Adapted from “The Long Island Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence:
Celebrating a History of 50 Years of Service 1956-2006”
By Adele C. Smithers
Copies of this fascinating history are available from LICADD upon request.
When it was formed in 1956, the Nassau County Committee on Alcoholism — today known as LICADD — was an organization ahead of its time. Alcoholics Anonymous was only 21 years old, and society’s consensus was that alcoholism was a moral issue, an issue of will power — not a treatable disease. The mission the founders of LICADD set for themselves was to educate the general public on the nature of alcoholism, and to provide a liaison to therapeutic treatment for alcoholics and their families.
LICADD’s founder was R. Brinkley “Brink” Smithers, a wealthy philanthropist, who got sober himself in 1954 after many hospitalizations. An Episcopal priest named Rev. Yvelin Gardner, visiting Brink in the hospital, introduced him to the disease concept of alcoholism. Brink decided that he was in a unique position to help others. With two friends — Sherman Pratt and George McCarthy — and with the resources of his own Smithers Foundation, he established the Nassau Chapter of the National Committee on Alcoholism.From the beginning, LICADD was concerned with the problems of alcoholism in the workplace. Its first programs were sponsored by employers — Sperry, Grumman, the Long Island Railroad, and Long Island Lighting among them — who had a large stake in helping alcoholics become sober and keep their jobs. When the president of U. S. Steel told the group that success would have to involve both management and labor, Brink and McCarthy — who was to become LICADD’s first executive director — approached the New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, and convinced labor to get involved. AFL-CIO president George Meany was an early proponent.
George McCarthy emphasized that alcoholism is a disease, not only of the individual, but of the entire family. In January of 1957, LICADD set its goal: “To increase public understanding of alcoholism, its nature and treatment… promotion of the tenet that the alcoholic can be helped.” The group worked closely with Alcoholics Anonymous and local hospitals; their work included community education, public information, and promotion of better hospital facilities for the treatment of alcoholism. With a $12,000 grant from the Smithers Foundation, the new committee became a center of education and information, coordinating facilities and resources available in Nassau County to help alcoholics and their families. Within LICADD’s first full year of operation, it attracted more than 100 members from all walks of life on Long Island. The committee worked closely with the Nassau County Mental Health Board to establish outpatient clinics and inpatient hospital services, and lobbied for the extension of Blue Cross benefits for the treatment of alcoholism.
In its second year, the committee expanded into Suffolk. Ellen Pratt succeeded Brink Smithers as president. Her seven-year administration was marked by an effective campaign for local hospitals to expand their treatment of alcoholism — in 1958 the number of hospitals on Long Island treating alcoholics went from none to three. County courts began referring alcoholics to treatment rather than to jail. In the early years, the Smithers Foundation often subsidized the hospitalization of alcoholics. Many of them later paid back their expenses to enable the recycling of the Smithers’ contribution.
From 1958 through 1968 the number of hospital beds for alcoholics increased; in 1968, Blue Cross recognized alcoholism treatment and increased its coverage from three days to two weeks and beyond. An influential volunteer named Charles Delafield, who sat on the boards of many local corporations — including Blue Cross — was influential in getting Con Edison to establish an “Employee Alcoholism Program,” among the nation’s very first such programs. The employee assistance program or E.A.P., as they are known today, is now a vital part of corporate life around the world. In those years Freeport Hospital converted its entire facility to alcoholism treatment. More alcoholics were treated than were incarcerated; the family court system recognized alcoholism as a disease. When Ellen Pratt’s tenure ended in 1968, LICADD was a well-organized, smoothly functioning non-profit organization.
In 1970, Rev. Peter Sweisgood began his association with the council, and in 1971 he was appointed its assistant director to Orman Crocker, LICADD’s second executive director. Father Pete’s enthusiasm and charisma drew people in. As guests on radio talk shows, the team of Orman and Father Pete enlarged their audience. Volunteers were attracted, trained, and sent out to spread the word. The speakers’ bureau was launched. The board began to assume a more advisory role and professional staff members increasingly assumed responsibility for counseling and operations.
A group of local businessmen formed The Friends, a fifteen-member volunteer fund-raising group. In 1982, Ray Haley became its president and expanded fund-raising efforts through special events with celebrity speakers. But even as contributions grew, expenses grew threefold. By the mid-1980s, more serious fund-raising efforts were needed. In 1985 the council redoubled fund-raising. During this period of rapid growth, there were three LICADD offices — Garden City, Hauppauge and Westhampton Beach — and demand for services continued to increase. In July of 1989, Father Pete died, and after a period of mourning the council chose Jim Devine to be its new executive director.
Fund-raising focused on the corporate community, and increased financial support began to come in from Long Island businesses. When founder Brink Smithers died in January of 1992, the LICADD that he had begun 36 years earlier had grown into a strong, innovative organization serving all of Long Island.
In the years since 1992, LICADD has had to adapt to changing economic forces and the impact of sweeping societal events. Recession, managed care, insurance company pullbacks, cutbacks in corporate charitable giving, downsizing in hospitals and health care, and even terrorism at home and abroad have all affected LICADD’s mission.
In many ways, the climate that existed when Brink Smithers founded LICADD in 1956 is still with us. The alcoholic needing help has limited options, and does not always meet with true understanding.
And the council’s work continues.