave this group the name”New Hope A.A. Group.” The name of the couple from California was Harley and Rose Cook, and what a wonderful, helpful couple they turned out to be, not only in getting this new group started but so helpful in everything that followed; helping start the first Alanon, Alateen and Narcotics Anonymous groups in Salina, plus everything else that followed including the creation of The Central Kansas Foundation. Harley died many years ago, and Rose is now living in the Denver area. Salina was truly blessed by their untiring efforts. God bless them.
The New Hope A.A. group being an open A.A. group, grew in size rather rapidly. One method of outreach used was to start doing a half-hour radio program every Sunday evening at KSAL radio station. Various A.A. members would tell their stories about how they had found sobriety thru A.A. and then take calls from the listening audience. We also advertised a phone number to call for help.
One day we received a call from a desperate man living in an old broken, down motel close to the old Union Pacific Railway Station. His name was “Whitey.” When we arrived, we saw one of the sickest persons we had ever seen, living in the most horrible squalor. He desperately needed immediate medical emergency care, but both hospitals in Salina refused to accept alcoholics for detoxification. All we could do was hold his hand and talk, pleading with him to hold on for a few more days until our next A.A. meeting. When I went to pick him up, I was informed that he had died several days earlier.
To say the least, we were devastated-not being able to help when help was so desperately needed. It was at that moment a decision was made that we must have our own halfway house here in Salina so we could detoxify in a non-medical setting since neither hospital would admit alcoholics. Then came the big question-how can we do it, and where? When discussing the dilemma in which we found ourselves with my Bishop, Bishop Davidson, I asked if there was any possibility that the large two-story Victorian Home built in the early 1900s and owned by the Church could be made available for a Halfway House and blessed him, he agreed to lease it to us for $1.00 per year. This property was located at 150 South 8th, just south of Christ Cathedral. Since the large house had been vacant for many years, a tremendous amount of work was needed to make it useable for our purpose. A large number of dedicated A.A. people volunteered to help make it habitable and helped to find beds, furniture, and kitchen appliances. We also desperately needed money to do the job, but where could we ever find that kind of money? The Sisters of St. Joseph with the Mother House in Concordia came to our rescue; all made possible because Sister Theophane and Sister Carolyn Juneman had become interested in helping alcoholics due to their attending the open A.A. meetings of the New Hope Group.
It quickly became obvious that we needed a non-profit corporation to receive tax-deductible contributions. Before leaving Nebraska, I had become acquainted with a non-profit corporation similar to what we had in mind. On request, they sent us a copy of their incorporation papers, and with the great help of our volunteer attorney, Connie Achteberg, we could adapt it to our purpose, and the papers were filed with the state. As a result, the Central Kansas Foundation, a corporate entity to manage the new halfway housecalled the Pathfinder House, came into being, and our first manager of the Pathfinder House, John LeComb, was hired. The original Board of Directors consisted of 4 recovering alcoholics; Joe Roth, Bob Mernahan, Harley Cook, and Dwight Minear, and four non-alcoholics; Richard Worth, Doris McMichael, Sister Theophane, and myself, who served as President of CKF for the first four years. Of the eight initially involved in the start-up of CKF, all have died, with the exception of Dick Worth and myself, and our most helpful volunteer attorney, Connie Achteberg.
One thing John did each morning was go to Municipal Court to visit with the Judge and those who had been jailed the night before for drunkenness. Many of these men became the first occupants of the Pathfinder House; believe it or not, some became sober and found a new life of sobriety. So CKF, which was started to fill a desperate need, came from loving, caring people who had faith, hope, and trust and wanted to help those who could not help themselves.
Very early in the life of the Pathfinder House, one outstanding, dedicated volunteer was a medical doctor by the name of Dr. Donald Goering. He was our only source for medical help with the men at the Pathfinder House and was also elected the 2nd president of the Foundation, serving four years from 1971 to 197 4, as I recall. With our rapid growth, it became apparent that many of the people we served needed in-patient treatment and the only in-patient care available was in the State Mental Hospitals in Topeka and Larned and the private treatment facility, Valley Hope, in Norton, Kansas, each of them being more than 200 miles round trips for our volunteer drivers who admitted patients to treatment and picking them up following treatment. It soon became evident that we needed a treatment facility in Salina for the large number of patients we were placed in treatment, so the same question arose Where? And How? Neither hospital in Salina was open to the idea. In 1971 Ed Shepherd and I attended an alcoholism conference in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I accidentally met a man named Vern Johnson, who had started the Johnson Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota. We had breakfast together. During and following breakfast, he described the wonderful and effective treatment program he had devised and guided at St. Mary’s Hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota, using the “Feeling Chart” concept that later became the basis of his wonderful book, “I’ll Quit Tomorrow.” As we sat in the breakfast booth, he started drawing out the feeding chart on the back of an old envelope. I was fascinated and wanted to know more, so he invited me to spend three weeks at the Johnson Institute and St. Mary’s Hospital, which I did in 1972. I quickly discovered this program was our answer for an effective treatment program, even though it was a medical model within a general hospital. There were no hospitals in Kansas with this program, and neither of our local hospitals was open to the idea.
In an attempt to try to convince the local hospitals and medical community of a proven medical model that was highly effective, I invited Vern to be our guest speaker at the CKF Semi-annual educational meeting to be given following lunch at the Salina Country Club. As I recall, we had about 125 at the luncheon, including 5 or 6 medical doctors. Again, Vern’s presentation was wonderfully accepted by all, which became the basic stimulus the Foundation needed to get a local treatment center started. But again came the question of where and how? Both hospitals thought such a program treating skid row bums could never be profitable.
Since I knew that the entire 4th floor of the old section of St. John’s Hospital was vacant, I asked Vern to look at it. What a horrible mess we encountered. Windows were broken, and pigeon poop was over everything. And what was Vern’s reaction? He said, “This would do just fine.” Now we had the challenging task of trying to convince the hospital administrator and Board. Another concern I had was if we should ever get the okay, where would we find a program director to run the program? When I posed this question to Vern, he turned to me and said, “You would do just fine.” I was flabbergasted. I knew absolutely nothing about treatment. He said, “Come up to the Johnson Institute for about four months, and I’ll have you ready to go.” I was skeptical but intrigued. But how could I ever do it? I had three parishes in Bennington, McPherson, and Salina to take care of. I had a family I was responsible for with one son at K.U., and I certainly didn’t have the money to finance it.
The next four months with 10 to 12-hour days were not only enlightening but also a very painful life-changing experience. I called the Administrator at St. John’s Hospital here in Salina, telling him what I discovered, and suggested he fly up to Minneapolis and see for himself. He was utterly amazed at what he found and became very excited, saying I will go back and talk to my hospital board and let you know their decision. In about three weeks, he called, saying the Board decided to take a chance, and then offered me a full-time position on the staff at the hospital when I finished my training in March of 1973. Serving full-time at the hospital half time with the Church (still serving two parishes), I found time to oversee upgrading the facility on the 4th floor, hire staff, and set programs. Our opening date was 5 July 1973.
From the very beginning, we strictly adhered to the Johnson Institute treatment model, plus being blessed with superb counseling and nursing staff. Due to their loving, caring, no-nonsense services, we witnessed miracle after miracle as patients and family members endured the healing pain of discovering their true selves and started living it out in a loving, caring way-sober and free.
Once again, CKF had accomplished what had appeared to be an impossible task having an effective in-patient treatment program in Salina. The fast growth of the treatment center and CKF was nothing short of phenomenal. CKF was referring more and more patients and adding other halfway houses for men, women, and teens, becoming a model not only for the state but for the nation, and the hospital program gaining fast recognition for its effectiveness in producing extremely high recovery rates.
Our patients included a slice of all mankind, young and old, rich and poor, male and female, doctors, dentists, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, and even clergy. According to hospital records, in the first seven years, we treated patients and family members from 230 different communities in Kansas, plus 63 additional communities from 21 other states from New York to California.
The reason I have been sharing this abundance of information is to help make you more fully aware of the tremendous impact CKF has had on the lives of people not only in Kansas but throughout this nation, all made possible because one homeless alcoholic named Whitey tragically died because we were not in a position to help when help was so desperately needed. Yes, “Whitey’s” tragic death became the catalyst that brought CKF into being and the fantastic accomplishments that followed.
I truly thank God for all the loving, caring people that helped make it all possible. Yes, CKF has a rich and outstanding heritage of service to mankind. Thanks be to God.