"I've been able to identify the negative of alcohol in performing my life task. What do I need to do to keep sober? A lot of people don't have the willingness to go past that. If anybody discovered how to do that, get that willingness, they'd become rich." At this point in the interview, we begin reminiscing about characters we both knew at Rancho L'Abri, where I had met Kennedy and spent six weeks in treatment that included, among other things, attending classes with the late Dr. John Milner. We commiserated on the sensibilities of this famous addictionologist and brought up other residents, including a wannabe Mafioso who had a habit of falling in love with female addicts and breaking down doors in their dorms. His family kept him there indefinitely. "This guy was so off the wall, they [his family] just kind of farmed him out to California and kept him in treatment centers. He actually did have a substance problem, but he had a whole lot more problems than that." We spoke of "med call," where I first encountered Tom Kennedy doling out my cardiac meds every day, and how the drug Haldol (a kind of tranquilizer) was so commonly prescribed to addicted residents that staff at Rancho L'Abri called it "Ranch Dressing." "Yeah, I learned a lot from Dr. Milner and Macfarlane and Al Perick, who wrote a lot of the state laws and regulations for alcohol and drug programs. He was a great man I worked for for about four years -- deceased now. He taught me volumes on recovery, stuff I never would have thought of.
"So I consider myself someone who has worked both sides of the street: social models and clinical models. Some people need more than to just stop drinking. I'm back at the VOA, where I started out some 30 years ago, whatever it is, and I'll say this: it's very effective. I think it's one of the finer programs in the field. It's one of the finer programs I've worked for. The curriculum is excellent. Of course, it's come a long way from the old social-model days; we call it 'treatment' now. Now we dispense medications to clients. We're in transition. We're trying to get our own recovery home going. That process is going on right now. It's going to be like Sobriety House but not at this location. The ten-day [known sometimes as "Boot Camp for AA"] program is back on Island Avenue now, though some of them are here [at San Diego Rescue Mission]." The Island Avenue location was slated for the wrecking ball on January 1, 2007, and a 180-plus condominium complex to be called "the Islands" was to be erected on that spot. That has changed, possibly because of the large number of already existing condominiums that are unsold, unleased, or unrented in the ballpark area. The politics are unclear at the moment, at least to Kennedy. "I stay out of that mix pretty much," he says. Near VOA, the next trolley stop north, in fact, is Homequest, a sober-living environment for recovering addicts and alcoholics downtown. Joanne Barenco has been living there as an assistant manager for Homequest for the past year. She considers Kennedy to be a vital part of her recovery, having herself graduated from Sobriety House in late 2005. "He's just a really good human being," says Barenco, 51. "When I first got there [Sobriety House], I wasn't very confident in my recovery. I remember, as one of the things that stand out, was when he looked me square in the eye in those early days and said, 'Look, you can do this thing. If I can do it, you can do it.' And I believed him.
"I still believe him. I have to attribute any success I've had in my recovery -- which is quite a lot, I believe -- to Tom Kennedy. I trust the man, I respect the man, and I'm grateful that Kennedy is part of my life. I still go down there to the new location for the Wednesday- night meetings when I'm not working. He means a lot to me. He's been through hell, and he's got it in him to help other people. It's great that God saw fit to let me cross paths with him. He's a special individual." Barenco presented Kennedy with his 31-year sobriety birthday cake at that Wednesday-night meeting in August of 2006.
In an attempt to gather quotes from those who might not be as sympathetic or kind, as approving or supportive of Kennedy as a professional or as a personality, I did find three dissenters, all of them former residents of Sobriety House. None were particularly articulate on the subject, but more to the point, none could cite examples or incidents that would indicate exactly why he was, in two examples, "an asshole," or in a third case, precisely what would give the impression that Kennedy's belief system included a delusional sense that his digested food would give off no offensive scent. Neither would they allow their names to be used, though one offered to be quoted as "Thrasher-Dog" or "Rig."
Rick Ortiz, in his early 50s -- a cook, writer, boxing enthusiast, counselor, and aspiring voice-over talent -- has known Kennedy for some 25 years. "Since 1981 or '82. Tom had worked there then. Went away and came back. Yeah, a quarter of a century. He's been very instrumental in the process of my recovery. He's helped me with drug addiction and alcoholism in my personal life. And when I was a novice clinical assistant at Rancho L'Abri, where he also worked, he mentored me. He helped introduce me to the concept of the 12-step fellowship program. Many years down the line, he helped when I was working in the field. Personally, he has a great sense of humor and a side to him that has extreme depth that can help direct you, solutionize. He can help you help yourself, help you see a clear and present picture of your current dilemma. He'll give you a road map to help you get out of that and find some resolve. He's very talented that way."