"I don't think I've ever met an alcoholic I didn't like."
Thomas Clarence Kennedy was born and raised in San Diego. A product of Saint Augustine High School in North Park and the United States Army in the 1960s, Kennedy is a program administrator and substance-abuse counselor for the Volunteers of America. He is also, and every bit as much, a product of the Vietnam War and blended Scotch whiskey. His middle name came courtesy of his Franciscan priest uncle. A first-generation Irish-American kid growing up in a fast-growing border town famous for tuna fishing, Sea World, and a zoo, Kennedy was a pretty good baseball player, maybe more than pretty good, but all he'll say about it is, "I know I got looked at [for the minor leagues] but..." and shrugs. This is typical of the Kennedy ego. Tom Kennedy is a tall man, several inches over six feet, with gray-blond hair cut short and a clipped Van Dyke beard. He wears glasses and speaks with a quiet hoarseness, possibly from doing so much of it in groups over the years. Seated in the lounge of Sobriety House, the residential treatment center at Second and Elm, in the same building that houses the San Diego Rescue Mission, he is quick to laugh and always greets co-workers and residents returning early from work or job searches. I've known him for seven years. My last stint in rehab resulted from flipping a bus token. It came up tails, and I visited Kennedy at Sobriety House's former location at 1111 Island Avenue. (You can guess at "heads.") Kennedy smiled, invited me over to a couch where he was watching his Padres do very well, and said, "C'mon," and walked me over to detox or "the Inebriate Reception Center." Kennedy got me into the residential program and assigned himself to be my counselor. His "One-on-One" schedule consists of no schedule in particular but an open-door policy whenever he is on the premises and not putting out fires with parole officers, relapsed clients, relatives, or any of a number of situations that daily demand thinking on one's feet, quick evaluations, and a large measure of humanity.
During the months I lived in Sobriety House, my relationship with Kennedy was casual in a sense, considering the situation, but gratifying, reassuring, and mostly funny. Kennedy's sense of humor, colored by his time in-country during the Vietnam War, is often black, sometimes shifting into ultraviolet, but he can in no sense be considered a negative man. He once backed me when a resident of Amigos Sobrios, along with a few of his friends from the Hispanic sister program to Sobriety House, threatened me with violence. But largely, our conversations have had to do with books. Kennedy brought a novel in for me that he recommended: The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas, and in exchange, I gave him C.S. Lewis's Great Divorce, which he later described as "one of the best books I ever read." The Thomas book had Sigmund Freud as a character, and Kennedy and I discussed Freud and his cocaine use on occasion, referring to him as "Ziggy." Kennedy called me Lazlo for a while, after I had expressed a now-foggy desire (I was probably detoxing at the time) to write under the name Lazlo La Torque. Later I became Big Bad John, after the Jimmy Dean record, I suppose. In some of our private conversations, Kennedy spoke more openly about Vietnam experiences that he did not wish to include here, and I also lent him Dispatches, by Michael Herr. Sobriety, for me, was an idea whose time had come, and there was and is something about Kennedy's sobriety that reinforces the idea as a good one.
When Kennedy freed some time for an interview, I was disappointed that he was not keen on discussing his Catholic background or war. We had talked about these things at some length, and I found them interesting and likely very much a part of him. Saying he wished to avoid getting on any negative tangents, he suggested sticking solely to recovery as a topic.
Born in 1940, he graduated from high school in 1959 and still belongs to the alumni groups attending sports activities, among other things. "I went into the Army in the '60s, and I think that helped to blossom my chemical dependency. Originally, I was a weapons specialist, and though I got through the Army unscathed, I think it contributed to my alcoholism. When I got out of the military I met a girl, got married, and had three kids. I have a son now who is 47 years old and an electrical engineer, a daughter here in San Diego who is an underwriter for a large insurance company, and another daughter who is a supervisor in the billing department at Alvarado Hospital. I drank my way out of that marriage. I was in and out of treatment at several locations [around San Diego] in the late '60s, early '70s. The county back then ran detox, and I believe I was in there over 60 times on three-day stays. There was one time I was in there twice in one day. I graduated at 8:30 in the morning, and I was back for lunch. I never got above Market Street. I was finally in there for the last time in 1975 and got into recovery.
"I went to a place, at that time called 'Twelve-Step House' -- it's now called 'Hartland House.' I went in there, telling myself, I'll live here a couple of weeks, get a paycheck, and leave. My prior job experience was in retail, at Kmart, as a store manager. I ended up staying at Twelve-Step for just about a year. Something happened to me in that house. I'd avoided recovery homes because I heard stories about them. But even after a couple of years, after I left Hartland House, I kept coming back and I'd help out. The manager that was there became the director -- he's deceased now -- Hobie Kilian. There was nothing clinical about this guy; it was either get in the program or die.