To Len Baltzer, the measure of a successful addiction treatment program transcends the tangibles of staff-client ratios or building amenities. Not long after he visited the campus of Sundown M Ranch in Washington state in a consulting capacity 20 years ago, something told him the organization’s team walked the walk for clients.
“You just feel the love there,” says Baltzer. “I’m a firm believer that that’s what gets people well.”
He would offer to write a marketing plan to help get the word out about what he told Sundown M Ranch’s then-executive director looked to be the field’s best-kept secret (“I had been in the field 25 years and had never heard of them,” Baltzer recalls). When he subsequently would be asked to stay on to implement the plan as the facility’s marketing director, Baltzer put retirement on hold and started a 20-year run that will end with his official retirement at age 75 at the end of this year.
“I came to work for Sundown, and you know what they say about finding a job you love to do and never working another day in your life?” he says.
Baltzer also celebrates 45 years in recovery this year, having gotten sober when he was “30 going on 13,” he says. He says he has few regrets about a career that includes work in a number of roles in addiction counseling and treatment administration. He cites as one of the professional highlights his work at Scripps McDonald Center in Southern California, where he was involved in the ground-up establishment of a treatment facility that eventually would become a hospital-based chemical dependency program.
He remains ever grateful to some of the most profound influences in his early professional life and early recovery. He primarily cites the late Joseph Zuska, MD (his mentor) and Dick Jewell (his first sponsor), the U.S. Navy physician and commander, respectively, who were instrumental in launching the Navy’s substance use treatment program at a time when substance abuse in the service was highly stigmatized.
Baltzer remains convinced that 12-Step recovery will remain the mainstream influence to the field, even amid all the talk of change in service delivery on the horizon. “I don’t think it’ll ever go away because it’s the truth,” he says.
He is guided by the belief that the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was “divinely inspired,” and he often refers to it as “the Bible for dummies.”
With Baltzer’s impending retirement reflecting an active period in which many longtime leaders are planning to depart the field, he adds to the current conversation about leadership by saying he doesn’t think enough treatment organizations are nurturing future executives. He says he appreciates Sundown M Ranch’s attention to promoting from within the organization, citing current executive director Scott Munson’s background in numerous roles there before becoming the top administrator.
“He did just about every job: grounds, kitchen,” Baltzer says of Munson. When [staff] people around here whine about something, he can say, ‘Tell me about it—I used to do that.”
Whether it’s the philosophical underpinning of treatment or the site in which the promise of recovery begins to take hold, Baltzer clearly believes in institutions that have stood the test of time. “The mission has never changed,” he says.