Where Past Meets Present

Marv Wopat

Marv Wopat

Marv Wopat is a retired UAW-GM Employee Assistance Program Representative, an Alcohol & Drug Addiction Treatment/Recovery Volunteer, and a Community Activist.

When did you come to Rock County?

I was born in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, raised on a dairy farm. I came here right after my service in the military.

Tell me about your military service:

It’s kind of crazy. I graduated from high school with 8 or 9 scholarships to play college ball, and I was an All-Conference MVP. When I was born I weighed 12.6, so I’ve always been this size! But, I threw the scholarships in the trash and joined the Navy. There were 5 of us that went in from my high school. I graduated from high school one week, got married the next, and joined the military the following week!

After boot camp, they sent me to Philadelphia, where I stayed for 6 months. In Philly, I went to a Class A school and my wife then came up there. Later, our son was born. Then I was stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas. It was a firefighting school, an aviation school, and they taught us to shoot airplanes off the carriers. They put me on Crash Crew, where we manned the runways 24/7 with firetrucks, because the new pilots were practicing.

While in the military, I got divorced and then remarried before I left. I had served from 1965 – 1968.

How did you end up in Rock County?

My brother-in-law was working at General Motors. Janesville was a bigger city that had a fire department, and I had all my firefighting training so was intending to join the fire department. My brother-in-law told me to stop first at GM because they were taking applications at 5 in the morning and then I could go over to the fire department.

So, I did that. I walked in, and at the time the guy hiring asked me where I’d been, and I told him I’d served in the military. Then he asked me what I did before that, and I told him I was raised on a dairy farm in the Elroy/Hillsboro area up north and I milked dairy cows 7 days a week. And he said, “Come to work Monday.” At that time he hired a whole bunch of farm kids from up north because of the work ethic. And I stayed at General Motors for 40.4 years until I retired.

Tell me about your first exposure to the addiction treatment program:

When I joined the National Guard, and it was our weekend to serve, I’d be at the bar drinking. We were always out drinking. One time I came home from there, and my wife and kids were gone. They had flown back to Texas. So, that was the day I called this guy and asked him to go into treatment.

On February 18th of 1980 I went into alcohol and drug treatment. I went to a place near Milwaukee. It was called the Kettle. I’d had a lot of relationship problems, financial problems. I had everything that the disease causes.

Now it’s been 37 years of clean recovery, and I have not picked up a drink or drug since that day! I owe it all to the support meetings. That has worked for me the most. Also, it’s been good for me to work with others and help people on the road to recovery, to help them straighten out their lives. So, I mentor people.

How did you end up working in this area?

When I was in treatment, I was surrounded by a lot of adolescents in the program. My roommate was 14, my best buddy, Vinnie, was 13. We didn’t have groups together, but we ate and mingled in the same areas. There were a lot of young people there. So, when I got out of treatment, I went to volunteer in the Rock County alcohol and drug groups. It was twice a week, 3 hours a night. I sat in on the meetings and helped out, working with the counselors. I did that for 2 years.

Around that time, the Employee Assistance Representative at GM heard I was working with teens and their families. So, whenever he had a family come in who had an adolescent with a problem, he would send them to me and I would work with that person or the GM families. I was working on the line during the day, but then would go talk to these parents in the evening and help get the kid to recovery meetings and such.

Then the man who was running the Employee Assistance Program at GM had a heart attack. And he was pretty ill. I was still working days at the time, and they asked me if I would go and cover for him while he was sick. I told them that I couldn’t go nights. But, they said it would just be for just 6 weeks. So, I agreed to do that, and by the time I retired from General Motors it had been over 25 years on that job!

I had started these meetings at dinner in the plant, so they wouldn’t go out to dinner and have a drink. They could bring their sack lunch and have a recovery meeting at the same time. I had a guy who was fired and I wrote a treatment plan for him. It said he couldn’t be late for work or miss a day, he had to come to meetings every night at the workplace and continue doing whatever the counselors on the outside said.

I handed it to him to sign and he said, “You’re my union rep, I ain’t signing this!” And I said, “Well, I guess you don’t work at GM, then. There’s the door.” He sat there a while, and then he signed it. He hadn’t read a book or magazine in 17years. He couldn’t read. Every night at dinner time, there was a 24 hour a day book that we’d read. He would pick it up, but he struggled through it. We’d help him with words and all.

After about a year, he started to read pretty well. He would say, “I hate Wopat! I hate him!” And I would say, “You can hate me all you want as long as you stay sober and clean and you don’t lose your job.” Then he started coming to recovery meetings in the community. Then he started chairing recovery meetings. Then he’d bring his grandson with him to the meetings.

I worked with Friends of Riverside, and he came up to help set up that day. We had our Family Fun Fest, and he helped set up tents and jump machines. He was the first one there in the morning and last one there at night, cleaning up, tying up garbage bags. He’s a miracle. At one time he was our biggest drug dealer at GM. And I still see him at a Men’s Meeting every week.

What has been most rewarding about your work?

I’ve seen so many miracles like that. But I’ve also seen a lot of deaths. Alcohol and drugs are the third killer in the United States. I’ve put a lot of people in treatment. But, some of them don’t make it. There are a lot of other factors: guns, suicide, overdoses. Still, I have to keep trying.

I always said that I got a job at GM through the UAW, an appointed job through the union, but I was paid to do what I love. It’s my passion. Nurse Nancy (Nancy Nienhuis) said I must have put 1,000 people in alcohol and drug treatment. There were some weeks when I’d put 5, 8, 10 people in treatment.

It means a lot to me when someone comes back and thanks me years later. I had one who, on Facebook, said to me, “I’ve been clean 21 years…thank you!” Another thanks me every year on her birthday for saving her life. At the time you don’t think about it, you just do it. You try to help them and help their families.

If you could give advice to people who might be suffering from addiction, what would it be?

I’d tell them to find support group meetings and check out meetings in the community. In my perception, that’s really where recovery is at.

I went to counselors and paid a lot of money for that, but I was lying to them. That was before I went into treatment. The best people to council are the ones who have recovered themselves. You just can’t learn this in a book.

Nurse Nancy told me once that she would have never believed that a person who was recovered could work with an addict better than she could. She would say, “I get them into your office and 5 minutes later you’re walking them into a treatment center!”

If the transmission goes out on your car, don’t take it to the paint shop! Might look good, but it still won’t run very well. So, when someone realizes they have a drug or alcohol problem, they need to turn to someone who has found out how to not use anymore.

It’s still taboo. Families don’t talk about it. It’s like you have this elephant in the room and nobody talks about it, even though they see this big @#$ elephant! So you need to get an elephant remover. Too many families shower the addict with kindness. Stop making excuses for them, stop enabling them. You can’t assume that “If he loved me, he’d quit.” It has nothing to do with love. It’s a disease. It needs to be treated.

I always say, if you go to meetings and do what’s suggested, as you’re supposed to, and continue going to the meetings, you’re going to stay sober.

Tell me about how you started the GM food drive:

The guy before me, I believe the year before I got there, there was a family that got burned out, and so he collected some things. The first year I think it was for about 7 families or so. That was in about 1982. Over the years we ended up feeding 375 families and getting the children presents. It was the EAP (Employee Assistance Program) food drive, a UAW/GM food drive.

We usually would end up with about $20,000. Nancy Nienhuis and I would go to Woodman’s to let them know our needs, and they would go to their distributors and collect for these families. We’d unload pallets of food from the semi-trucks and stack them on all the tables. We had several tables, all stacked with food. It was very organized.

Once that was done, we’d all say a prayer, and the people would line up, fill the bags, and then we’d have them delivered to the different communities. We’d go to Footville, Orfordville and the biggest amounts of deliveries were in Janesville and Beloit. We’d go to all the outlying communities.

Nancy and I would deliver sometimes. On one of the deliveries, we went to a house in Beloit and this little boy came out. He looked in one of the bags and excitedly yelled to his mother, “Look, Mom! REAL potatoes!” Many of those homes just didn’t have groceries in the cupboards and the fridge was empty.

When I retired in 2008, just before GM left, the School District of Janesville agreed to pick it up. Nurse Nancy and I showed them how to go out and solicit/collect the groceries, how to set up the tables, to organize volunteers and such. Now it’s called Bags of Hope.

What were some of your other community activities?

I was on the board of the United Way, as well as the County Board for 6 years. I was on the AODA committee for the Janesville School District and the board of directors for the Rock County Education and Criminal Addictions Program, and served on the Human Services Board. I really enjoyed that.

We had to get funds and do things for the youth in our community. I was always fighting for more money for substance abuse. They would often run out of funds in February or March. I told them, this has been going on for 20 years, we need to fix it.

I was also involved in Partners in Prevention. Through this I would run a Family Fun Fest. We used to have it at Traxler Park, but then we switched it to Riverside Park, after talking to the Friends of Riverside Park. At the time, the wading pool was closed and the bathroom was closed, as was the road. I told them I’d bring the Fun Fest over if we changed some things.

So, I went to the City Council and made sure they would open the road up for all the people coming in. So, they opened it up and made it one way. The Friends of Riverside redid that whole thing. We had bands, pony rides, businesses had booths. It was a nice event and just about every kid got a little prize. It was a nice alcohol- and tobacco-free day in the park.

One of my joys has been playing Santa. I’ve had all sort of things happen to me. I had a little toddler pee on my lap! Another time I got kneed in the groin! I had to tell my assistant, “Santa’s going on strike!”

Years ago, Quint Studer got me to play Santa at Mercy Hospital. So, I went to visit a little girl who had a muscular disease. She had her back to me, was not moving, with her hands curled up against her body. I reached in my bag, got a tiny purple horse, stoked her cheek and placed the toy in her hand. She cooed and moved a little. The nurses said she hadn’t moved or made a noise in 2 days! Later, I found out she had passed. Those are memories that will last forever.

I was part of the DROP Program. Brian Foster came and spoke, he told about heroin addicts and how after they were clean and he got them detoxed, they wouldn’t have a place to go because there was such a waiting list for treatment. So, I talked to him and said that I wanted to help. I told him to send people to us so they could go to the support group meetings. He got that going with me. When he left, Chad Woodman took over. They’re still working with the heroin addicts.

Currently, I still go out to the jail and give lectures to recap prisoners.

What are some of the changes you’ve seen over the years?

I see recovery as being more acceptable. The stigma isn’t as bad as it was 37 years ago when I came in. And I believe you’re going to see improvements.

The county just received a federal grant to deal with this heroin problem. I believe that there is a lack of education about and rehabilitation, treatment and recovery. But, physicians need to recognize it sooner.

It’s crazy that we have no substance abuse treatment center here. With as big a problem that we have, it’s sad that there is not more being done. We need to have treatment available for those who need the help. This problem affects all walks of life. A lot of these addicts get started on prescription drugs, and that could be anyone.

As far as the city goes … there’s a lot of money in Janesville. I really hope that others will follow Quint Studer’s example and help contribute to the redevelopment of our downtown.

Do you plan to stick around Rock County?

I do for now! It’s a great location. You’re 30 miles from Madison, 60 from Milwaukee, 100 from Chicago. You’re within an hour and a half from just about any function. It’s 3 hours from Green Bay, so not like you have to drive a whole day. And I have family here. Janesville is a nice community.

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