A Giant’s Passing: Tribute to Dr. Tom McGovern

The recovery movement has lost a beloved servant. Dr. Tom McGovern, a pioneer in the professionalization of addiction counseling, died March 21, 2022 at the age of 86. He was Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Texas Tech University’s Health Sciences Center and Director of its Center for Ethics, Humanities and Spirituality—having been what his colleagues described as the “beating heart” of the TTU community for more than 40 years. Tom was an effective advocate who spoke openly of his recovery from alcoholism in countless forums—putting a face and voice on recovery long before that was commonplace. He championed the emergence of addiction counseling as a distinct helping role and was an early leader in the creation of NAADAC: The Association of Addiction Professionals. Tom made significant contributions to the rise of addiction studies programs in U.S. colleges and universities, and his writings and presentations elevated ethical sensitivities and clinical skills of addiction professionals.    

Tom’s sudden passing was a heartbreaking loss for many of us, given his enduring personal and professional support over so many decades in our lives. I have written about “recovery carriers”—people who make recovery contagious by the sheer force of their personality and the joy of service and humility they model in their daily lives. Tom was such a recovery carrier. He had a profound affinity for people who were suffering; he was a gentle, loving, and charismatic healer. His deep Irish lilt and joyous laughter were themselves healing balms. One of Tom’s great passions was to move the addiction field’s organizational center from a focus on pathology and acute clinical intervention to a focus on the processes of long-term personal and family recovery. Those of us blessed with his presence in our lives will carry that legacy forward.

Below is the description of Tom I included in my 2017 memoir, Recovery Rising.       

 Sunday Night Calls

I cannot recall when I first met Dr. Tom McGovern of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. It feels like he has always been in my life. Tom is one of the unsung heroes in the professionalization of addiction counseling and the long-time editor of Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly (ATQ). Tom encouraged me to submit many of my early papers on the history of recovery in America for publication in ATQ, and we came to be good friends over the years. He also relied on me to help peer-review articles submitted to ATQ or to write reviews on books he thought were of importance to the field. Tom did a lot of the work on ATQ on Sunday afternoons and evenings and did much of that work by phone—calling to request this or that. The Sunday evening calls came to be something of a tradition at my home. When the phone would ring on Sunday evening, my wife would say, “That must be Tom McGovern calling,” and she was usually right. Tom is that rare embodiment of goodness and kindness and one of the most ethically sensitive people I have ever met. He has been a steady influence in my life, and these pages would not be complete without an acknowledgement of what he has meant to me and so many others. One would think a “work call” on Sunday night would be a source of great irritation, but seeing his number on the incoming call log always brings a smile to my face. Besides, I suspect Tom considered those calls more as a service activity than work. I came to see them the same way.

            Working in the addiction treatment and recovery support arenas requires technical guidance, but it also requires, at its best, connection with sources of goodness. Do you have such sources in your life?