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Leaving Cornerstone better than he found it: Wallace Smith retires after 20 years

Wallace Smith

Serendipity. It’s a word Wallace Smith doesn’t drop in everyday conversation, but it’s certainly apropos as he steps away from Cornerstone of Recovery on this day, 20 years to the day that he first walked through the door as a full-time employee.

Cornerstone familyEven before, however, the interrelated ties of the East Tennessee drug and alcohol treatment community had bound him to Cornerstone in ways he didn’t see at the time — mostly through the late Dr. Bob McColl, a fixture around Cornerstone before he died in 2011 and an important part of its origin story. McColl, along with former Cornerstone CEO and current Board of Directors President Dan Caldwell, was integral in helping Bill Hood, the founder of Cornerstone, get sober.

McColl, it turned out, was Wallace’s therapist when he first decided to get sober on Aug. 26, 1990. At that time, Cornerstone was coming up on its one-year anniversary, Hood had more than a decade clean and McColl had passed up on an initial opportunity to be a part of Cornerstone because he didn’t think it was a financially viable operation.

Wallace, of course, knew none of that back in the late summer of 1990. He was just ready for the pain to end, he said.

“I had been to treatment before and failed, because I didn’t do any of the things that were recommended,” he said. “In 1985, I had four, five, six weeks clean through nothing but white knuckles, but I didn’t do any of the stuff I needed to. I deserved what I got, because I didn’t do anything. The second time, I had a lot more consequences, and if they’d told me that to stay clean I had to stack greased BBs in the corner, I would have tried it.”

Wallace Smith: What it was like

Wallace Smith

Wallace Smith as a boy.

Wallace grew up in Knoxville’s Fort Sanders neighborhood, the son of two drinkers who passed on their proclivity for the bottle to their son. His father was an avid golfer and was a Tennessee amateur champion before World War II, but by the time Wallace was 12, he’d lost his voice box and most of his neck to a cancer battle that would claim his life three years later.

“He was a daily drinker who was pretty bad, and my mother was his drinking buddy for a long time,” Wallace said. “After he died, she turned into a binge drinker, and she wasn’t a lot of fun to be around sometimes. By that point, my brother and sister were both gone, either in college or working, and I was left with the home ec teacher, so I learned to cook.”

Fellow Cornerstone employees can attest to his culinary capabilities; his biscotti is something of a coveted treasure among the treatment center’s staff members. Back then, however, he was a struggling clothes salesman who wound up in jail in August of 1990. A friend bailed him out and recommended he get into a treatment program. Two days later, he was in an outpatient program, where it took little convincing by McColl and counselor Chip Roland to give this new way of life a try.

“They kept trying to sell me on the program, but I told them, ‘You can quit selling now. I want this. Let’s just sign the papers!’” he said.

Like many addicts and alcoholics new to recovery, however, he had no idea where to start. As a result, he was often defensive or disagreeable … but willingness always won out in the end.

“Although I wanted to do well, I didn’t know how to. My back was up to protect myself,” he said. “Anything that came along that was uncomfortable, I went into deflection mode.”

McColl, in his wizened ways that were a combination of mischievous, provocative, loving and confrontational, slowly but methodically disassembled those walls.

“I had an adversarial relationship at first with Bob, but in talking with my sponsor about it, he told me I needed to thank him,” Wallace said. “So I went in to his office and sat down, expecting him to have something smart to say. I said, ‘My sponsor says I need to thank you,’ and all he said was, ‘Good.’ And then he gave me a hug. From that point forward, it was completely different.”

What happened …

As he grew in sobriety, the results resonated throughout the rest of his life. He struggled to fulfill some financial obligations with a full-time job and four part-time ones during his first year, and eventually he went to work in the treatment field, first at a program called The Oaks and then leading meetings for McColl’s aftercare group (CARe, the Center for Addiction Recovery). It was a trial-and-error process of how to work in recovery while being in recovery.

“I was doing some lectures and taking patients to meetings, but I thought it was OK that I couldn’t go to meetings myself, because I got to go with the patients,” he said. “Chris Hall, my first sponsor, told me, ‘You can’t do that. If you go to meetings with patients, that’s not really going to a meeting.’”

So Wallace started going to a meeting in a different room while the patients were attending their own next door. That, incidentally, was the first time he met Hood.

“It was a Friday night meeting at Rockford, and he called me out in the middle of a meeting,” Wallace recalled with a chuckle. “We had these cards at The Oaks with all of the Steps and Traditions on them, and when someone couldn’t find one of the readings, I just pulled out one of those cards and did it. Bill said, ‘I want you all to take a look at this man! He wants it bad enough that he’s got this in his pocket!’”

From The Oaks to CARe to The Lighthouse to Peninsula, Wallace continued to work his way through the treatment field in East Tennessee. At one time, he took over Bob McColl’s aftercare group; at Peninsula, the aftercare group he ran had previously been overseen by Bill Hood. The interrelated personalities and high turnover rate in the field led him to cross paths continually with folks associated with Cornerstone during that time, until he was eventually convinced to leave Peninsula and join the Cornerstone family.

“Part of it was because some of my buddies were there that I’d gotten to known at other places in the industry, and then the commanding point of view was that Cornerstone did everything right,” Wallace said. “Over the years, I’ve gotten a little cynical, but Cornerstone has always been the leader in treatment modalities.”

And, he added, the passion by those who bought into Bill Hood’s vision often led to some tempestuous clashes of temperament and philosophy.

“Bob (McColl) told me one time that every treatment center is a dysfunctional family and not to lose sight of that,” he said with a laugh. “That was a little gem of wisdom he gave me that has served me well.”

Wallace Smith: … and what it’s like now

Wallace SmithAt Cornerstone, he started his career as an Intensive Outpatient counselor, working alongside current IOP counselor Susan Mullaly. (“That was a good combination, because I was not real confident in what I was doing, being a counselor for the first time,” he added. “I paint with a small brush and do all of the little details. Susan was a roller, a big, broad brush. We worked together really well.”)

When a position opened up in the Adult Residential Program (ARP) — the predecessor to Cornerstone’s four primary treatment paths today — he transitioned into a second shift counselor’s position. At the time, he was going through his second divorce and threw himself into his job; administration countered by putting him on salary and making him the evening supervisor. Eventually, he took over as program director of ARP, and his predecessors well-prepared him for the role.

“I remember John Martin was the program manager for ARP, went on vacation to New England. He was gone for two weeks, and I covered for him. Robby Carter, who I reported to while John was gone, told me he wanted to keep a diary of everything that happened on the unit,” Wallace remembered. “The first day, Robby called me in to his office and started going through that diary, asking me about this and this and this. ‘What did you do? Why did you do this? This was wrong. How are you going to learn from this?’ Well, after two days of that, on the third day, I went in and said, ‘So should I just expect you to call me over here to ream me out every day?’ He said, ‘No. I just wanted to see how long you would take it.’”

For several years, he oversaw the ARP program, eventually being reassigned to work for Extended Care Director Julie Hamlin. It was a big change at first, but “it didn’t take me long to figure out I didn’t miss my name being called 50 times a day,” he said.

“The program manager’s job is a thankless job. You’re on call seven days a week, 365 days a year,” he said. “It had grown into more of a job than one person can do, and it was time for me to move on.”

A long career winds down

The lobby of Stepping Stone to Recovery, where Wallace Smith completed his Cornerstone journey as a counselor.

As part of Julie’s team, he became responsible for serving as a Recovery Coach to alumni of the Railroad Program, eventually moving to work under Rod Jackson, who now serves as director of Stepping Stone to Recovery, Cornerstone’s sister facility. Changes to the Railroad Program and the opening of Stepping Stone led to a new opportunity, one that brought him full circle: back to counseling, a rock’s throw from where he first walked through the door in 1990.

“I didn’t realize until I took the job at Stepping Stone to Recovery how much I missed dealing with patients every day,” he said. “Being on the telephone as a recovery monitor and recovery coach just wasn’t as satisfying.”

But now the time has come, he added, to care for himself as much as he has all of the patients who have drawn strength from his occasionally irascible nature. A fender bender on the way to Stepping Stone a couple of weeks ago led to a stern conversation by his doctor, which sealed his decision.

“He said, ‘You’re 70 years old, you’ve got rheumatoid arthritis, which is an immune system disease, so your immune system is compromised; and you’ve got pulmonary issues because of sleep apnea. You’ve got no business working during this current coronavirus situation,’” Wallace said. “It was time. I’m tired, and even though I didn’t intend for it to end this way (he’s been on an FMLA absence since the accident), because I wanted to complete my full 20 years, one thing I’ve learned about in recovery is that you’ve got to take care of yourself. So if the doctor says I’m at risk, I don’t need to second guess it.”

Because of COVID-19, even an in-house retirement party has been scuttled — not that he’d want one anyway. For most of his career, he’s been content to work behind the scenes, and where he flourishes is one on one with patients who find themselves in situations where he was back in August 1990.

“I’m in recovery, and I’m open about it, and if they try to BS me, I let them know that if they’re not serious about it, it’s not going to work. They’ll go back to what they’ve been doing,” he said. “It’s not rocket surgery.”

His deadpan delivery sends such a joke flying over the heads of many, but those who have worked closely with Wallace over the years see past the gruff exterior and have learned a thing or two themselves.

“Those who have worked for me or with me, there are two things I tell them: One, I remind them that (the patients) didn’t come to us because they were healthy, so if the (patient) community is out of sorts, look at the staff,” he said. “And then for those staff members who are in recovery and who have been through treatment, they probably had someone who cared help them along the way, and they probably remember that person. I tell them to be that person.

“Be the one who cares, and whatever happens, don’t take it personally. It’s OK to apologize to a patient. I’ve had to do it — ‘I wasn’t being a good counselor because you got under my skin, so I apologize. And oh, by the way, that’s the 10th Step.’”

After all, he learned from the best. Bob McColl, he remembers, frequently got under his skin, and he recalls how one particular exercise involved the good doctor giving patients teddy bears to carry around as part of a self-love assignment while Wallace was in treatment himself.

“I said, ‘No! I’m not doing that! I’m a grown ass man, and I’m not carrying around a (damn) bear,’” he recalled. “He said, ‘I think this is something you need,’ and I told him, ‘Well, you need to come up with something else. Give me five assignments, and I’ll do them.’ He said OK, and he gave them to me. I did them, and I did them thoroughly … but when I came to work at Cornerstone, he brought me a bear, and I’ve still got it.

“Bob was my mentor, and I can tell you right now, most therapists would have given up on me after a couple of times. Bob wasn’t like that. The real full circle is that when I came to Cornerstone, I ended up doing groups with him, and I learned how he did stuff. Even today, whenever I do a group, before I go in there I’ll say a momentary prayer: ‘Help me do what Bob would.’ And so far, I think I’ve done OK.”

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