Paul Greenberg

Life is strange. That's not an original observation, since life keeps demonstrating just how strange it is. Consider the life and saving times of Joseph Daniel McQuany, 1928-2007. Mr. McQuany, who became much better known as just Joe here in Little Rock, was one of the most successful people I've ever heard of.

Joe touched, indeed transformed, the lives of who knows how many tens of thousands in this country and beyond. He started an enterprise on a shoestring or less - a $330 grant and some charitable donations - that grew into a publishing company, traveling mission, growing institution and, most important, a blessing.

The secret of his success? "If I hadn't been an alcoholic," he confided to one of the many groups he addressed, "I probably would have amounted to nothing."

And all because one day back in 1962, Joe McQuany decided he'd get sober. In those days, he'd later recall, white men trying get on the wagon could find a treatment program, black men were sent to the State Hospital - aka the Nut House in the patois of the times - and as for women alcoholics, the only place for them was jail.

Once detoxed courtesy of the State of Arkansas, Joe McQuany knew he'd have to find some way to stay sober. His way was Alcoholic Anonymous. Even though in those days, as a black man, he was left out of the social bonding that's such an important if informal part of AA. No matter. He had the Twelve Steps, AA's version of the Ten Commandments, and the Big Book. A testament and faith. What more does a natural leader need? Build on those two rocks and the people will come.

Soon the man was organizing AA groups himself. He was a whiz at it. Not only because he'd been there and knew the cravings and excuses, the real desperation and false exhilaration of it all, but maybe because to save himself he had to save others.

Joe McQuany wound up founding an offshoot of AA himself. He called his program Serenity House before it had a house - an old one on Broadway here in Little Rock. As his program grew, he moved it to larger and larger quarters.

Serenity House became Serenity Park - an extended-care sanctuary for all, black or white, penniless or professional, who needed to break their drug habit. You might be surprised at the nice, outwardly successful people who are chemically dependent slaves. Then again, if you've had much experience of the world, you probably wouldn't be.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.