For years, they returned to Blount County, Tennessee — hundreds of recovering addicts and sober alcoholics — to honor the legacy of a man most never met at a facility that shouldn’t rightly exist.
Cornerstone of Recovery, located in the Louisville community, was their destination. The annual Alumni Weekend was a celebration of new lives and renewed spirits, three days of fellowship and fun and paying it forward. The attendees were former patients of the drug and alcohol treatment campus, and most left East Tennessee infused with the spirit of a man whose face would hang on a welcome banner over the entrance to the center’s facility on Alcoa Highway: J. William “Bill” Hood, who died in 1993.
Four years before he passed, Hood opened Cornerstone in a nondescript strip mall on Topside Road in Louisville. The facility had 18 staff members, 22 beds and, according to many people in the field of addiction medicine at the time, almost zero chance of success. Even Hood’s close friends felt that the former Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) executive’s dream, while a noble one, would not stand the test of time.
“I was sort of excited about it, and I thought he had some really good ideas for residential treatment, but I was concerned because it was totally a non-medical model,” said Dr. Bob Booher, a local pediatrician still considered one of the pioneers of addiction medicine in East Tennessee because of his work in the field prior to changing the direction of his medical career in the mid-1990s. At the time of Cornerstone’s founding, Booher was the director of Mountain View, a treatment program affiliated with Blount Memorial Hospital, and had previously worked closely with Hood during the early days of Hood’s sobriety as a volunteer and a staff member at Peninsula Hospital.
“At the time, there were a bunch of treatment centers, and I didn’t see how they could make it,” Booher added. “I even advised somebody I was working with not to go there, because I just didn’t think they were going to make it. I was totally wrong.”
To understand the miracle that is Cornerstone of Recovery’s continued success, new employees of the facility are given a history lesson during their orientation, and as they become familiar with the Cornerstone’s main campus on Alcoa Highway and its sister facility on Topside Road, Stepping Stone to Recovery, they can’t help but become aware of a painting hanging in a prominent location in the Stepping Stone boardroom. It’s a portrait of Hood, eyes twinkling and mouth upturned in a mischievous smile that’s a hallmark of patients who leave the institution with a new lease on life. The institution’s success is directly tied to Hood’s vision and dedication ... and to the demons that plagued him for most of his adult life.
Several years ago, many of Hood’s friends and colleagues sat down for extensive interviews about the man. The picture they painted of the man responsible for Cornerstone of Recovery serves to underscore just how unique a success story it is, and how the celebration of 30 years of continued success is nothing short of a miracle from a Higher Power that drives the engine of recovery and sobriety for those who find the same sort of salvation Hood did all those years ago.
After achieving sobriety, Bill Hood shared freely about the misery he felt and the pain he caused those around him while he was an active alcoholic. Few people felt that pain more than his son, John Hood, who remembers a man who was every bit the captain of industry he built himself into over the years.
Behind closed doors, the Hood family was a dysfunctional one that moved frequently. The younger Hood spent the first five years of his life in Surinam, in South America, where a majority of his upbringing was left to a Japanese nanny; it was not uncommon for his father to come home at night, drunk, and pass out in his son’s bed.
“There was just a sense of impending doom; there was always something wrong at our house,” Hood said. “Our mom was constantly trying to make up for it, but I don’t remember my dad being at any sporting event. He didn’t know how to be a father. I hated him, and I couldn’t understand why my mom married him. She would say, ‘The man I married is still in there.’”
Like many addicts and alcoholics, however, Hood justified his continued drinking with his success in the business world. The late Bob McColl, who worked at Peninsula when Hood first got sober, talked several years ago about his old friend.
“He spearheaded numerous projects for ALCOA in Pittsburgh, Surinam and Cleveland; as manager of the plants, he would tell stories about his drinking days when he was having great success in the business world,” McColl said. “He would have parties at his house and would hold up a drink to his staff and say, ‘With a few good men, we can do anything.’ Other times, he would sit down in his easy chair and could not get up because he’d (soil) himself.”
Addiction and alcoholism are insidious and chronic illnesses, however, and as they do with most who start out as functioning sufferers, they eventually destroyed Hood’s career success. He drank himself out of several jobs; he squandered away the family’s savings on risky business ventures; he eventually tumbled down the neck of a vodka bottle and stayed there, unable to function. His wife, Jean, organized a move to Blount County, where her family lived; by that point, her husband was well on the way to his eventual bottom.
At the end of the road
“When we moved to Tennessee, I remember everything was packed, and my sister had to lead him to the car with a fifth of vodka, like a dog,” John Hood said. “He fell in the car, and we drove to Tennessee.”
In Blount County, Bill’s condition continued to deteriorate. He had been through treatment before, but Jean was encouraged to try one more time when friends at church told her about Peninsula Hospital. McColl and Booher were both on the staff there, as was the former and long-time CEO of Cornerstone, Dan Caldwell. All three men had worked in the treatment field for several years; as the son of an alcoholic, Caldwell first worked at Wright’s Ferry Farm, a rehabilitation center for recovering addicts and alcoholics which was the predecessor to Peninsula Psychiatric Hospital. While a student at UT, a reputed “Dixie Mafia” member came to Wright’s Ferry to dry out, and the facility hired Caldwell, whose father was an alumnus and marketing representative, to provide one-to-one support.
“He was convinced members of a rival family were going to kill him, so I was paid $4 an hour to help him with his fears (serving as a decoy), which included sleeping in his bed, facing the door with my back to the window, while he made a pallet for himself behind the couch,” Caldwell said. “After I was done with that, the medical director, Cecil ‘Skip’ Mynatt, and nursing director, Louise Singleton, (both had come to Wright’s Ferry Farm from Eastern State Hospital), asked me to stick around and be a counselor.”
He accepted the job at Wright’s Ferry, continued school at night and worked until Wright’s Ferry closed and Peninsula opened, where he was then offered a job. At first, he balked; after trying his hand at auto sales and landscaping, Caldwell finally joined the staff of Peninsula Hospital in 1973. He started out as a group leader, then moved to rehabilitation and recreational therapy, eventually becoming a department head. He and McColl, who was also on staff at the time, first met Hood when Jean brought him to Peninsula in 1979. At the time, Hood was inexorably drinking himself to death; his son remembers his father drinking a glass of vodka all the way to Peninsula, and once inside, Caldwell and McColl were shocked by how close to death he seemed.
“I saw a beaten old man,” McColl said. “He looked like death on a broomstick. He would go to the gym to exercise, and he would work out and his face would get red, and Dan thought he was going to die.”
“The first time I saw him, I thought, ‘This man is about dead. His body is gone, but his drive and spirit are pushing him beyond the limits of what his body can endure,’” Caldwell added.
Taking those first three Steps
Addicts and alcoholics call it a spiritual awakening — the dawning realization of the depravity of one’s condition, combined with acceptance of the steps necessary to remedy it.
In Hood’s case, as with so many others before him, those were the 12 Steps. He threw himself into sobriety with a ferocity and zeal that surprised everyone around him, and within weeks, McColl and Caldwell discovered the man who had hidden away for years in the depths of a bottle.
“Something turned his head, and he wanted to get better,” McColl said. “I had a tremendous love for him, which started when he was in treatment. We always hassled each other and competed; he was an avid golfer, and he couldn’t stand to lose. He would cheat to keep from losing!”
“I saw him as playful, pushy, competitive, hardheaded and funny,” Caldwell said. “He had an indomitable spirit. He was going to get his way. He could irritate the crap out of people — he could make Christ swear at him!”
Hood realized that to hold onto what he had found in sobriety that he needed to give it away, and six months after getting sober, his enthusiasm and radiant spirituality convinced Peninsula administrators to bring him on board as a volunteer.
“It was an aftercare marketing role with no pay to keep his talent from going to waste, so he was working in the field when he was 6 months sober,” McColl said. “The more time he got under his belt, the more of an advocate he was for recovery. He took over the role of marketing representative and rose in the ranks rapidly, because he knew how to do it, and he ended up with my job when I left in 1987.”
Repairing relationships, forging new ones
Those early years were not without their hardships, however. The damage Hood’s drinking had caused in his personal life had left his family in shambles, and it took years for him to establish a relationship with his son. The younger Hood’s pubescent angst and parental resentment were beginning to combine with his own teenage drug and alcohol problems, and even though his father seemed to embrace his newfound sobriety, his son would hold on to the anger he felt for years to come.
“That first year, every time I came home from school, I just knew he was going to be drunk,” John Hood said. “I was 15 at the time and using myself, so I was angry I wouldn’t get to have (keg) parties after he got sober.”
Two years later, John Hood was involved in a car crash that cost him his eye. He and some friends were on their way to Knoxville to buy marijuana. When he came to in the hospital, he realized for the first time just how much his father had changed, he said.
“It tore him up, and he asked the doctor if it was possible to transplant one of his own eyes,” Hood said.
It would be several more years before John Hood sobered up; today, he’s the executive vice president for the facility his father founded, and his later-in-life sobriety has given him a newfound appreciation and respect for his dad’s redemption.
“I was four months sober when dad died,” Hood said. “Now, I see that he was an amazing man. I miss him all the time.”
His son isn’t the only one. Like so many recovering addicts and alcoholics who went before him and came after him, Bill Hood touched a number of lives in the decade before he founded Cornerstone of Recovery. One of those was Martha Hornsby, who first met Bill Hood as a patient as Peninsula and would later join him in starting up the facility where she worked until retiring in 2012. She’s still an active member of the Cornerstone family, and she credits Hood and the late Polly Bales, another titan of the East Tennessee recovery community, with saving her life.
Hornsby started abusing prescription medication when she was 15; at the age of 30, she started drinking. In 1986, she went to Peninsula, and sitting in on one of Hood’s lectures led to her own spiritual awakening, she said.
“I didn’t mean to stay for treatment; I just wanted to be medically detoxed,” Hornsby said. “Bill Hood was a big man and very animated. He was always talking about a Higher Power, and I remember him lecturing and beating on the board. If he had been a monotone speaker, I probably wouldn’t have heard him. But his voice and his animation got my attention, and I decided to stay for treatment and learn more about the disease. I stayed in treatment for 43 days, and by the end I wanted to go to a halfway house; I stayed there a little over a month and started going to aftercare, and I stayed close to Bill and Polly.
“He taught me I could have a God I could understand, and that I was good enough. I had never known that before. I grew up with a hellfire-and-brimstone God, and I was never told that’s not the way you have to believe. I had never heard that God is a loving, caring God, and it brought such peace and joy.”
Bales encouraged her to try her hand as a counselor; Peninsula hired her before she marked her first year sober, and another piece of the Cornerstone foundation came into Hood’s orbit.
A vision is born
Since first discovering the new way of life that sobriety provided, Hood often daydreamed about starting his own treatment center; at Peninsula, however, he was making a difference, first as a counselor of the residential treatment program and then head of residential treatment at Peninsula’s satellite center, Meadowland Townhouses. But in the spring of 1989, everything changed.
“In May 1989, I went on a golf trip with Bill, and when we came back, the owner of the hospital said he was going to shut down residential treatment and fold it back into the hospital and make it more of a medical model — primarily for economic considerations,” Caldwell said. “It was May 22 when he quit, and when he left, everybody was in a clamor.”
Hood, however, was determined to make his daydream a reality. And Hornsby, who followed Hood out the door, saw that determination in the amplification of his fervor for the recovery process.
“I called him up and said, ‘Are you planning to do anything, and will I be a part of it?’” she said. “He said, ‘Yes on both accounts.’ I told him that’s all I wanted to know, because I was thinking about looking for a job, but now I wouldn’t. I went to his house, and he drew out plans on a napkin.
“I would have followed that man to the jumping-off place. I didn’t know what he was going to do; I just knew that if he wasn’t (at Peninsula), I didn’t want to be there. And I just knew (Cornerstone) was going to happen; it never entered my mind that it wouldn’t.”
Others weren’t so sure. In early June, Hood approached Caldwell about his plans; the latter was reticent to give up a good job at Peninsula for a risky start-up venture.
“I had a real good job, and I had been there 17 years, so I told him I couldn’t do it,” Caldwell said. “I said, ‘It’s not a good idea; managed care is shrinking treatment stays, and too many people are trying to do treatment.’ His plan was not based on sound business fundamentals.”
Booher, who had left Peninsula to run Mountain View at Blount Memorial several years earlier, concurred.
“I was sort of excited about it, and I thought he had some real good ideas for residential treatment, but I was also concerned because it was totally a non-medical model,” Booher said. “I didn’t see how it could financially make it.”
Proving them all wrong
McColl, who had left Peninsula to run the treatment program at Knoxville’s St. Mary’s Hospital, also advised Hood against starting his own center. But if sobriety had given Hood anything, it was faith. He expressed concern about financing to Booher, and he was well aware of the risks he was taking, but he believed. And as the summer of 1989 wore on, things began to fall into place, starting with Caldwell.
“I left for a week for the birth of my son, and when I came back, the owner of Peninsula wanted to reorganize,” Caldwell said. “He offered me management of the psychiatric unit, and it was a big thing … but I would have had to change my identity. He talked me into working for another two months, and I stayed on until Aug. 15. And the whole time, I was meeting with Bill to set up Cornerstone.”
“He had more charisma than anybody I’ve ever seen,” McColl added. “The single element in his makeup that defined him was compassion. He learned exceptionally fast, and at the same time, there wasn’t much room for middle ground. You either loved him or hated him.”
If ever a man defined the term “go-getter,” it was Hood. Joe Maples, a board member of Cornerstone of Recovery since day one, was working at Peninsula in administration when Hood first got sober. He, McColl, Caldwell and Hood would often take golf trips together, and Maples remembers one in particular to Myrtle Beach, S.C., where he, McColl and Caldwell left East Tennessee after Hood told them he would meet them on the Grand Strand.
“About 50 miles outside of Columbia, Dan and Bob and I were driving along about 70 or 75 mph, and I looked in the rearview mirror, and here comes Bill,” Maples said with a chuckle. “He passed us doing about 90, and he’d left about an hour after we did.”
Small wonder, then, that on Sept. 22, 1989, Bill Hood threw open the doors to Cornerstone of Recovery at 1120 Topside Road in Louisville. The facility started with 18 patient beds and a skeleton crew: four counselors, four nurses, a family therapist, a kitchen manager, two members of the kitchen staff, a business office employee and a few additional members of administration, including Hood and Caldwell. Hornsby was there as well, and while the venture was an exciting one, it was also financially perilous, she recalled.
“I remember the hard times, and the faith we shared on a daily basis,” she said. “In those early years, it was C.O.D. with everybody. I remember Bill bringing the staff into the treatment team room to tell them, ‘We can cut pay across the board, or we can shut the doors. But I’m not laying anybody off.’ And everybody voted to take an 8 percent pay cut.”
A dream is realized
It was a struggle in those early days to establish sound business principles alongside a primary tenet of the 12-Step model of treatment upon which Cornerstone was based: To carry the message to the alcoholics and addicts who still suffered.
Hornsby recalled that it was not uncommon, back then, for Hood to give treatment away. McColl remembers how, after Hood’s death, it was discovered that Hood had taken out a second mortgage and tapped into his and his wife’s savings to keep Cornerstone going in those lean years. (It’s a point of pride that the facility paid back the Hood family once the ledger shifted from red to black.) With a solid team beside him, however, Hood’s flagship eventually began to right itself.
He wouldn’t live to see it reach sound fiscal footing, though, and it’s almost another miracle that his death in 1993 wasn’t a blow from which the facility and the staff couldn’t recover.
“When he died, it was on a Saturday, and I was there when they disconnected life support — which is pretty ironic, considering Bill Hood was there when I drew my first sober breath,” said Hornsby, whose eyes filled with tears more than two decades later when she recalled her friend’s passing. “I don’t think I’ll ever get through missing Bill or getting chill bumps or being grateful for what he gave me. I could never give back anything compared to what Bill Hood gave me.”
Whether through shrewd business acumen or divine guidance, Hood put the pieces in place that would ensure Cornerstone’s continued success. A month before he died, he named Caldwell, who had previously served as the center’s vice president, as its new leader. And he hired and nurtured new employees — like Dennis Collett, an Ohio native who came to Cornerstone of Recovery in 1992 to live at the facility’s halfway house. Thanks to Hood’s mentorship, Collett decided to pursue a career in the field of addiction treatment; today, he serves as the company’s utilization review director, and he’s one of a handful of employees who knew Hood personally and passes down the stories to new employees who find themselves carrying on a sacred tradition without ever realizing it.
“Bill was like a teacher and a father both; he had the strongest sense of spiritual connection of anybody I ever knew,” Collett said. “He was a spiritual icon for so many people, and when he died, it was a pretty big loss. He’ll be a part of me until the end, or until the next coming around. I don’t think there was a better representative for sobriety than Bill.
“It was like he knew exactly what to say to make people understand where they were and how to deal with it. It was like a 12-Step Church of God, and he was a Pentecostal preacher. There was something greater speaking through him.”
Thirty years of service
Whatever spiritual insight Hood had into the human condition, however, likely never prepared him — on this earthly plane, anyway — for the success that Cornerstone of Recovery has experienced in the years since his death. Today, Cornerstone employs 181 full-time personnel, along with another 58 part-time employees and 20 contractors. While the base of operations remains in East Tennessee, there’s an intensive outpatient facility in Columbus, Ohio that uses modalities that have been proven successful for so many others at Cornerstone who are now enjoying a life without alcohol or drugs.
And Cornerstone has continued to grow. In 2003, Cornerstone moved down Topside Road into a new, state-of-the-art treatment facility, with 25,000 square feet and 46 patient beds, that helped grow the Cornerstone brand for more than a decade. Today, it serves as home to Stepping Stone, which opened in 2018 to serve as a lower-cost alternative and a provider of treatment for individuals with state-sponsored insurance plans. As a separate facility under the Cornerstone umbrella, however, Stepping Stone uses the same treatment modalities and approaches to recovery; it’s yet another way Bill Hood, even in death, is serving addicts and alcoholics who seek a way out of misery.
Because that population continues to grow as the addiction crisis deepens in this country — and as the stigma of addiction and alcoholism as moral failings continues to fade. In 2005, with the explosive growth of the institution’s patient population, Cornerstone began leasing a 24,000 square foot facility on Alcoa Highway in Louisville that was formerly the home of Clayton Homes’ Vanderbilt Mortgage Division.
As the patient census grew, however, Cornerstone board members opted to purchase the Clayton property’s 17 acres and begin the process of combining all operations onto a single campus. With adjacent property purchases, Cornerstone eventually acquired almost 25 acres along the Little River, a stone’s throw from where Bill Hood first opened the door three decades ago.
The first phase of the build-out was the opening of a 15,000 square foot fitness center in 2014, which augmented the existing structure, now christened the Polly Bales Building, as the anchors of Cornerstone’s next phase of development. In 2017, two new buildings were opened on the campus — a 172-bed dormitory-style residential building for patients, Hood Hall; and the Caldwell Center, home to the campus’ dining area, treatment rooms, lecture halls and more.
The names on those edifices are familiar ones, of course, but they’re also deeply personal connections to Cornerstone history and lore. The Hood family still owns the majority of shares in the privately held company, and John Hood — who will speak at a special 30th anniversary celebration on Friday, Sept. 20 — is still intimately involved in the day-to-day operations. Likewise, Caldwell still returns to campus for board of directors meetings, but also for monthly orientation lectures, in which he shares the story of a vision one alcoholic had and the miracles that led to its fruition because of his determination and his faith.
Despite his grit and persistence, however, even he, the gregarious go-getter who fell from the heights of financial success into pits of despair and emerged reborn, would undoubtedly be stunned to see just how much that vision has grown from the dreams he had and the leap of faith he took in 1989.
When his son takes the podium on Sept. 20, 29 years and 363 days after Hood opened Cornerstone for business on Sept. 22, 1989, his presence will loom large. No doubt, he’ll be somewhere in the shadows, grumbling that the annual reunion has been replaced this year by a special anniversary celebration … but he’ll also be laughing. And smiling. And hugging friends — those who remember him fondly and those whom he never met but still benefit from his work.
And if it was possible for him to take the podium, he may even be dumbstruck — unable to find the words to express his amazement and his gratitude, which for those who knew Bill Hood would have been quite a sight to see.
“I don’t think he could imagine what it could be,” John Hood said. “Dad was a great manager, but he gave away more treatment than he ever sold. I don’t think he ever could have imagined where we are now.”