It may have been a combination of serendipity, dumb luck and sheer determination that rooted Cornerstone of Recovery to the Louisville community of Blount County, Tennessee, but those who were around when the doors first opened on Sept. 22, 1989, know different.
To describe the fledgling facility’s survival, to say nothing of success, as divine intervention might be a stretch. But, as the company’s former CEO (and current board of directors chairman) Dan Caldwell points out, it certainly felt like the hand of a Higher Power, to borrow from the recovery parlance that serves as a second language around Cornerstone, guided every decision that was made.
And because those decisions were undertaken for the purpose of carrying a message of recovery to addicts and alcoholics who needed help, even the company’s early struggles provided those involved with a purpose, Caldwell adds.
“What we were doing felt right, and it felt like that was what we were supposed to be doing,” he says. “Not to take anything away from veterans of our military, but when we all left Peninsula Hospital to follow Bill (Hood, Cornerstone’s founder) in this venture, it felt a little like it must have to soldiers on D-Day: You know you’re probably going to get killed, but there are some things worth dying for.
“For us, there were some things worth putting everything on the line for, and we could no longer compromise the way we did things for our personal security. I remember telling my wife that I would rather fail with Bill than succeed in an environment that didn’t feel right to me. My security was less important than doing things that I really liked doing and being able to do them in the way we wanted. I liked being able to lay my head down at night knowing we had done the next right thing.”
Working on a dream
Without regurgitating the comprehensive history of Cornerstone of Recovery, the Cliff’s Note version goes something like this: William J. “Bill” Hood, a successful executive with the Aluminum Company of America, lost everything due to alcoholism before getting sober in 1979 at Peninsula Hospital, right outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. Caldwell was on staff at Peninsula as head of rehabilitation and recreational therapy when Hood came through, and he was a firsthand witness to the powerful transformation Hood underwent in sobriety.
His passion and enthusiasm were so contagious that Peninsula brought him on board as a volunteer when Hood had only six months sober; not long thereafter, he was given a marketing role and became part of the Peninsula administrative structure. He eventually became head of the residential treatment program at Peninsula’s satellite inpatient center, Meadowland Townhouses, but in 1989, the company decided to fold the program back into the facility.
In May 1989, Hood walked out the door, unable to align his own conscience with the company’s financial decision. he immediately set out to open up his own facility, but in the beginning, most of his peers cautioned him against it, pointing to the competitive market and the financial hurdles that would have to be cleared in order to make the endeavor a success. The next month, Caldwell had a change of heart, when Peninsula officials moved him to the psychiatric unit.
“I couldn’t do my job the way I had been doing it anymore,” he says.
He offered to stay on for two more months, but he began meeting with Hood to conceptualize what would become Cornerstone of Recovery. And in the beginning, Hood’s vision was to establish a treatment facility in the Great Smoky Mountains, at Tapoco Lodge near Robbinsville, North Carolina, just across the state line. Originally built by ALCOA in 1930 “as part of hydroelectric efforts in Graham and Swain counties of North Carolina,” according to the lodge’s website, the retreat was used primarily for company functions.
Hood used his old business contacts to establish it as a base of operations for his dream, convincing the company to sink millions into it in order to bring it up to federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards. In turn, the fledgling company would sign a 40-year lease.
A plan conceived
“This was going to be the premier treatment place up in the mountains, but we needed a place to do medical detox and do some residential (treatment) until we got Tapoco open,” Caldwell says. “In late July or early August, we found out there was an empty shell of a building at 1120 Topside Road. There was nothing in it — it was two stories and a roof, and that was it. Bill said, ‘Hey, let’s go look at that.’”
Owned by Hugh Rule of Louisville’s Rule Construction, the building may have been spartan when the two men first stepped through the door, but Hood pulled out a piece of chalk and began to draw out what he envisioned, Caldwell remembers.
“We went down to the basement, and he just went around with that chalk and said, ‘Let’s put the kitchen over here. Let’s put detox over here,’” Caldwell says. “The way he had it laid out, we could take up to 18 people.”
As August 1989 dawned, they had a long way to go and a short time to get there, to quote the late Jerry Reed, and to accomplish all of their goals, they needed willing and able bodies. One of those was Martha Hornsby, who went through Peninsula in 1986 and had undergone a spiritual awakening through the sobriety offered by Hood and the late Polly Bales. She stayed in treatment for 43 days and went to a support living program afterward; encouraged by Bales to make recovery her life’s work, she came on board as a Peninsula employee before she had a year sober.
When Hood left the company, Hornsby wasted no time in calling him and asking what his plans were, and if they included a place for her.
“I went down to Bill Hood’s home to talk about what he had planned and where I was going to fit in, and he drew a diagram of where everything was going to be (at 1120 Topside Road) on a napkin on his dining room table,” she says. “Even though it wasn’t done yet, and it was just a shell of a building, he had it all laid out.”
The doors open
“It was miraculous how everything unfolded,” Caldwell adds. “We had to start making applications to the state of North Carolina. We had to get contracts with BlueCross BlueShield, which had 70 percent of the market at the time. We had to get a staff, so we started calling people that might be interested in doing this with us.
“We had a nursing director, we got a medical director, and we had staff that were willing that were willing to work in our residential treatment program and eventually go to Tapoco, including a husband-and-wife team who were willing to live up there. We had six counselors and a program director, and all of these people had worked at Peninsula with us. Polly and Bill were two of the most notable people in the East Tennessee recovery community, so wherever they were, people tended to follow.”
From mid-August until the doors opened on Sept. 22, the original staff threw themselves into a tornadic frenzy of preparation. Hornsby remembers hanging blinds and shower curtains, and Caldwell recalls how his entreaties to potential investors were often met with polite declines.
“An important part of my job was to find investors, but I couldn’t, because it was so risky to do it,” he says. “Finally, we found 13 original investors who were willing to throw away $10,000 on a great guy with a great name, because they knew that whether Cornerstone succeeded or not, it was worth supporting Bill.”
Combined with the money Hood raised from mortgaging his family’s home, the finances, shoestring though they might have been, were in place. It took several weeks to receive a certificate of occupancy from the fire department, Caldwell adds, and the final step was obtaining a provisional accreditation by the Joint Commission, which provides such for health care organizations around the country.
“We got a license to operate that day, the 22nd, and then we opened up,” Caldwell says. “The first patient’s name was Tom, and I’m pretty sure he was a freebie.”
There and back again
While Caldwell can’t be precisely certain of the original price tag for treatment, what stands out is this: $250 down, and another $5,750 billed over a period of time. Accreditation by the Joint Commission helped them get in network with BlueCross BlueShield, and while addicts and alcoholics fresh-off-the-street were slow to roll in, there was a large contingent of aftercare clients that signed up immediately, based on their work with the members of the Cornerstone staff who had provided them with similar care at Peninsula.
“We had a big crowd right off the bat,” Caldwell says. “The way we started, I was doing some rehab therapy groups and coping skills and all this stuff. Bill was doing some spiritual groups in the mornings and pilgrimage groups. We contracted with a psychologist to do group therapy with us, and we had the kitchen staff and the nursing staff.
“There was no housekeeping — if you had an office, you cleaned it. If the toilet broke, whoever was nearby fixed it or yelled at someone who knew how to fix a toilet.”
For Hornsby, Hood had in mind a counseling position at Tapoco, but there was only one problem: She had recently undergone back surgery, and after a round trip to visit the mountain retreat, Hornsby was in agony.
“I got back, and I couldn’t walk, so I told Bill, ‘I can’t go to Tapoco! My back can’t take that trip!’” Horsnby remembers. “Bill said, ‘That’s okay, you can go up and stay for two or three days,’ and I told him, ‘Bill, I don’t want to be away from home like that!’ He said that’s how it was going to have to be, so I decided if he didn’t need me as a counselor at the Topside location, I would just volunteer there and do what I needed to do.
“So a volunteer was what I was in the very beginning when we opened. I would go get books; if somebody was craving peanut butter, I’d go to the store and buy peanut butter. I did anything I could to help out, because I believed in Bill 100 percent, I believed in what he was doing, and I just had to be a part of it.”
A change in direction
Eventually, however, Dr. Bob Booher — a prominent East Tennessee pediatrician whose early work in the addiction treatment field made him a respected colleague of the early Cornerstone crew — poached Hornsby, who joined the staff at Mountain View, a treatment facility associated with Blount Memorial Hospital in nearby Maryville, Tennessee.
“I worked there for about a month, and then Cornerstone called me to see how I was doing; then they asked, ‘We need a female counselor — and we were wondering if you might know of a female. Oh, and by the way, we’re not going to Tapoco for another year!’” she says. “I said, ‘I’m on my way!’ So I was officially on the payroll starting Dec. 6 (1989).”
It would be 14 months, in fact, before Cornerstone of Recovery opened at Tapoco. The facility at 1120 Topside, advertised as Hearthstone Lodge, served as Cornerstone’s detox and Intensive Outpatient facilities, and Hood envisioned Tapoco as a mountain oasis where patients stayed for 30 days of residential treatment.
It was, however, a financial nightmare, according to Caldwell.
“We were having such a hard time that we couldn’t afford to keep that open and keep the staff, so we were there no more than six months before we had to retrench back to 1120,” Caldwell says. “We were keeping 20 to 25 people in 1120, and we went up to Tapoco with 26, but we had a dip in the census, the cash flow was poor, and insurance companies were delaying payments. We were having a tough time, and we just ran out of money.”
Never one to concede defeat, Hood marshaled his employees, however, and his administrative staff members began making overtures to find additional investors. When one came forward and offered to buy 51 percent of the company, it was given serious consideration — but no one wanted to surrender control of a treatment model that was proving effective and seemed divinely ordained.
“The board, along with I and some other people, came up with close to $200,000, and more shares came out, but that’s what happened to keep us afloat,” Caldwell says. “The entire staff took a pay cut, and Bill issued stock in the company to some people, who are still shareholders today.”
Treatment done right
If “miraculous” is an overused term to describe Cornerstone’s survival in those early days, it’s for good reason. There were so many instances of grace, especially on the financial end, that gave the company a fighting chance, Caldwell says, that there’s no other descriptor that fits.
“There were several months we couldn’t pay rent, but Hugh never said anything,” Caldwell says. “Our food vendors would let us float for two to four weeks — and in most other instances, if you don’t pay, they don’t deliver. ALCOA could have said, ‘You welched on this deal with Tapoco, and you’ve signed a 40-year lease.’ We could have been forced to shut down and liquidate, but they didn’t do that. There was just something people sensed about how hard we were trying.”
And in those initial weeks, Hood, Caldwell, Hornsby and others who launched the endeavor were establishing a template that is still effective 30 years later. The majority of patients at the time struggled with alcoholism more than addiction, Caldwell adds, but even then, the principles of detox and treatment were the same.
“What’s amazing is that the program, when it got cranking, was very, very similar to what we had done at Peninsula,” he says. “That part was easy. The clinical part was easy, because we had been doing it, and we brought our passion with us. We didn’t have to figure that out. What we had to do was figure out how to survive financially. Our biggest challenge was to get patients in and find a way to seek compensation for it.”
The depth of knowledge may have made for a solid foundation, Hornsby points out, but that didn’t necessarily translate into reputation. It would be several years before the East Tennessee recovery community came to embrace Cornerstone as a place where newly sober addicts and alcoholics could establish a foothold in a new way of life.
“For a long time, people thought we were just a part of the strip mall,” she says with a laugh. “There were four buildings, and we only had the first one, and they didn’t realize we were a treatment center.”
A devastating loss
In the beginning, it seemed as if Hood’s sheer force of will was the fuel that powered the Cornerstone engine. When he died in 1993, the entire organization was bereft, Hornsby remembers. Hood had given the tools, therapeutic and logistical, to carry on, but the sudden absence of their ship’s captain tore a hole in all their hearts.
“We were just all in a state of shock,” she recalls. “We all sat around with long faces, until we all realized one day that we had patients, and that they needed us — and that Bill needed us. We just kept one foot in front of the other. I remember we talked about how much we missed him, and as the census grew, we kept saying, ‘I wish Bill was here to see this.’
“He had left us with knowledge. We knew what we needed to do to help patients. We know our job, and we knew what our passion was, and we weren’t going to go under because we lost Bill. But it was hard for a long time.”
But there were glimmers of hope — messages from the other side, almost, that the old man, ever guided by a Higher Power on this side of the divide, was probably pestering the Almighty to send a little providence Cornerstone’s way.
“I remember the first time I drove the car he used to drive,” Hornsby says. “They told me I needed to go to Morristown and get this girl and bring her to treatment. I didn’t do things like that, but this was a female patient, so they wanted me to go get her.
“And it was like Bill was in the passenger seat the whole time. I brought her to treatment, and by the grace of an amazing God, she’s still sober, 18 years later. Each year, I mail her a chip, and she sends me birthday and Christmas cards. Now that was such an awesome moment.”
A family: then, now and forever
And, she adds, Hood left his colleagues with so much more than a treatment center to lead into the next 27 years (and beyond). He made them into a family. Some were already close from their time at Peninsula; others who joined later, even after his death, would be brought into the tribe.
It was and is, Hornsby says, the Cornerstone way.
“I remember that my husband, Randall, and I had been married before, but we got divorced because of his drinking,” she says. “I went to treatment and got sober, and then 2 ½ years later, he got sober, and we decided to get married again. I told Bill that, and he said, ‘You need to do it here, where we can attend!’ I told him, ‘I don’t want to do it in the treatment center, Bill!’
“But he said, ‘I tell you what, you’re going to get married where we can attend, and this is going to be spectacular.’ So they arranged it all, and when the time came, they loaded a van up and brought the patients with them so the counselors could be there. Ms. Polly was there, and Bill walked me down the aisle, and Dan filmed it all. That’s how invested Bill was with his staff and his people.
“He was just one in a million, and I loved that man to death,” she adds. “He made such a difference in my life and a lot of other people’s lives.”
And he did so, Caldwell adds, against odds that seemed, at the time, insurmountable. His hope burned with a blazing fury, however, and those exposed to its heat and light could not help but be drawn in.
“Everybody understood how tenuous it was — there were nine competitors in the area at the time, so it was highly unlikely it would work,” Caldwell says. “But we all thought, ‘Maybe it will,’ and by gosh, it did. It was like the universe wanted us to succeed.”