Tribute to Tom Kirk (Passing of a Recovery Advocacy Leader) (Bill White and Phil Valentine)

Individuals matter. Character matters. Values matter. Social contribution matters. If a living testament to those propositions has ever existed within the worlds of addiction treatment and recovery advocacy, it was within the life of Thomas A. Kirk, Jr., Ph.D., who died April 9, 2020, from complications of COVID-19.

Dr. Kirk served for many years as the Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS). It was under his leadership that DMHAS embraced the first effort in the country to extend brief models of addiction treatment to a model of sustained recovery management (RM) nested within a larger recovery-oriented system of care (ROSC). For those interested in the history of RM and ROSC, their implementation at a systems level begins in Connecticut and with the vision and courage of Dr. Tom Kirk.

Bill’s Tribute: I first met Dr. Kirk in 2000 when he invited me to address his staff and state treatment and recovery advocacy leaders on the concepts of RM and ROSC—ideas that then existed as theories but only rarely within the practices of mainstream addiction treatment. In the years that followed, Dr. Kirk turned Connecticut into a living laboratory of RM and ROSC—implementing, testing, and refining its core components. His financial support and close partnership with the Connecticut Community of Addiction Recovery (CCAR) set the model for collaboration between state leaders and local recovery advocacy organizations and the role such organizations could play in providing pre-treatment and post-treatment recovery support services. 

What I most recall about Tom from our numerous collaborations over the years include his insatiable passion for improving the quality of addiction treatment and recovery support services and his belief that government could play a leadership role in transforming the environments in which recovery could either flourish or be extinguished. He saw what government could achieve or fail to achieve in life and death terms. There was also his insatiable curiosity and his penetrating questions. I regularly received calls from him in which he presented the toughest of questions. He often wanted to know about this or that idea, whether a proposal he had received had been scientifically tested, and how a particular idea could be best implemented and evaluated in Connecticut. I don’t think he realized until many years later just how important the work he was doing in Connecticut was in shaping RM and ROSC efforts across the country and beyond. Many of those who had worked under Tom’s leadership, such as Dr. Arthur Evans, Jr., would go on to become national leaders in transforming behavioral health care toward a vision of long-term recovery for individuals and families. Rest in peace my dear friend. A grateful country and legions of people in recovery today thank you for your service.       

Phil’s Tribute: I first met Tom in 1999, just starting as CCAR’s Associate Director under the leadership of Bob Savage.  Tom and Bob had worked together in state service. I recall at my initial meeting being somewhat intimidated by his position and his quiet confidence. Even though brand new at this recovery advocacy thing, he treated me with dignity and respect. He believed the recovery community possessed solutions to addiction problems that the treatment world could learn from and he listened, really listened. He treated the recovery community like a resource. 

One day he called me into his office without offering a reason, typical of Tom.  Nervously, I sat with Tom and Sabrina (who is now CEO of a large, respected treatment provider) while they dialed into a conference call. I sat and said nothing. I gathered that several executives from addiction treatment providers vied for funding for Motivational Interviewing training. Tom sat patiently and listened. After they presented their case, he looked to me and said,

“I have Phil Valentine from CCAR here too. Phil, what do you think of motivational interviewing?” 

I gulped, this being the first time I ever heard of motivational interviewing. An awkward silence ensued. I said the first thing that came to mind. 

“Um… if your counselors aren’t doing motivational interviewing, what are they doing?”

Tom raised his eyebrows, a big smile lit up his face and he held back a laugh. Sabrina, too, raised her hand to her mouth. On the phone… crickets. 

From that point on, I knew Tom appreciated honesty and transparency.  He loved a good question too. He’d become a trusted mentor, colleague, and friend. He encouraged me to speak freely. 

After Tom retired from DMHAS, he served as CCAR’s Board President. He carried the same work ethic into this role. We worked closely together. He stepped in and steered CCAR while I hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2015. I’ll always appreciate his support. He thought that my time on the trail would transform me into a better leader. He was right.

I will always carry the following Tom Kirk teachings with me.

  1. The Casserole Measure: Tom said, “We will know we have come a long way, when after a loved one goes off to treatment, neighbors bring the family a casserole.” A powerful idea when it to comes to the elimination of stigma.

  2. “What is CCAR doing for the people of Connecticut?”, A question Tom asked me frequently. It serves as a reminder that all recovery takes root in the local community.

  3. Show up. Tom showed up at many, many events (not just CCAR’s) and dropped in unannounced at our recovery community centers. He talked about getting away from the “air at 410 Capitol Avenue” (the address of the DMHAS administrative offices).

Tom, it’s extremely difficult for me to believe you left so suddenly.  I’ll miss our conversations, but I promise to pass on your many lessons.

Peace to you and yours. 

Closing Reflection

Individuals matter. Character matters. Values matter. Social contribution matters. The life of Dr. Tom Kirk mattered in all of these areas. His passing has left a large space in the world and in our hearts. Beginning next week, a series of blogs on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the future of addiction recovery will be dedicated to the memory of Tom Kirk.