He started South Dakota's first privately-funded, non-profit addiction treatment center at a time when such a thing was severely frowned upon. He hosted a long-running interview show where some of the most famous names in sports, music, movies and business could speak freely about their addiction. And he spent every one of his 18,765 days of sobriety advocating for the humane and compassionate treatment of addicts and alcoholics everywhere. He was Glenn Jorgenson, and when he died earlier this week at the age of 91, he left a legacy that will never be bettered.
Not that the good Mr. Jorgenson would ever care about such matters. In fact, reading the onslaught of tributes marking the good man's passing one gets the distinct impression he couldn't care less about legacy, unless perhaps it's the legacy left behind by the groundbreaking River Park. Yes, that was the name of Jorgenson's addiction treatment center, which at its height had expanded to three separate treatment facilities, as well as a handful of outreach offices. And it was through River Park that Jorgenson was able to help save the lives of untold thousands.
However the good Mr. Jorgenson didn't just help save the lives of the addicts and alcoholics, and he didn't do it all by himself either. See, Mr. J also helped save the lives of the families who were so impacted by the disease, and he did so with his wife Phyllis by his side every step of the way.
The following is taken from a few of the many tributes that marked the good Glenn Jorgenson's passing, including KELO-TV, Capital Journal and Rapid City Journal. We've also included a look at some of the famous names who respected the man enough to speak freely on his television show. Remember, Mr. J. started all this advocacy back in the '70s, when addicts and alcoholics were seen as downright outlaws -- or worse. Much, much worse.
The Good Mr. Glenn Jorgenson
As mentioned, the good Mr. Jorgenson was a true addiction treatment pioneer. But it turns out, he was also a pioneering addict. Yep. Mr. J wasn't just addicted to drink; he was addicted to opioids too. Really.
If you think people were wary of drunks back in the '70s, just imagine what they thought of a drunk who was hooked on pain pills. In the first place, the whole notion likely didn't even register. When it did though, folks probably ran for the hills. After all, South Dakota wasn't particularly well known for its social progressiveness.
The state was known for its hills though. Namely, the Black Hills. And if Mr. J didn't take to those fabled hills, he was likely to be taken to them -- and then summarily tossed off. Even his wife Phyllis had had enough. And her ultimatum made clear the hills were his last and only option.
Fortunately Minnesota sits just on the other side of those old hills. And Minnesota happened to be home to a place that helped addicts and alcoholics with their peculiar problem. We don't know the name of the place (Hazelden Betty Ford didn't open until 1982), but we do know it was a bona fide addiction treatment facility. It had to have been. How else would it have been enough to help Mr. J stay sober for the next 50 years?
And where else would he get the wherewithal to open his own rehab? Because when Mr. J returned from the Land of 10,000 Lakes he immediately began setting up what would become River Park Treatment Center.
Since both wife Phyllis and Alcoholics Anonymous were integral to Mr. J's sobriety, both his partner and the 12 Steps were key River Park components right from the get. But if having his wife by his side was a huge help, having the support of his entire family made it even more huge. And that family unit would prove to provide the solid structure necessary for longterm sobriety.
While they all knew firsthand the importance of including the family in a person's recovery, the Jorgensons also made sure to emphasize the importance of AA's 12 Steps. After all, AA's insistence on helping other alcoholics was paramount to Mr. J's decision to open River Park. Add the fact that he'd incorporated AA's practices and principles into his day-to-day life, and it only made sense to do likewise at the facility. The Jorgensons even introduced Al-Anon to their clients. And to this day one can still find Al-Anon meetings being held at the River Park Foundation headquarters in Pierre.
It's Great to Be Alive
But again, addiction and alcoholism were still dirty words back in 1970. And addicts and alcoholics were considered less than worthy citizens, let alone neighbors. Reversing that impression was one of Mr. J's primary motivators.
"He was aware that people just thought of addicts as only bums," Phyllis told KELOLAND-TV, "and [back then] people didn’t go to treatment because they might lose their job if it was known."
Heck, back then it was anathema to even be the spouse of an addict or alcoholic.
“You didn’t dare admit that you had an alcoholic husband either, [because] you probably wouldn’t ever be welcomed in church,” Jorgenson said.
Consequently, Mr. J set out to do something that would change minds on an even larger scale. An unavoidable force that would reach people right in their homes. Yep, you guessed it. A TV show.
And not just any TV show either. But a TV show that combined the power of celebrity with the mission at hand. An interview show, chatting up some of the biggest names in sports, business and entertainment.
Celebrities, surprisingly enough, weren't just willing to share their own recovery stories, but they were eager to do so. Furthermore, they went on the air without any compensation.
That show was called It's Great to Be Alive. It ran on KELO-TV out of Sioux Falls for nearly two decades. And it significantly changed the way people saw chemical dependency.
Then again, how could it not? The show boasted revered and respected names such as Johnny Cash, former Minnesota Vikings Quarterback Fran Tarkenton and former First Lady Betty Ford, all openly discussing their own personal battles with drugs or alcohol (or in Cash's case both). It also provided insight from the likes of longtime television host Art Linkletter, as well as former Representative, Senator, Ambassador and Presidential Candidate George McGovern, two incomparable Plains State heroes who'd both lost daughters to addiction.
Never before had people been privy to such open and candid discussions about drug and alcohol addiction. They certainly had never before heard it discussed by such luminaries. If substance abuse could affect these kinds of overachievers, then surely they could affect anyone. More to the point, if these kinds of overachievers had also become addicts and alcoholics, then surely addicts and alcoholics can't all be bad.
Of course not. And It's Great to Be Alive emphasized that salient fact every week for over two decades.
Help Has Come a Long, Long Way
These days -- thank Zeus! -- addicts and alcoholics no longer have to hide in the corners and hope nobody sees them. Nor do they need to pray the disease can magically get up and go away. No, these days there's understanding. People have seen their neighbors stricken by addiction. They've lost family and friends to alcoholism. Many have even suffered themselves. Too many.
Fortunately, we now also have help. More and more access to better and better addiction treatment. We no longer need to travel clear across the country. Nor do we need to mortgage our lives simply for the privilege of healing. Yes, help is out there. Everywhere.
Help wouldn't be out there, everywhere, were it not for the great good efforts of Glenn Jorgenson. For it is he, and those like him, who made it possible for Americans to face this disease with dignity and respect. It was Jorgenson and his ilk who pushed and shoved and pleaded and prodded until eyes opened up and common sense came to be. It was Jorgenson who not only picked up the ball and ran with it, but he helped build the playing field. And then he helped create the game itself.
“He was a warrior," said his daughter Jennifer Burns. "He fought the good fight over and over again."
And how. The good Mr. J also made sure the playing field stayed level, this way each and every American would have the same chance at achieving sobriety. We're not entirely there yet. But boy, have we come a long, long way. And we all have Glenn Jorgenson to thank.
If you're battling addiction or alcoholism, Recovery Boot Camp would like to help. So would our colleagues down at Healing Properties sober home. You don't have to be in Florida -- or South Dakota for that matter. You simply just have to want to change your life for the best. So please, pick up the phone and call.
Here's an in-depth interview KELO-TV did with the good Glenn Jorgenson back in 2018. It'll give you a great idea of what it took for him to finally get the help he needed to live a sober life. Thanks KELOLAND!
"It's Great to Be Alive" by Glenn Jorgenson; book cover image courtesy Dakota News Now. Thank you!