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One Day at a Time, A Recovering Alcoholic’s Story

August 4, 2010 4 comments

General view of part of the South Water street...

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I met the subject of this New Horizons story, John H., while on assignment for another story.  His intelligence and honesty struck me and when he revealed some hard things about his life I knew I wanted to write his story.  This is the result.  This account of his struggle with alcoholism is written mostly in John’s own words. After all, he’s lived it, and because he came out the other side to become a treatment specialist at a detox unit, he can speak with the authority of someone who’s been there, done that.  I lost track of John after the story appeared.  I don’t even know if he’s still around.  I really like him though. Maybe I’ll make a call and see if he’s still in town.  I have no doubt that if he’s still living, he’s still helping others out of the dark and into the light., because that very service is part of his own recovery process.

One Day at a Time, A Recovering Alcoholic‘s Story

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

“I always knew I was going to die drunk. Now I know I will die a drunk, but hopefully a sober one. And there’s a difference.”

The bittersweet words belong to John H., an Omaha resident and recovering alcoholic who works as a treatment specialist in the detox unit at the Omaha Campus for Hope, a Catholic Charities counseling and shelter site formerly known as St. Gabriel’s. It is precisely where John finally got dried out some 11 years ago after decades of abusing alcohol and other drugs. If nothing else, his journey from client to staff member there proves addicts can make a fresh start if they really want to.

Born into a family of heavy drinkers in Chicago, John tried quitting booze several times but could never stay on the wagon more than a few months. His drinking wrecked four marriages, strained relations with his children, cost him several jobs and sent him on an odyssey around the country as he fruitlessly searched to escape his worst enemy — himself and his addiction. He suffered frequent blackouts, developed cirrhosis of the liver and squandered opportunities in a constant quest for getting his next buzz or fix. In the end, it took a savage assault that nearly left him dead before he realized a higher power was looking after him and he finally accepted the fact his life was too valuable to waste away in a permanent vodka-induced stupor.

 

Omaha Campus for Hope

 

Today, John shares a modest home in north Omaha with his youngest child, Shawn. The house, whose exterior is ablaze in color from all the flowers John has planted, is mere blocks from both his job and from the scene of his catharsis. A witty and intelligent man with an Irishman’s gift for turning phrases, John works one-on-one with active drunks and drug addicts in trying to help them kick the habit. In detox he sees desperate people contending with the agony of withdrawal.

“Getting clean hurts,” he said. “It’s easier to stay clean than it is to get clean.” It is not a pretty sight between the night sweats and the hallucinations, but it is exactly what John himself went through himself and that experience allows him to empathize with clients and, hopefully, use his own story as a model of sobriety. “I love it,” he said of his job. “Where I work we try to share our experience, strength and hope. That’s all we can do. I think sometimes it helps if clients know you’ve been there yourself. I let them know I have.”

As he sees it, the job boils down to providing unconditional support to those with no where else to turn. “We can’t fix anybody,” he said. “What we try to do is help them fix themselves by talking straight to them. No alcoholic-addict gets clean and sober until they hit bottom and the only place they can go then is up. What we try to do is raise their bottom so they don’t have to go so far down. We never see our successes. They go out and lead normal lives and we never see them again. We see the failures. We don’t really consider them failures as individuals, but they’re people who just haven’t got it right yet and keep coming back.”

He said the last thing users need is reprimanding because that only exacerbates the depression and self-loathing that accompany drug abuse. “Alcoholics-addicts have no self-esteem and no self-worth. I think they know what they’re doing isn’t right, but telling them that won’t do any good. They’re already down and all you’re doing then is deflating their own low opinion of themselves. Besides, they have a disease. It’s not a matter of choice after awhile.”

With the perspective of time, John has come to understand how and why drinking overwhelmed his life. The roots of his problem extend to early childhood, when he and his siblings were weaned on alcohol as a rite of passage.

“Both of my folks were alcoholics, as were my grandfolks and aunts and uncles. From a very early age there was always drinking around me. Being the oldest of four kids, I saw how my folks would pour some Rock and Rye in a glass and stick their finger in it and rub my sisters’ and brother’s gums. So, I suppose, that’s when I started drinking too. My folks were also the type of people who gave us a small glass of wine or a weak high ball with dinner when we were children. The assumption was, ‘Well, they’re going to drink when they get on the outside, so they may as well learn how to do it at home.’ The whole family drank. It was just the status quo. There were lots of arguments because of the booze. It got very, very ugly at times.”

Drinking shadowed every family activity, even the clan’s shared passion for the Chicago Cubs. One of his clearest schoolboy memories is coming home after class and finding his mother well on the way to tying one on while rooting for the Cubs.  “We lived in a 3rd floor apartment within walking distance of Wrigley Field and in the summer I can remember coming home from school and entering the apartment, which had no air conditioning, and there would be my mother in her bra and half-slip with a quart of beer in a Pilsner glass in one hand and an iron in the other while watching the Cub game on television.”

 

Wrigley Field and surrounding neighborhood

 

His own serious drinking habit developed in his teens. “In retrospect, I know now that I was more than likely an alcoholic in high school,” he said. As a young man, he somewhat successfully masked his drinking but in reality he was what he calls “a functional alcoholic.” He adds, “I could still maintain some decorum of sensibility and reasonableness. Then, by the end of the disease, I would just fall off the edge of the world when I drank.” Bothered by the turmoil in his family, he often stayed away from home. He left home for good at 17 when he and his girlfriend eloped the night of their high school graduation. The young couple lived in Texas and a number of other places before the marriage collapsed. He worked his “way back up north” and it was in Kansas City that he met wife No. 2. She was an Omaha native and her desire to return to her roots first led John here.

In his mid 20s John and his second wife suffered the loss of a young child to cancer, an event that may have triggered more intense drinking in the grieving father, who acknowledges he was bitter and inconsolable over his son’s death.

With no real skills to speak of, other than a gift for gab and an intimate knowledge of liquor, he gravitated to the one line of work he seemed eminently qualified for — bartender. He was a natural, plus the job gave him access to all the booze he could guzzle on the sly, only he didn’t always get away with it. “I was a good bartender at first until, toward the end, when I became my own best customer. Then it was not so good. It got me fired a couple of times,” he said.

Between bartending gigs he put his people skills to work selling women’s shoes and hawking greeting cards as a traveling salesman. For several years he hit the road selling door to door, relocating several times along the way. including to Atlanta and Nashville. When regular jobs like these petered out, he always went back to tending bar. All this moving around, he said, was his desperate bid to find “the geographical cure for alcoholism,” which, of course, doesn’t exist. By the time he moved back to Omaha in the 1970s, John had been through three broken marriages and several careers. He was back to tending bar again and his drinking was worse than ever. He was descending into a kind of oblivion whose end result was inevitably going to be imprisonment or death.

“Alcoholism is a progressive disease. It keeps getting worse. By the time I finally got help there was no high, there was no enjoyment, there was no pleasure in drinking. I drank so I didn’t get sick. It was pure maintenance drinking.”

 

 

 

 

His first couple attempts at getting help did not take. “I was in two treatment programs. First, I went to Immanuel Hospital as an out-patient and after a few weeks, I said, ‘I’m wasting your time and my money because by coming in only a couple times a week I keep going right back to the same environment doing the same things.’ Later, I went to Immanuel as an in-patient and I stayed there a month. I stayed clean and sober for, oh, maybe three months and then I went back and stayed out for maybe eight years.” Why didn’t these tries at sobriety work? “I wasn’t ready,” he said. “It wasn’t anybody’s fault. It was on me. Alcoholism is a disease where you’re not going to get clean and sober until you’re ready to get clean and sober. It just depends on you. It’s strictly up to you.”

For a long time, he convinced himself he could control his drinking by moderating it. He knows now he was fooling himself. “I will never control it. Even now, going on 11 years of sobriety, I don’t control it. Abstinence is the only thing that will work for me. So, as long as I don’t take the first one (drink), I don’t have to worry about the last one.”

The leap from dependency to sobriety is a great one because it involves changing an entire mind-set. As John explains, an addict is obsessed with the acquisition and consumption of his/her drug of choice. “Your life revolves around the alcohol or drugs. You wake up in the morning planning on using. I would wake up at a quarter to six. By the time I got up, got dressed and walked to the liquor store on 30th and Laurel, it was 6 o’clock. I would get a half-pint of vodka. That was my breakfast. I would drink it on the way home, come into the house, smoke two cigarettes and start getting the kids up for school. Then I would go back and get a larger bottle and get serious about it.”

As the disease evolves John said an alcoholic alienates and isolates himself more and more from the mainstream of life until he or she is totally, utterly alone. “You start out drinking socially but you eventually hit a point where it’s just you and the bottle. You weed out people one at a time because you don’t even want your fellow drinkers to know how much you’re drinking. I had a drinking buddy for, oh, like 19 years. He had an old, battered pickup truck and we would drive to a park and sit there and drink. He and I would take turns trying to get sober. He did get sober a year before I did and that was the longest year I ever spent in my life because now it was just me and the bottle.”

Just as in the classic 1941 drama about alcoholism, The Lost Weekend, John said the shame of addiction led him to try and conceal his drinking from disapproving spouses and the disorientation of drunkenness put him on constant edge.

“You think you’re hiding it, but you’re not hiding anything. Everybody knows you have a problem except you.” In his case, he usually confined his drinking to public settings, although he sometimes snuck a bottle home. “I would very seldom bring a bottle in the house. I would just go up to the store and get some and drink it on the way back. I could kill a pint of straight booze in a few blocks. When I finished it I’d just throw it in the alley. Once in a while I would bring a pint home and hide it somewhere. I would go to bed, wake up an hour later and take a couple nips, then go back to bed and wake up another hour later to take a couple more. Well, you do this three or four times and you get paranoid, and you move it. Now, the next time you get up you can’t find it. You don’t know whether you can’t remember where you put it or whether your wife found it and threw it away. And you sure enough can’t ask her, ‘Did you find the bottle I hid in here last night?’”

By 1990 John was a wreck. He was separated from his fourth wife and raising their two oldest children alone. He functioned, but moved through life like a ghost. Life was a blur. Everything was muted and dulled in a kind of permanent haze or fog. He was about to get a rude awakening.

On a September night he walked from his house to fetch — what else? — a half-pint of vodka on his way to a meeting at the Viking Ship community center in nearby Miller Park.

“I was cutting through the park and I saw three guys sitting on the side of a hill and one of them stood up as I approached and asked me if I had a cigarette. I reached down to grab one and as I looked up I got hit in the face and that’s the last thing I remember for a month,” he said.

 

Immanuel Medical Center

 

 

The beating he absorbed at the hands of the strangers, who were never apprehended, left him with five fractured ribs, a jaw busted in three places, broken bones above and below his left eye (whose sight is permanently damaged), a broken nose and countless cuts and abrasions. Amazingly, he managed walking home, where his kids answered the door to find a grotesque figure sagging on the porch. They did not even recognize their own father for all the blood, bruising and swelling. He was rushed to St. Joseph Hospital, where he drifted in and out of consciousness and needed weeks for his concussion and other injuries to heal.

What happened to John that night had nothing at all to do with his alcoholism, yet he attributes the event and others following it with finally getting him to make the pledge to stop drinking stick.

“I have very mixed emotions about it,” he said of the beating. “It was a negative event but it had a positive result.”

Before he could make the commitment to stop drinking, he still had one last bender to go on.

“My jaw was wired shut and when I got it unwired I went out and got drunk that night, and I drank for a couple months. My last drunk was like a two-week drunk and it was a real bad one. Eight consecutive days are a total black out. Then, I finally got sick enough that I quit. In the meantime, my wife filed papers with the Douglas County Attorney that I was a danger to myself and others, and I more than likely was. Sheriff’s deputies came to my house and hauled me off in handcuffs to the psyche unit at Immanuel Hospital (Medical Center).

 

Miller Park....North Omaha:

 

“Sitting there at three-four in the morning the light bulb finally went off in my head and I thought, ‘Hey, whoever is keeping you alive isn’t doing it so you can go get drunk again.’ And at that time I finally made peace with God. Ever since I lost my son to cancer, God and I didn’t get along. We agreed to disagree for about 30 years. But after I made peace with Him it got easier. And from that point on I’ve never really had the urge to go drink.”

After his release from Immanuel John checked himself into then St. Gabriel’s detox unit. Before entering detox, however, he had a whole weekend on his hands at home, which posed yet another test to his resolve. “I had free reign to do what I wanted and yet I found myself not even wanting to drink. Even in my fuddled-up condition I thought, ‘There’s hope now.’ That was the start of it.”

Upon completing treatment at St. Gabe’s, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous, whose program he continues in today and that he intends participating in the remainder of his life. These days John is a content man who finds love and support among both his AA family and his own family. His son Shawn is living with him and sharing in his new life. He said, “Shawn got a lot of the benefits of my being sober. I’ve taken him places and done things with him that I never did with the older kids, who were out of the house by time I got sober. There was some resentment by my older kids, but we’ve been able to talk about it and work our way through it.” John’s dream is to one day retire to Mesa, AZ, where his beloved Cubs have spring training. Until then, he remains ever vigilant.

“Recovery is a continuing process. The first time I think I’m recovered, I’m drunk. I was an alcoholic yesterday. I’m one today. I’ll be one tomorrow. They’ll always make the stuff. They’ll always sell it. I’ll always be addicted to it. That doesn’t mean I have to give into it, though,” he said.

He realizes that without the support of his AA sponsor and circle of friends, he would be lost again. His philosophy about sobriety reflects the AA creed.

“It starts with attitude. And for the first time in my life I am comfortable in a sober world. I am not comfortable with my sobriety in that I take it for granted. I do what I have to do to maintain it.”

That means attending daily AA meetings. For John and others like him, sobriety is a one day at a time thing,

“All it is a daily reprieve,” he said.

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Whatsoever You Do to the Least of My Brothers, that You Do Unto Me: Mike Saklar and the Siena/Francis House Provide Tender Mercies to the Homeless

August 1, 2010 2 comments

Our Father's House Soup Kitchen serving the la...

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Before I did the following story on Mike Saklar, I only knew him from media reports about the Siena/Francis House homeless facility he ran then and continues running today.  Even in sound bites he comes off as a thoughtful, highly competent man deeply committed to his work.  When I finally met him a couple years ago to interview him and spend some time around the shelter and residential treatment program there, I found he was all those things and more.  This is quite an extensive profile of him and his work, and yet this was one of those occasions when I never heard word one back from him or anyone else for that matter at the Siena/Francis House about my story. That lack of feedback is in itself not that unusual per se, but for a story of this length it definitely is. So, if you happen upon this Mr. Saklar or perhaps one of your colleagues or supporters do, shoot me a comment or two, just so I have the satisfaction of knowing that at least somebody there read it.

 

 

Mike Saklar

 

 

Whatsoever You Do to the Least of My Brothers, that You Do Unto Me:                                                                        Mike Saklar and the Siena/Francis House Provide Tender Mercies to the Homeless  

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

The plight of the homeless tends to make news seasonally, during winter and summer, and then fades away the rest of the year. Out of sight, out of mind. Trouble is, even when the homeless stand in plain view you likely don’t see them. That’s because society makes them invisible, untouchable.

If you take a good look, though, the homeless are easy to spot downtown. They’re fixtures in the Gene Leahy Mall, hanging out, panhandling, lining up for free lunches. They camp out at the W. Dale Clark Library, reading, dozing, drying out, coming down. These discarded, dispossessed figures occupy a limbo, killing time between some indeterminate goal or destination — perhaps a ride, a meal, a roof over their head or their next fix.

They’re an inconvenient reminder the fabric of America is torn, its safety net not catching everyone who suffers a fall.

The homeless often habituate Omaha’s east corridor, where several nonprofits serve the population. The state’s largest homeless shelter, the Siena/Francis House, is situated on the fringes of NoDo or North Downtown. This multiplex at 17th and Nicholas St. is an oasis for the lost and the misbegotten.

Siena/Francis executive director Mike Saklar has never been homeless himself but he’s seen the lives of street people wrecked by neglect and transformed by support. After 28 years in the Omaha City Planning Department, where he began working with area homeless programs, he now focuses on breaking the cycle of homelessness. That’s the mission of Siena/Francis, which he’s directed since 2002.

It wasn’t like the job was a long-held dream. But being there doing this work makes sense given his background and the choices he’s made. Siena/Francis men’s shelter manager James Hayes said he believes Saklar “has been in training for this job since day one. All of his experiences in life up to the day he took this job prepared him in some way or another to be one of the most sincere, compassionate, hard working, help-anyone-in-any-way-he-can individuals I have ever met.”

Saklar confirmed he’s “experienced different things during my life” that have helped him connect with the poor and to value them as human beings. Giving to the less fortunate is a practice his elders modeled. His father was a traveling salesman, his mom a stay-at-home matriarch.

“My extended family’s always been big in helping others,” he said. “My grandfather was director of one of Omaha’s early homeless shelters in the 1930s. My parents and grandparents helped and befriended many people, often opening their homes to them. I open my home to a select few who I know well. I do bring some homeless to dinner on Christmas and Thanksgiving.”

He came into contact with more homeless working at Peony Park, near where he grew up. The amusement park’s owners, the Malecs, used to hire what were called ‘bums” then. They worked the grounds and the gardens.

Though a teen at the time, Saklar did a man’s job at the amusement park, sometimes working alongside the transients.

“I put in 10-12 hour days. It was a lot of hard work. I did everything from operating rides to putting out a couple thousand pounds of charcoal in these great big pits, preparing barbecue sauce from scratch in these giant vats, to cutting up chickens, washing them, cooking them, making potato salad for 2,500 people, to working as a bus boy for the bartenders at night. I’d bring up the ice and the beer from the basement, pop the popcorn, clean up afterwards. I did all that.

“It was really a life experience…meeting lots of people.”

Doing manual labor, being around diverse people set the tone for his adult life. “I love different cultures and I know a lot of people from a lot of different cultures,” he said. A person he got “particularly close to” at Peony Park was a homeless man who worked there. Saklar said, “When I was about 13-years-old I had my first homeless friend, Joel Craig. I liked him. We got to be talking friends. We talked a lot. I don’t remember how he got to be homeless.”

Saklar lost touch with Craig. Years passed before they were reunited. By then it was the ‘70s and Saklar was an Omaha Community Development trainee with the City. His job — relocating east Omaha residents to make way for progress. Eppley Airfield expansion meant displacing hundreds of families. In the process of notifying  homeowners he came upon Craig living in a tiny but tidy bungalow that had to go.

“He had somehow put his life together a little bit, still at a very low level, but he’d married and he and his wife lived together in this house,” Saklar recalled. “I thought it was so cool to run into him again later and to be able to help them get another house. I helped them move.”

Living conditions in east Omaha then, he said, were akin to Appalachia with its crushing poverty, only minus the coal dust and hills. The small shotgun houses were substandard. Being exposed to such hardships opened Saklar’s eyes.

“This was two minutes from downtown and they didn’t have sewers. Some of them still had outhouses, dirt floors. I was in houses where there were five kids sleeping on a dirt floor in the basement. With the jet liners rumbling over your head every 15 or 20 minutes you couldn’t talk or hear. It would just vibrate like heck. Some homes were heated just by wood space heaters. Residents chopped the lumber.

“It was really a backwards community, and it was very very poor. I was amazed. It would have been the most blighted, poorest census tract in Douglas County by far, maybe one of the poorest in the state per capita.”

Despite the disruption to people’s lives and the rupture to communities that went with razing people’s homes to make way for public works projects, Saklar believes dislocated residents came out ahead in the long run.

“It was a great experience because you’re not just kicking people off this land — you’re working with them and helping them to better themselves, and with all the federal laws you’re providing relocation assistance in order to help them buy a decent home,” he said.

Before he ever got into city planning Saklar embarked on a path that made him empathetic to people living on the margins. After graduating Westside High School in the late ‘60s he enrolled at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He paid his own way and when his funds ran dry he dropped out. No sooner did he leave school then Uncle Sam drafted him into the U.S. Army. The Vietnam War was escalating. Seeing action was a real possibility.

He ended up in airborne training and made the cut as a paratrooper in the famed 82nd Airborne division. In ‘69 he shipped overseas to Korea, via Japan. He couldn’t wait for his chance at combat duty in ‘Nam. As fate had it, he never got the call.

“I was very disappointed. If you go through airborne training and then to the 82nd Airborne you’re ready to go anywhere and to do whatever you have to do.”

Instead, he tested into an operations intelligence specialist post with the 7th infantry division’s command in Seoul. He rated top secret clearance. The work was interesting but what most fascinated him was the Korean culture. “I liked to walk around and peruse through the markets, see the action, right.”

Everything the naive 21-year-old saw made an impression. He came across situations that would inform his later work with Omaha’s homeless. South Korea was still reeling from the war that ended 16 years before and, thus, unchecked diseases, shortages of basic goods and other hardships were rampant.

“When I was overseas I ran into leper camps, really terrible situations, lots of homeless people, and I think maybe that helped create something inside me, right.”

The resiliency and ingenuity of the Korean people struck Saklar. After meeting his wife there and visiting several times over the years he remains impressed today.

“I admire the work ethic of the Korean culture. It doesn’t seem to matter if a person’s job is street sweeper, teacher, businessman or doctor, they will do their very best and do it in a very professional way. I don’t know how to explain this. Koreans are very respectful of others, and if you walk around, say, in Seoul, the capital city, you will be hard-pressed to find trash blowing around. It is a very clean city. Korea offers a lot to admire. The culture goes back some 5,500 years. I love Korean history, architecture, anthropology, geography, sociology, et cetera.”

He said Koreans well-deserve their reputation for being driven to achieve, especially in the classroom. “They are way too smart.”

During his overseas tour Saklar met a bright Korean national attached to his unit, Han Chil Song, who let the curious American know his sister, Chong, worked in a Seoul tailor shop. “She measured me up for a number of suits,” said Saklar. “For some reason, I kept going back to purchase some very nice and very inexpensive suits.” Love bloomed. The pair married. Her brother died tragically.

 

 

 

 

Saklar learned the harrowing story of how Chong’s family escaped North Korea after the Communists came to power and implemented a purge that targeted figures like Chong’s banker father. Chong was not yet born. The family made it to Seoul, South Korea, where they survived the war.

“I think it was rough going,” said Saklar. “I mean, that whole country was devastated and destroyed. I was just there, and the mountains surrounding Seoul  still don’t have any trees on them yet. They’re just bare. The trees were blasted out or people cut them down to survive. It’s unbelievable.”

Saklar became a father shortly before his Army release. In the States his small family settled in Omaha, where his Greek-American clan embraced his Korean wife and Amerasian son. “I think it was pretty exciting for all of them, especially since we had a child.” His Korean wife and biracial kids — he and Chong have three grown children — have been subject to some prejudice, he said, but mostly welcomed.

Back home, Saklar returned to school on the G.I. Bill but with a family to support he needed a job. He tried driving a taxi, working construction — “whatever I could do just to make ends meet,” he said. He began his own roofing business. “I was struggling. I went to Nebraska Job Service and I saw an opening for this new city department (Omaha Community Development), and I was the last person they hired, at the lowest ranking of all the staff.”

Acquisition/relocation work transitioned to developing affordable housing in largely African-American northeast Omaha neighborhoods. All of it was an education.

“There’s lots of things I was exposed to — a myriad of housing programs. I was active working to get housing built for first-time home buyers all the way down to the homeless shelters. I just learned on the way.”

His professional interest in the homeless began in the mid-’80s, when laws emptied mental health institutions, dumping countless people into the streets without a system to assist them or the communities they inhabited. He became Omaha’s point person for developing plans and capturing funds to deal with homelessness. He assembled the land the Siena/Francis, the Open Door Mission and the Campus of Hope occupy today. He secured a building and funds for the Stephen Center.

“Omaha City Planning became a leader in the nation,” he said. “I developed almost every homeless strategic plan since the very first one starting in 1987. And so I just got really interested in it. I got really good at bringing in money. I brought in like tens of millions of dollars worth of (community block) grants. In about 1995 some homeless agencies came and asked me to take the leadership in trying to create community partnerships with all the programs. Up until then it was all turf wars — fighting over the money and philosophical differences on strategy. It was terrible.”

The resulting Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless, a collaborative network of 100 homeless providers that coordinates and maximizes resources to prevent and eliminate homelessness, has been recognized nationally.

“It was all just creative juices flowing, without any knowledge of really how to do it. Just learn as you go and do it with openness and honesty,” Saklar said of the process that launched MACCH in ‘96. “It just evolved, as everything does. I got to meet the directors of probably a hundred programs or more, becoming their friend and colleague and guiding them — they sought my advice and I sought theirs. We were just finding ways to do this. Programs flourished. Collaborative efforts formed.

“It’s become so good we’ve became a model for other communities. I find myself in Washington, D.C. or Charlotte (N.C.) at seminars showing them our strategy — this is how we did it. I get calls from all over the country for advice.”

Overcoming old turf battles in Omaha, he said, “involved bringing all the agencies and programs together. We tried to create some values within this system, to get the agencies to recognize they’re all just a piece of the puzzle and they have to respect each other’s philosophies on how to deal with homeless people. I could use the money as the carrot or as the stick of no funding if you don’t hop on board and get on this program. I did that quite effectively I believe. I made people that wouldn’t even talk to each other become partners, and jointly funded them.”

While the homeless problem in big cities overwhelmed those communities, Omaha’s situation was more manageable. Still, many service gaps existed. Saklar’s seen much improvement. “Omaha’s made huge strides,” he said. “Omaha’s been very, very good in dealing with the homeless.” He’s one reason why. The plaques on his office wall honoring his service attest to it. In 2001 MACCH was singled out among hundreds of programs nationwide by Innovations in American Government. “It said Omaha was doing the right thing and on its way,” he said of the award.

Omaha city planner James Thele, a colleague of Saklar’s, said “what makes Mike effective is he’s a very caring person. He’s also a very practical person. He understands budgets and money. He understands that things take time. He’s also adept at building concensus to move forward with new projects.” Thele said Saklar “has the ability to create a vision of how to address homelessness from a continuum standpoint based on the needs of the individual.”

Saklar was drawn to the work of Siena/Francis before ever working there. The shelter was begun by two nuns in ‘75. It was on Cuming Street then. From the start he liked that it accepted whomever came to its doors. No discrimination. Saklar’s own life is all about embracing diversity and making multiculturalism a way of life.

“The thing about Siena/Francis House was it had unconditional acceptance,” said Saklar. “It’s the only program that’s not a religion, that’s not a church itself or that doesn’t have restrictions. The other shelters at that time wouldn’t let you in if you had even alcohol on your breath. And so for the active addict, the active alcoholic, the Siena/Francis House was the only place they could stay.”

“So there’s this huge unattended need,” he said of active users unmet at other agencies. “When I was a city official,” he said, “there’d be huge arguments almost always against Siena/Francis House — that they were just enabling this lifestyle.”

The way Saklar and Siena/Francis staff see it, however, an addict can’t get sober until basic human needs for food, clothing, shelter and security are met. Then the process of recovery can begin. Siena/Francis operates the state’s largest residential chemical addiction program in its Miracles Recovery Treatment Center. He said his agency serves the vast majority of this area’s chronic homeless.

Everything about Siena/Francis appealed to him and so when the opportunity to head it up came he accepted. “This place is a hidden jewel and I knew that when I was at city hall,” he said. “I loved city hall, l loved my colleagues, what I was doing. I was at age 55 and I could retire but I thought, I would love to do something else, I could have another career. This job opened up and I took it.”

Administrative duties aside, Saklar goes out of his way to engage homeless “guests.” Some wind up staffers like James Hayes.

“I’ve found that not only does he handle the very important decisions and planning that goes into keeping the Siena Francis House above water but also he is always concerned with each individual homeless person he comes in contact with,” said Hayes. “And, believe me, there are many of our guests he knows personally and has helped in a number of ways.”

Women’s shelter guest manager Patricia Cunningham was once a resident there. “Mike was and is a very big part of my recovery,” she said. “He showed me how honesty and integrity could and did change my life.” Saklar leads a large weekly AA meeting on campus, where he’s warmly greeted by staff and guests. “I like being a mentor,” said Saklar. “That’s one of the best things I have going here. I’m able to mentor people who are very dysfunctional, have lots of issues and problems, and maybe offer some advice. Every day I talk to people.”

Spend any time with Saklar making the rounds and you’ll witness this. Usually he greets guests with, “How we doing?” One March morning he came across a client in the treatment program and stopped to speak with him.

“Are you doing good?” asked Saklar. “Yeah, I just got back from Metro,” the man reported. “You going to college?” Saklar inquired. “Yeah,” the man said, “I just have to follow those same (12) steps here…” “Right, exactly, good,” Saklar said. “OK, well, just keep moving forward — you’re just doing a remarkable job here. I’m glad to have you as a friend.” “I’m glad to be your friend,” the man replied.

Later, Saklar told a visitor, “I’m so glad to see this guy succeeding in the program. You wouldn’t even have recognized him a few months ago — he was a hardcore street person.” It’s miracles like these and the sobriety anniversaries and treatment center graduations celebrated there that keep Saklar motivated. “It just shows that treament, especially in this facility, works. It works very well and we can all accomplish the goals if we just put our minds to it,” he said.

That same March day Saklar got a report from Miracles program director Bill Keck that three ex-homeless addicts are still making it on the outside.

“They live in the Gold Manor Apartments up by Immanuel Hospital — they were all hardcore street people and they all graduated (from treatment) about the same time and they’re all doing well. All employed. Haven’t abused or used drugs or alcohol for a number of years,” said Saklar, “and I’m talking about some long-term addicts that if you saw them on the street and you saw them today you wouldn’t even think they’re the same person. Those are the good things.

“My greatest pleasure is when I run into a formerly homeless person who is housed, employed, reunited with family and, basically, doing very well. Or them sending me pictures of their children that were born here, showing me they’re doing OK. I’ve had a lot of parents hug me and tell me I saved their son’s life. This whole issue of homelessness — it is often a matter of life or death.”

Positive feedback is vital in an arena that has more casualties than victories.

“Otherwise, you do get totally burned out. You still do to some degree,” he said. “The discouraging times come when homeless guests with whom I am working give up or leave, or something or someone interferes with progress. This happens a lot. Maybe someone who was dealing with an addiction was doing real well and then a brother comes and messes up his life. Things like that.

“The heartbreaking situations come in many forms. Obviously, a lot of homeless people whom I befriended have died — in the neighborhood of 100 in the seven years I’ve been at Siena/Francis House. I watched a lot of them waste away due to their alcoholism or cancer or other illness. We always hold memorial services for the homeless who die. I didn’t know when I took this job I would be doing that.”

Saklar is someone the homeless go to when they lose a loved one.

“Not too long ago I had to write a eulogy for a father whose two young sons and ex-wife had been murdered. He didn’t know what to say and came to me for help. I knew the children and mother had been homeless at times. I sat in the back of the funeral home and watched. He did a very good job under trying circumstances.”

Then there are the unsettling reminders of how homelessness can touch people who look just like us. Call these there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I moments.

 

 

 

 

“I had two recent experiences that were very depressing to me,” said Saklar. “First, my 16-month-old granddaughter was visiting. I spent a Sunday bouncing her on my lap, looking into her big blue eyes. Then, when I arrived at work the next day I immediately ran into a 16-month-old girl whose mother had just checked into the Siena House. She had big, beautiful, blue eyes. She was unkempt, her clothes dirty and torn. I held her and tried to be happy but it tore me up inside.

“The same thing happened with my other granddaughter, who’s 11. We baby-sit every Wednesday. One Thursday morning I arrived at work to be introduced to an 11-year-old homeless girl and her mother. That bothered the heck out of me.”

Stereotypes abound about the homeless. We’re taught to avert our eyes from THEM or to avoid THEM because they’re unclean, dangerous, crazy derelicts. The truth is, something’s happened to bring them to this point. Every single one has a story of how they got there. Saklar said the chronic homeless account for most of Omaha’s down-and-outs. Others are pushed into desperate straits by a job loss, an illness, an addiction, an abusive relationship, before getting back on their feet.

“Most homeless do have an addiction or a mental illness, or both. Most have criminal histories. Most are not job-ready or housing-ready,” said Saklar. “Most have had disasterous lives since childhood. Too many are illiterate. Never got beyond fifth grade. It’s very unbelievable the number of people who never learned to read and write. Beyond that, they are all very unique individuals.”

Pass through downtown and you’ll glimpse some of these vagabonds and nomads. Some lug their possessions in bags, others in grocery carts. Weather allowing, men mill about the Siena/Francis compound. Most stay inside, protected from the elements, under the supervision of professionals who care. Were it not for safe environments like this the homeless would resort to dumpster diving, begging, stealing, loitering on corners, in alleys, in stairwells, in parks, living in shanties. Street life is no life at all. It’s a survival-of-the-fittest grind.

The current economic crisis with its high unemployment is spiking pantry and homeless shelter usage. Human service directors like Saklar worry the slump will impact the donations they depend on.

“Our budget this year is going to be $1.8 million but that’s counting a lot of grants for things, like a $200,000 (matching) grant from Kiewit for the new day services program. When I first came here the previous year’s budget was $600,000. I’d never run a business in my life. This is a business — you’ve got cash flow, you’ve got bills, you’ve got salaries, you’ve got employment laws just like every place you work.”

What he found when he arrived, he said, were “a lot of cash flow problems. I’m here a little over a year and I borrowed $60,000 to keep the doors open. We had a little line of credit and I used it.” He acknowledges that first year or two “was a challenge personally trying to learn all this and figure out what I got myself into.”

With time, it’s all worked out. “We turned all that around nicely as far as the fundraising,” he said. Siena holds an annual walk/run that raises money for the agency’s programs. And where before Siena rarely sent out solicitation letters asking for help it sends out several a year now. “I changed that. I had to — we would never have survived. There’s a lot of competition out there.”

Even though the agency’s financially stable today he said it never fails that “by October we’re always in the red.” He said, “Last year we were like $300,000 in the hole but amazingly in this business 50 percent of all our donations come in that fourth quarter. Every year it happens. You have to have faith.”

 

 

 

 

“In 2008, he said, “probably 83 to 85 percent of all our funding support just came from people in the community responding to our fundraising letters, probably six percent came from government” and the rest from foundations, corporations, etc.

Siena/Francis does much with little. Last year it provided 126,000 nights of shelter and 330,000 meals. “We probably average 350 (guests) a night,” said Saklar. “In addition to the mental health and addictions treatment one of the major efforts we have is the employment training program. We’ve got about 105 men and women in employment training. They help us run the programs and operate the facilities. We only have 26 salaried employees — everybody else is in employment training. It enables us to operate 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week.”

Saklar said the needs are great and more services required. He pulled out blueprints to reveal the expanded campus and services he has in mind. “This is going to be the centerpiece,” he said, indicating a rendering of a bright, airy building. “This is a human resource center or empowerment center — everybody has a different name for it — but it’s going to be a multipurpose facility with a healthcare center, strictly for the homeless, a dental clinic, respite care. It will provide every service a homeless person would need right out of this facility.”

This master collaborator envisions a one-stop campus where every appropriate service provider will have a presence. “One agency can’t do everything. I want Salvation Army involved, Heartland Family Services, all the mental health programs, Douglas County, Social Security, everybody. They can just do it right here.” Currently, homeless often must shuttle to off-site provider offices around town.

His vision doesn’t end there. “We’re going to build permanant supportive housing units,” he said, giving qualifying homeless a place to call their own. What would it mean to a homeless individual to have his/her own home? “When I walk over to our men’s shelter at night I see people sandwiched on the mats we spread out all over the floor. These people lying around, their self-esteem is so low — they think this is all they deserve. Then I think of the pride of knowing you have your own little apartment. What a huge lift up it’d be for these people.”

The plans also include “an employment-based center, where guests will do day labor. Perhaps an on-site manufacturer will put homeless people to work.

The price tag for the proposed 21-acre social service campus: $36 million. That includes an estimated $10 million in on-site improvements already completed.

He feels urgency to get it done but is pragmatic enough to be patient. “It needs to happen today,” he said. “This has been on the books for a long time. I think this is going to become a very worthwhile campus. It’s all part of the big picture.” Realistically, he thinks the campus could be completed in four years. He’s looking at funding avenues to realize the dream.

One nagging worry is potential opposition to a homeless campus in trendy NoDo, especially once the ballpark’s built. NoDo’s once hard streets are undergoing urban renewal, as warehouses, junk yards, manufacturing plants, bars and flop houses give way to gentrified new digs by Creighton University, the City and commercial developers. Fancy brick and mortar facades don’t change the fact homelessness exists. It’s a reality not going away anytime soon. Turning a blind eye won’t solve it. Moving shelters elsewhere only isolates the homeless from helping agencies.

Saklar’s advocated to keep services downtown, where, historically, the homeless congregate. “Somebody might want to come and take this place out. I know it could happen, and so I’m doing everything I can to solidify this agency-this campus,” he said. He’s weighed in on the NoDo development plan and he’s active in the Jefferson Square Business Association, assuring stakeholders a homeless campus can be a good neighbor. The more entrenched his homeless oasis, he figures, “the more impractical, more expensive” it is to remove.

“But you always have that danger,” he said. “So I’ve taken steps to ensure this is the appropriate place. One of those steps is working with Mayor (Mike) Fahey. He sees value in what we’re trying to do here. He’s been supportive from day one.”

City hall and Saklar work well together. He has strong allies there. It’s how the new day shelter Siena/Francis runs got built. Lameduck Fahey sings Saklar’s praises. “Mike has served Omaha’s homeless population with great distinction,” he said. “Under Mike’s leadership, the Siena/Francis House and the City of Omaha have developed an outstanding partnership through the establishment of a permanent homeless day shelter. Mike has gone the extra mile to help those in need.”

Is Saklar concerned what stance the next mayor may take? “No, because I think I’ve got relationships with everybody that’s running,” he said. “I think we’ll be fine.” He noted that the designs call for “a beautiful campus with green boundaries, landscaping, elevations that isolate it without having to erect fences.”

Once hired, Saklar gave himself 10 years on the job. Seven years in, he’s intent on  reaching certain goals before he’s ready to call it quits. It may be three years, it may be more, “nothing’s set in stone.”

“Siena/Francis House needs to concentrate on getting better. We’ll get everything in place and then this agency needs to prove it can effectively deal with homelessness. I want to complete the vision I have,” he said. “I want everything operating at full capacity, doing what it’s supposed to be doing.” Then, and only then, he said, might he feel comfortable to “slowly maybe slip away…”

Click Westin, back in the screenwriting game again at age 83

July 11, 2010 5 comments

Every once in a while, and not nearly as often as I’d like, someone will give me a lead on a story. That’s what led me to Click Westin.  The one-time Writer’s Guild of America member wrote for episodic television and had one screenplay produced as a feature.  He also owned and operated his own L.A, advertising agency that did work for national clients. He seemingly had it all but then his battle with the bottle cost him his Hollywood career  and very nearly everything else. Long story short, he cleaned up his act and in his decades-long sobriety he’s been an active AA sponsor and speaker in his hometown of Omaha, where he headed the advertising for his brother Dick Westin’s successful international food business.  Now, in his 80s, Click is back writing screenplays.  He recently had one optioned.  My story about this engaging man who licked a serious problem originally appeared in the New Horizons.  Since it’s publication a year ago or so the irrepressible Click has begun writing songs at a furious clip, even getting Nashville producers to take notice.  Go Click! He’s an example of how older individuals often make the most fascinating subjects if for no other reason than the sheer expanse of life experience they represent.

Click Westin, back in the screenwriting game again at age 83

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

More than 40 years after writing a screenplay that became the low budget feature film The Nashville Rebel (1966) with country music star Waylon Jennings in the lead, Omahan Clifton “Click” Westin may have a new script made into a motion picture.

At 83, Westin’s original crime thriller Center Cut has been optioned by Steve Lustgarten’s LEO Films. That’s no guarantee it will ever get made. Even if it does we’re not talking Oscar-caliber work here. But it is another mark of progress on his comeback trail in an industry famously cruel to artists his age and with his baggage.

That comeback, make it recovery, is both personal and professional and is a long time in the making. His reaching the point of despair with alcoholism interrupted his screenwriting career in the 1960s. He’s worked his recovery program for half-a-century. He claims 40 years of sobriety under his belt. But he only surrendered to the unmanageability of his disease after hitting bottom and having lost everything, his home, his first marriage, his family, his savings, his career.

After piecing his life back together on the West Coast with the help of a pistol-packing woman named Wilma, whom he married and is still with today, he began doing consulting work back in Omaha for his brother Dick, owner of Westin Foods, and before long Click and Wilma settled here. He’s been here ever since as Westin’s vice president of advertising and as a speaker at area AA confabs.

But there was a time when Click once did enjoy a Hollywood career. Nothing major mind you, but he was a working hack and card-carrying member of the Writers Guild of America. As he likes to say he paid his dues and learned his craft in the sink-or-swim crucible of studio staff scriptwriting with producer-syndicator Ziv Television in the 1950s. He churned out script after script for such half-hour episodic action-adventure series as Boston Blackie and The Cisco Kid

“It was kind of disappointing if you were looking for glamour because it was an office set up. You had a desk. The studios were outside the door, where they were shooting, but you never got over there. Your quota was to write two half-hour scripts a week,” he said.

As soon as you’d get an assignment, he said, “you start dreaming up something and you put in on paper. You learn your trade no matter what the writing assignment is. If you were a staff writer I’m not sure you even got credit for what you wrote. You never did see the result of what you wrote. You just had to turn in those assignments every week.”

He’s written about everything a writer can at one time or another, with the exception of a novel. “A writer’s a writer,” he likes to say. If Westin has a niche, it’s terse, hard-boiled dialogue and one-liner jokes, which is how he ended up contributing material on a freelance basis to such popular programs as The Steve Allen Show, You Asked for It and This is Your Life. He’s always been able to write fast, a vital commodity in advertising and TV.

Along the way, he came into contact with big names, including Robert Taylor, Hugh O’Brian, Hal Roach, Bill Dozier, Ralph Edwards, Debbie Reynolds, Lawrence Welk.

 

Boston Blackie

 

The first stars he met predated his Hollywood career. It was 1948 and he was a World War II veteran studying journalism at then-Omaha University on the G.I. Bill when he went out to the West Coast to visit an Army Air Corps buddy who attended the University of Southern California. Westin got invited along with his pal’s fraternity brothers to serve as extras on the MGM musical Easter Parade. He got to visit with stars Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, whose path he’d cross again.

“My only scene is in the finale when everyone is walking down the boardwalk and I tip my hat to Fred Astaire and Judy Garland. That was the extent of it,” Click said in his clipped, just-the-facts delivery.

He said you can spot him at the end of the classic picture ”just for a moment. You gotta be alert. There’s really a lovely young lady on my arm.” To get costumed and made-up for the scene, he said, “we went in a tent and got our clothes changed. She had on this beautiful period dress with a hoop skirt and all, but underneath she’d rolled up her jeans,” giving lie to the carefully constructed illusion.

The whole Hollywood, big-studio moviemaking apparatus was an eye-opener for him. “I was just out of the service, still a kid. I was very impressed,” he said. Still, he had enough moxie to stand out, which is likely why he got selected to tip his bowler hat to the two stars. That and his six-foot-height and athletic good looks. It wasn’t the only time during the sound stage shoot he displayed his boldness.

“Onto the set came Peter Lawford and Liz Taylor. She wanted to climb up to the camera tower, and I was standing next to the tower so I took her up and on the way I thought, Why not?, and I said, ‘Listen, the boys at the fraternity are having a party tonight, I just wondered if…’  And she said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I’m busy.’ I thought, Well, I gave it a shot.”

If nothing else, the experience gave him a glimpse into a world he’d never seen before and some good anecdotes to share. “When I got the check from MGM I didn’t cash it, I brought it back to the Dundee Dell, where us college kids hung out, and waved it around.”

He swears that early behind-the-scenes exposure to the world of movies didn’t influence his decision to try his luck out there just a few years later. But that’s just like Click, who deflects or downplays things, unless they touch on addiction or on events like the Great Depression, when he learned what it meant to survive.

During the depths of the Depression his father Clifton, a native Omahan who also went by “Click,” lost his regular sales job. He gathered up the family, including a very young “Click Jr.,” and they hit the road to scrounge up a living.

The Cisco Kid

 

It turns out Click’s old man was highly resourceful. Among other things, he was a pool shark who once toured with the great early 20th century straight pool champion, Ralph Greenleaf. The elder Westin would sometimes appear in town pool halls as The Masked Marvel, taking on all comers in promotional stunts sponsored by the Coca-Cola Company. The sport was huge then.

Unfortunately, Click said his father was also an alcoholic.

When hard times hit, the sharpie was married with kids in the Nebraska Panhandle, stranded without a job, and so he did what he had to do to provide for his family.

“Dad acquired an old Graham-Paige automobile, he cut off the back and rigged a structure onto it to make almost sort of a covered wagon out of it, and we headed south. A good place to go during the Depression. He showed a great deal of foresight,” said Click.

Not unlike the Oakies displaced by the Dust Bowl, the family packed up what they had in their makeshift “prairie schooner” and headed for greener pastures in Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico. “We were just itinerant. We would pick up bottles and containers out of the trash in every town we’d stop, we would clean ‘em and redeem ‘em for change. Mom would make soap over an open fire and we’d sell soap door to door. My dad fixed pool tables and hustled pool. Anything to make a buck.”

These self-made gypsies would stay put awhile in select spots. They stayed in New Mexico long enough for Click’s dad to operate a roughneck pool hall where he ran a poker game in back. There were some wild and woolly times — drinking, shouting, fisticuffs, knives, guns. Click heard first-hand tales from old cowboys of epic cattle drives, scraps with Indians, riding with outlaws and Pony Express exploits. For someone with a vivid imagination like Click it was a golden time. The hardships of growing up without a home or its creature comforts didn’t resonate then, the excitement did. To him, it was just one big fat adventure.

“Well, lifestyles don’t affect children, they don’t know the difference, it’s the way life is, but in looking back of course it was quite severe, quite tough,” he said.

But also quite a rich life experience. By the time he started school it’s safe to say Click had lived and seen more than any of his boyhood chums. All that moving around though meant never being in one school more than a few months. “I probably attended as near as I could figure out 30 grade schools,” he said.

The family subsisted this way for almost two years before coming to Omaha. The hopskotching didn’t end entirely then either. “Here in Omaha whenever the rent was due we moved,” he said of his parents’ attempts to stay one step ahead of creditors. Click’s dad eventually did well with his own insulation business

At Benson Click proved a bright student. His kid brother Dick was a sports hero and entrepreneurial whiz who’s now in the Benson and Nebraska athletic halls of fame and the Omaha Business Hall of Fame. Click’s talents lay elsewhere. Blessed with a creative mind, he exhibited a way with words, writing for the school paper and penning O. Henry-like short stories. But entry into the military at age 18 put a hold on his storyteller ambitions. All the eligible males from his class of ‘44 enlisted.

His World War II service saw him man a ball turret aboard B-24s assigned submarine patrol duty in the Caribbean. His group never saw action.

Like many returning vets, he was eager to make up for lost time. He wanted to be the next Fitzgerald or Hemingway. He got his first taste of being a professional wordsmith composing verses for a Kansas City greeting card company. In Omaha, he filed articles and press releases for Northern Natural Gas Company and created on-air promotional spots and bits at WOW Radio, a then regional broadcasting giant. He and a popular performer, Johnny Carson, hit it off, and were drinking buddies at local watering holes, where they discussed taking Hollywood by storm. Before long, Carson left to pursue the dream. Westin soon followed, young wife in tow.

Westin never did complete all the required credit hours for his degree, but he did find a career. Show business agreed with his temperament as a cocksure promoter and curiosity seeker. WOW became his early training ground.

“I contributed to writing the noon day show called The Farm Hour. It was an audience participation show. It had a full band and a full cast, it had skits. It was a big deal at the time.”

Even though he didn’t know a soul on the West Coast except for Carson and a few war comrades, Westin leaped at the chance when NBC offered a spot in promotions in L.A. Then came his trial-by-fire at Ziv and writing for all those TV programmers. He also wrote for a TV series called Squad Car. “I did a ton of those.” he said. In addition to his small screen credits, he did uncredited script doctor work on all kinds of feature films. He’d rarely be given the entire script, usually just a small section to tweak a page here or a page there, to punch up some stiff dialogue with a dose of humor or a bit of color. One of the many pics he doctored was the 1959 WWII drama Up Periscope with James Garner and Edmond O’Brien.

He was not picky about the writing gigs he got. There was no pretense about him. He was very business-minded about writing. “You’d do assignments as they’d come along,” he said. Sometimes, he said, he was hired purely as insurance, his material never utilized. He didn’t care as long as he got paid. Some writers threw a hissy fit if one word of theirs got altered, he said, “but not me. I was never much interested in what they did with whatever I wrote. I would be today but writing then paid the rent and when an assignment was through I was looking for the next assignment, not what the hell happened to it or shaking hands with some tight ass star. That didn’t put bread on the table. I wasn’t interested in that. Really, I looked at writing very pragmatically. I wrote for a buck, not for artsy-craftsy or for posterity. I just wrote for a dollar, that was my living. Once you sell it you don’t own it. It’s like selling a house, you get paid for it and you move on.”

But his real bread-and-butter came as a broadcast advertising copywriter, producer and director. He did so many commercials, perhaps thousands, he said, “I don’t remember them all. They are not difficult for me to do. That would be my forte if I really got down to it. I’m as good at that as anyone. I can’t say that about any of the rest of what I do.” He worked for ad agencies and owned his own agencies. National accounts he handled included Alka-Seltzer, Chevrolet and Mattel. “’You can tell its Mattel, it’s swell.’ That was our biggie,’” he said.

He fondly recalls a 30-second spot for sup-hose he wrote and directed.

“The establishing shot was a steel frame building under construction. We moved up the scaffolding, a whistle blew, a couple guys in hard hats sat down and opened their lunch pails, their legs dangling from 60 feet above. They start to take a bite and they freeze and we follow their look to an I-beam suspended by a cable, where we see this beautiful pair of legs walk all the way out, turn around and walk back. The only dialogue was, ‘Men always notice women who wear sup-hose.’ That was one of my favorites because the visual told the entire story. That’s kind of rare.”

He produced live promos for L.A. area Dodge dealers featuring Lawrence Welk and his orchestra from the Santa Monica Pier. He wrote and produced many industrial films. One, The Invisible Circle, is still used by the California Highway Patrol.

He prided himself on being a jack-of-all-trades and mediums, perfectly capable going from writing to directing.

“You do what the assignments call for and if you have common sense you can see if it isn’t going anywhere or if it is. You don’t have to be a genius, you just have to have common sense when someone’s not coming across or overacting.”

In the late ‘50s he partnered with a young UCLA Film School grad, Richard Rush, in producing some major TV spots. Their experimental application of subliminal perception techniques, a process called PreCon, attracted much attention, including some unwanted queries by a United States Congressional committee concerned about precognition’s mind-control or brainwashing implications.

Click prepared an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher that called for inserting subliminal shock images. Hal Roach Studios purchased but never produced the property. Rush went with the project and the partners amicably split. Rush went on to be an acclaimed feature filmmaker. His Getting Straight and The Stunt Man won many admirers among cineastes here and abroad.

By the end of the ‘50s and the advent of the ‘60s Westin was years into his active addiction. For a time, he continued as a functioning drunk, maintaining a modicum of professional success despite falling apart on the inside. His disease, he said, accounted in part for his many career moves. Sometime before he hit bottom he created a syndicated show, Star Route, TV’s first book or scripted country music series. Rod Cameron hosted and guest stars included the Who’s-Who of country western stars — Johnny Cash, Rex Allen, Tex Ritter, Loretta Lynn, Glen Campbell.

That led to other countrified projects, including a syndicated radio series, Turning Point, and his feature script Morgan’s Corner being made as Nashville Rebel. Star Route and Turning Point were cast in Nashville and produced in Canada.

When Westin conceived Nashville Rebel he intended producing it himself but he couldn’t raise all the financing. That’s when he sold the script for some $6,000. He ended up getting “story by” rather than “screenplay by” credit even though he swears not a word of his manuscript was changed other than the title. Also, his surname is misspelled in the credits as “Weston.” None of it, he decided, was worth going to arbitration over. Now the film’s being rereleased on DVD and he’s eager to finally view it. That’s right, he’s never seen the film. Ask why he didn’t attend the premiere and he replies: “I was probably drunk.”

He said there are many months, even entire years from his worst acting out days he cannot recall. “A lot of what I’m telling you,” he said to this reporter, “it comes back in flashes. I can’t tell you what led up to it or what followed it. It’s gone.”

He tried AA a few times but whatever spells of sobriety he managed never stuck. He fell so far off the wagon his earnings for several years didn’t even register with the Social Security Administration. He describes these lost periods as “blackouts.” He was so far gone that all he lived for was his next drink or binge or drunk.

“If you’re a drunk your best friend is the guy you met five minutes ago on the bar stool next to you. There’s only a couple of subjects I’ve encountered in any saloon anywhere — girls, sports and politics. What else is there to talk about?”

The more the addiction’s fed, he said, “then naturally it progresses.”

He finally bottomed out when he awoke on a curb outside the L.A. County Jail, “kicked out” for the umpteenth time after drying out on another drunk and disorderly arrest. “I was spending life on the installment plan. I must have been in six to eight jails —  L.A., Pasadena, Hollywood…I remember my first one. Boy, that was traumatic. Whew! Oh, God, I didn’t want anybody to know. After that it got common. Anybody I could call for bail I would.”

That last time he was alone and broke. “I had the change in my pockets — that was the total amount of all my assets. I didn’t even have enough money to afford bus fare to go back out to the Valley…the last place I remembered I left my car. I was without a car, without a family, without two homes.” He was divorced by then, his three kids living with their mom. It was the end of the line. No where to go but up.

He said the AA meetings he went to then were full of desperate people just like himself who’d burned every bridge and lost every possession.

“It would be strange today but not when I came up. It was different then. If you had a watch you weren’t eligible in my day, you hadn’t hit bottom. You wouldn’t walk into a meeting, you’d crawl in. There were DTs and convulsions quite frequently. You’d stick a wallet in their teeth and go on with the meeting. They were really tongue-chewing, babbling, falling-down drunks. That’s not the case today. My God, they drive their own cars to meetings. I lost my car.”

He still recalls walking into an L.A. bar called the Admiral’s Dinghy, where he’d arranged to meet a striking Eurasian woman named Wilma whom he’d become smitten with upon their initial meeting some days before.

“I came in a little late and I said, ‘I’m an alcoholic, I’ve got to go back to AA. Will you come with me?’ She’d never heard of it. She put down her drink, put on her white gloves, slipped off the bar stool and said, ‘Sure,’ and she never had another drink. I did, I continued for close to another year.”

As Click made him way back to sobriety Wilma was there for him. She’s a strong woman with a life history that, he said, “reads like fiction.” He said the L.A. native left home at 13, ran drugs in Mexico, worked her way up to being one of the first female quality control managers at a U.S. manufacturing plant and became a courier running skim money for the Mob and a hostess for mafia gambling parties. “That’s just scratching the surface,” he said. “Wilma is the most remarkable lady on the face of the Earth. She is something.”

His friend, playwright Sumner Arthur Long (Never Too Late), was writing a feature script about her life when he died. Click may one day take up the project.

Click’s turnaround meant learning a new, healthier way of thinking and behaving. Kicking an obsession, any obsession, is difficult. “It wasn’t easy to shake the addiction, of course,” he said. Starting over from scratch, as he did, was humbling, but people in the business and out of it, like his brother Dick, were there for him. “It shouldn’t have been that easy for me.” Estranging yourself from family and friends and then making amends is a painful but necessary process. He’s done it.

 

 

 

Richard Rush's primary photo

Richard Rush

 

Until recently the only scripts he’d written since Nashville Rebel were slide shows, power points and commercials. But a few years ago he began getting the bug again to write a dramatic script. Then he got intentional about it by attending a pricey screenwriting colony in Superior, Neb. conducted by noted script guru Lew Hunter. Charged with writing 30 pages, Westin completed the entire 117-page script for Get Grey, one of five scripts he’s written the last couple years.

Hunter, another Nebraskan with success writing for TV and film, also served as an executive and producer at all three major networks and taught screenwriting at UCLA. Until the workshop he’d never met or heard of Westin, and vice versa, but the two old pros are now like a pair of long lost colleagues. They talk frequently. It’s rare either can find anyone else of their generation who’s been on the inside of TV/film culture as they have. Hunter can certainly attest, as Westin can, to the dysfunctional lifestyle that culture breeds.

Westin said his problem-drinking began before he ever got to L.A., triggered by the ritualistic rounds he and other media types made at Omaha bars. He likes to say “I was suddenly struck drunk” to make the point it takes years of abuse to become one. Once out in L.A. the social imbibing only increased. He got into a pattern of medicating himself with alcohol. Better to be numb than to feel anything. He and his old WOW mate, Johnny Carson, would go at it. “There was a bar catty corner across the street from CBS on Fairfax (Blvd.) and we would get together a few times a week and have a couple of drinks, oh, for a long time,” said Westin, who added Carson was one way on stage and another way off it. “There were two Johnny Carsons — the one on television and the one in private life, a very shy, inward man who didn’t have much to say. He wasn’t a turned-on individual at all.”

While environment and heredity undoubtedly contributed to Westin’s own drinking habit, he said nothing excuses it. “That’s a cop out.” He also doesn’t ascribe to any book or regimen that offers a cure. “There is no cure. You can arrest the disease, but as far as a cure, give an alcoholic who has experienced a great deal of abstinence a drink and see what happens.” Relapse. He knows, he’s been there.

Part of the stability he’s found in life has coincided with moving back here in the 1970s. He’d commuted for a time between L.A. and Omaha. Then, after his brother purchased Roberts Dairy (since sold), Click came back to run one of its operations in Sioux City. Later, Click took over its Dairy Distributors home delivery division. Not much of a businessman, he brought in Wilma to help run things.

One day, he witnessed just how much she had his back when a disturbed driver who’d been fired wielded a knife in the office.

“Wilma had a .38 in her desk drawer. She pulled it out with the toe of her shoe, she reached down, held it in her lap just calmly and pointed it right at the sucker spinning around there. I thought, My God if he turns and takes one step towards her we’re all going to be in the paper in the morning. She just sat there and said, ‘That’s enough.’ That’s all it took. She meant business. Oh, there’s only one Wilma. They call her the Dragon Lady.”

The couple lived in Omaha together several years but Wilma’s now in Hawaii, where she has her own business. Click commutes to visit her but wants her to move back.

In Omaha Westin’s started seven 12-step meetings and a transitional facility, Beacon House. He’s cut back on his AA speaking but always honors a request. He volunteers much of his time sponsoring addicts. His experience guides others.

“I sponsor a lot of people in AA and I have found where people are concerned there’s work, there’s family and there’s AA, and to me that’s not much of a life. I mean, it’s a life like everybody else has I guess but usually I insist they develop an outside passion. I don’t care what it is, golf or bird watching or music or whatever.

I always have some kind of a passion going outside what I’m doing. For example, I learned how to play a keyboard from scratch. Now I’m not a musician but I like to play songs. I did that for a long time. Then it was photography. I used to buy barn pictures. That got too expensive and so I cut that out.”

Other than writing golf may be his oldest passion. The Omaha Field Club member enjoys treating guests to lunch there, holding court with his rich reservoir of stories. On nice weather days a round of 18 holes is never far from his mind. When traveling to warm climes, as he often does, he tries working in a few rounds.

Ideas for movies come to him regularly now. On a “meditation drive” along Highway 6 in western Iowa the sight of livestock got him thinking about a modern-day cattle rustling scheme, which he developed into the feature script Center Cut. “I stick to very basic themes that are universal and can be adapted,” he said.

So, after all these years Click’s back in the game as a screenwriter again. Well, sort of. “It’s not the same. Now it’s more or less, oh, a hobby,” he said. “I remember the desperation of, Will this sell?, because the rent’s due. That is a whole different story. Now, I don’t give a damn if they buy it or not. My rent’s paid.”

Still, he’s grateful for what a comfortable position he is in that he can write at his leisure. He’s also keenly aware he’s been given a gift and a reprieve by having come out of his blackout with his mind and body intact. “Totally. I’ve gone to way too many funerals of people I knew then. I’m on borrowed time every day,” he said.

All of which explains his philosophy of living these days.

“If you want to do it, do it, because this ain’t no dress rehearsal. I’m in the third act and hopefully it’ll be a long act but I might not be around tomorrow. When you’re 83 things wear out. Nothing that I know of, but there’s parts that probably have about had it.”

His wit’s clearly not one of them.

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