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Cornerstone Railroad Program patriarch Roger Davis retires after 20 years

Roger Davis

If it weren’t for the coronavirus, this week at Cornerstone of Recovery would have belonged to Roger Davis.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled public gatherings, corporate conferences and large events, Cornerstone had planned to once again host the annual Railroad EAP Training and Networking Conference, as it has for the last 16 years. Every year, the event brings together representatives of the country’s largest rail carriers (Norfolk Southern, Amtrak, CSX Transportation, Kansas City Southern Railway, Union Pacific Railroad, BNSF Railway Company and Canadian Pacific Railway were all in attendance last year) for a week of networking and information sharing for two purposes: How to better help struggling employees with a drug and/or alcohol problem, and how to safeguard the public.

As the outgoing director of Cornerstone’s Railroad Program, Davis would have been in attendance, as he is every year. Although he lives in Alpharetta, Georgia, he commutes regularly to East Tennessee, where he’s been an integral part of Cornerstone as well as the founder of the treatment track for railroad employees. He came to Cornerstone shortly after his retirement as an EAP for Norfolk Southern, and it was in that role that he first became acquainted with the drug and alcohol treatment center established in 1989 by William J. “Bill” Hood.

Roger Davis and Cornerstone: Strong beginnings

Cornerstone familyThe first time he visited Cornerstone, he said with a chuckle, a valuable life lesson was reinforced: Don’t judge a book by its cover.

“Today, Cornerstone is on that nice, new campus, but back in 2000, they were in that little strip mall on Topside Road,” Davis recalled this week. “I wasn’t blown out of my shoes when I first saw it, because as an EAP (Employee Assistance Professional), I had been to a lot of places that were really nice and really on the upper scale of treatment centers.”

Davis, as an EAP for Norfolk Southern, was out of town when one of the railroad’s employees had sought help for a drug or alcohol problem. He returned to the office and discovered that a coworker had referred the individual to an upstart treatment center in East Tennessee; wanting to see it for himself, he loaded up in his car and left his home at the tie in Birmingham, Alabama, for the long drive up to East Tennessee.

Pulling up out front of Cornerstone, he raised his eyebrows. Inside, he knew immediately: Cornerstone of Recovery was a different sort of place.

“I can remember going into places and feeling, ‘This isn’t a good treatment center,’” said Davis, who got sober himself 35 years ago after and had a keen understanding — as all of Norfolk Southern’s EAP representatives did at the time — of what a struggling addict or alcoholic needed in order to find recovery.

“At some of them, you could tell that one hand didn’t know what the other one was doing,” he said. “And then I can remember going into some places, and you just seemed to know. I can’t explain that, but at Cornerstone, I knew. The way the employees talked to each other, the way one hand knew what the other was doing — it was a good place, and the guy I came to see — he had been there a week or 10 days at that point — he thought it was a good place.”

Davis left impressed, and Cornerstone became a treatment option for Norfolk Southern workers. Every time he sent one of his employees to East Tennessee, he could see that recovery was more than just a job for the Cornerstone team — it was also a calling.

“Whatever I asked, they tried to take care of it,” he said. “If I needed them to go get somebody, they would go, and no other place would go do that.”

A partnership is forged

As he approached early retirement with the railroad, he grew concerned about what he would do with the idle time. Sure enough, a couple of weeks after he left Norfolk Southern in March 2000, he found himself lost in his own house, unmotivated and restless. And so he called Cornerstone CEO Dan Caldwell, who had taken over after Hood’s death in 1993.

“I said, ‘We need to start a railroad group at Cornerstone,’” Davis remembered. “He knew how great the insurance was for railroad workers, and he said, ‘That’s a great idea. How do we do that?’ I told him, ‘I have no idea. Put me on the payroll, and we’ll figure it out.’”

With Davis on board, Cornerstone’s reputation as a drug and alcohol treatment center that understood the unique needs of railroaders began to grow. It’s difficult to put into words the type of men and women it takes to work on the railroad — in some respects, it’s akin to military service, said Davis (himself a veteran). The hours, the travel and the responsibility — of moving America’s goods, products, consumables and raw materials from one end of the country to the other — weigh heavy, and it’s an industry in which the employees take a certain amount of pride in being known as a railroad worker whose cut from a different cloth.

“I love sobriety, and there’s nothing in my life above sobriety — because the railroad fired me 10 times in the first 15 years I was employed, but then I got sober, and I never had another investigation,” Davis said. “But there’s something about railroad men that’s like sobriety. You can’t talk to somebody who’s not a railroad man and expect them to understand. It’s similar to military veterans.

“I really did like the military, but you couldn’t tell it from my actions while I was there, because I was always drinking whiskey and getting in trouble. And if you’d known me then, every word I said was what a suck ass place it was. But I really did love it. It was in my veins, and it’s the same way with the men and women who work for the railroad.”

It was especially meaningful for Davis that he had been pulled from the railroad’s working class to represent the men and women who had once counted him as a peer. The fact that Norfolk Southern once pulled its EAP representatives “out of the ranks,” Davis said, was what became the catalyst for the annual Railroad EAP Training and Networking Conference, the first of which was organized in 2003.

“Back when I was at Norfolk Southern, I went to a regional (Employee Assistance Professionals Association) in Williamsburg, Virginia, and somehow or the other, my group of EAPs and Amtrak’s group of EAPs ended up in the same meeting — and it was about railroads,” he said. “There was a guy in there giving a lecture, and afterward, we started discussing things as a small group, and we started out by going around the room and sharing about how we became an EAP for the railroad.

“Malva Reed was the lady who was head of the Amtrak EAPs, and her group was basically folks that had master’s degrees and other degrees. Those of us at Norfolk Southern, we had either been fired for a Rule G or suffered some type of setback from our drinking, and when she heard that, she said, ‘I hear something that really works.’”

Roger Davis: RR conference king

Roger DavisWhat Reed heard was something long familiar to the recovery community: the therapeutic value of one addict or alcoholic helping another is without parallel. Recovering EAPs needed a place to brainstorm, and those not in recovery needed some knowledge — and so Davis approached Caldwell and Cornerstone about putting the conference together.

“In 2003, we had our first with only BNSF EAPs, and it went really well,” Davis said. “I pretty much did it all, and we had it up at Maple Leaf Lodge in Townsend. And now the rest is history.”

The weeklong conferences, usually held at RT Lodge in Maryville, Tennessee — a short drive from the Cornerstone campus — are information-packed events that feature lectures, speakers and get-to-know-you activities designed to let EAPs from various organizations swap ideas and woodshed solutions. In the middle of it all, usually, is Davis, a familiar face to all. If he’s not surrounded by laughter and grins at dinner, he’s posted up at a nearby table, head bowed in serious conversation with an EAP who has a particular problem on Roger seems to be able to solve.

He is, in some ways, the “godfather” of drug and alcohol recovery in the railroad industry, but he’s keenly aware that it’s time to step down. Cornerstone has a more-than-capable replacement in Jill Burbidge, whose knowledge of the industry and of recovery have made her every bit the Cornerstone asset that Davis was. The relationships she maintains with the various companies, however, are much warmer and friendlier thanks to her predecessor’s work.

Changes in the industry, however, have made those relationships more complex. It’s a far different atmosphere than the one he helped cultivate two decades ago, he said.

“It used to be that the railroads had a lot of old-timers in recovery as their EAPs, even though their programs didn’t require it,” Davis said. “When those guys started retiring, things started to change. A lot of times, they don’t understand that to work with a man who’s an addict or an alcoholic, you’ve got to understand some things about him that’s difficult to unless you’ve been there.

“Now, a lot of the railroads don’t require you to be in recovery to be an EAP. I think that’s a mistake, but again, that’s just my personal feeling. I’ve been in recovery for 35 years, and there are a lot of people who aren’t in recovery who will go to their graves saying, ‘You don’t have to be in recovery to work with an alcoholic or a drug addict!’ And that’s true, you don’t — but it sure takes a lot of weight off when you know whether they’re lying, and if they are figure out a way to bring him off his lie without pissing him off!”

Sunsets, but not farewells

Roger DavisDavis is, quite obviously, a straight shooter — and that’s what’s endeared him to individuals at all levels of the industry, from the rank-and-file employees to the executives (despite his penchant for referring to them as “railroad barons”). In the recovery field, he considers men like Cornerstone CEO Steve McGrew a good friend, but he’s just as comfortable, if not more so, sitting in a room full of haggard alcoholics, two days into medical detox, telling them that life can and will get better, if they get their heads out of their asses, take some suggestions and find the willingness to do the necessary work.

But, he pointed out, he’s 75. He put in 31 years with the railroad and 20 with Cornerstone. He’s tired, he said — and he’s unafraid to stare the frailties of age in the face.

“My memory is not what it used to be,” he said. “And if you’d asked me before I left six weeks ago, before all this coronavirus started, if I was going to miss it, I probably would have said, ‘Yeah, big time.’ But now? Since I’ve sort of been easing into it these last several weeks? I don’t think so, and I don’t mean derogatory in any way. There’s not a single person at Cornerstone that I dislike, and some of them, like John Hood or Steve McGrew or Webster, those guys are killer friends.

“I could not have had a better job. But I’m 75, and I think it’s time to go. Before, I would have told you that before I got used to doing nothing that I would go crazy. But I don’t think I will now. I think I pretty much have my days filled up.”

He gets up in the morning whenever he wants, eats breakfast, drinks coffee and reads the newspaper. About 10, he said, he’ll start preparing for the daily noon 12 Step meeting he attends. His home group in Alpharetta didn’t shut down for COVID-19, but attendance dropped off, and those who stuck it out maintained social distancing protocols so as not to endanger one another’s health.

During “normal” times, the guys go out to lunch after every meeting — and so regular is their routine that they have a specific restaurant for each day of the week. It keeps them from arguing, Davis said with a laugh, and for anyone who has to miss meeting because of another commitment, they can always join the fellowship at the “meeting after the meeting.”

Back home, he changes into his sorts and hits the gym — “I’m hoping to keep my heart ticking” — and once his workout is complete, it’s back home in time for the winding down of the day. Throw in some occasional 12 Step work and time with his wife, and his days are pretty full.

For that, he’s grateful. Even more grateful, he added, that he’s retiring while still able to enjoy it. Although come the next Cornerstone railroad conference — whenever it may be — no one will really be surprised when Roger shows up, strolling through the crowd like the V.I.P. he is.

“I wouldn’t miss it,” he said, chuckling. “They could arm everybody with a shotgun, and they wouldn’t be able to keep away. As long as I can, I’ll be going to those conferences. I would prefer to be invited, but if I’m not, hell, I’ll be there anyway.”

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