Damian McElrath: A man of generous spirit, kindness and grace

Treasured Hazelden leader and author passes away
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CENTER CITY, Minnesota (April 27, 2021)—Damian McElrath, who followed up a successful career and calling as a priest and university president with a remarkable second act at the Hazelden Foundation—where he became a treasured addiction treatment leader, teacher, author and historian—has died. He was 92.

After arriving at Hazelden's Center City, Minn., campus in 1976 to participate in a one-year, immersive program for clergy on helping people with addiction, McElrath fell in love with seeing patients heal and transform physically, emotionally and spiritually. He stayed for nearly four decades, serving in many capacities, including executive vice president of recovery services, while also writing several notable books about spirituality and the history of Hazelden. The pioneering and influential addiction treatment organization was founded in Minnesota in 1949 and later merged with the Betty Ford Center in California to form the nonprofit Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

"No one embodied, or captured, the spirit and culture of Hazelden and Twelve Step recovery more than Damian. His contributions to our organization, to the people we serve and to the field of addiction treatment will live on for generations," said Mark G. Mishek, president and CEO of Hazelden Betty Ford, the nation's largest nonprofit provider of addiction and mental health care, recovery resources, and related education, prevention, research and advocacy.

A native of Brooklyn, New York, McElrath was named Edmund at birth. He took on the name Damian when ordained a Franciscan priest in 1954 and kept it after leaving the Franciscan order in 1980. Prior to his time at Hazelden, McElrath earned a doctorate in ecclesiastical history at Gregorian University in Rome; completed a post-doctorate fellowship at Cambridge and Oxford Universities; taught at St. Francis College in New Hampshire, Holy Name College in Washington, DC, and the Washington Theological Seminary in Virginia; and then served as president of St. Bonaventure University in New York from 1973 to 1975.

His many roles at Hazelden included chaplain, counselor, speaker, administrator, educator, consultant and scholar. After first retiring in the mid-1990s, McElrath continued to consult and write books and then returned to work as a Hazelden spiritual care professional from 2001 to 2011. His books include Hazelden: A Spiritual Odyssey (1987) and its follow-up volume, Further Reflections on Hazelden's Spiritual Odyssey (1998) as well as biographies of Pat Butler and Dan Anderson (both 1998), two leaders who were key to establishing the first iterations of Hazelden's world-renowned treatment model.

McElrath's other works include:

  • The Story Behind the Little Red Book: The Evolution of a Twelve Step Classic (2014)
  • Making the Little Black Book: Inside the Working Manuscript of Twenty-Four Hours a Day (2012)
  • The Essence of Twelve Step Recovery: Take It to Heart (2008)
  • The Quiet Crusaders: The Untold Story Behind the Minnesota Model (2001)

He also co-wrote A Caring Community: The Story of the Retreat (2014) with John Curtiss. In 2014, McElrath wrote the foreword for the newest edition of Twenty Four Hours a Day, the daily meditation book that launched Hazelden Publishing and the self-help genre in 1954, and—9 million copies later—continues to sell and have a worldwide readership. Additionally, McElrath wrote several theological texts and a handful of still-unpublished books (including one on the early history of the Betty Ford Center and another on the Hazelden-Pittman Archives), and contributed to many more.

"Damian explored the Twelve Steps in great depth because he was so struck by the power that recovery had for radically changing the trajectory of people's lives," said William C. Moyers, Hazelden Betty Ford's vice president of public affairs and community relations. "In his writing, he searched to understand and articulate how the Steps work, and by doing so, was able to tap into the soul of Hazelden, which is what makes his histories such great reading. They aren't just a recitation of dates, names and events, but a journey into the inner-being of something special—something that is far more than a place."

Among McElrath's achievements at Hazelden was heading up the task force that developed the organization's first youth-specific programming—a significant innovation—in 1981. He ultimately became the first leader of what today is known as Hazelden Betty Ford in Plymouth—the nation's leading addiction treatment center for adolescents and young adults.  

For years, McElrath spoke at every notable Hazelden occasion, including the 80th birthday of its first and longest-serving President Patrick Butler and the 2003 funeral of its second-longest-serving President and greatest innovator, Dan Anderson. He also spoke in 1983 at the Betty Ford Center's popular "Alcohol and Other Drugs Awareness Hour" in Rancho Mirage, Calif.—just three years after hosting former First Lady Betty Ford on a visit to Hazelden in Center City, Minn., where she captured ideas and best practices to inform the planning for her new treatment center, which merged with Hazelden many years later.

McElrath had a deep respect for the dignity of people who struggled with addiction and for the transformative powers of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

"Damian's love and empathy for patients and passion for helping people change epitomized the spirit of Hazelden's caring community," Moyers said. "He was a touchstone for all of us who sought spiritual connections with each other, the higher power of our understanding, and the many others who came before us and would come after. He was beloved by many and will forever be a true Hazelden treasure."

Upon receiving Hazelden Betty Ford's Spiritual Odyssey Award, named after his own book, at the nonprofit's 70th anniversary celebration in 2019, McElrath said: "It's a wonderful organization and I've been away from it a couple of years now, but my heart is there, and my mind is there, because it appeals to both of them."

McElrath died peacefully on Sunday, April 25, surrounded by family. He is survived by his wife of 40 years, Sandy; stepson Steven Grandstrand and wife Amy; stepdaughter Amy Hansen and husband Erik; six grandchildren—Nicklaus and Megan Grandstrand, and Ben, Emily, Anna and Sara Hansen; and many nieces and nephews.

A memorial visitation will be held May 8 from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Washburn McReavy Glen Haven Chapel (5125 West Broadway) in Crystal, Minn. Masks will be required.

About the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation

The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation is a force of healing and hope for individuals, families and communities affected by addiction to alcohol and other drugs. As the nation's leading nonprofit provider of comprehensive inpatient and outpatient addiction and mental health care for adults and youth, the Foundation has treatment centers and telehealth services nationwide as well as a network of collaborators throughout health care. Through charitable support and a commitment to innovation, the Foundation is able to continually enhance care, research, programs and services, and help more people. With a legacy that began in 1949 and includes the 1982 founding of the Betty Ford Center, the Foundation today is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion in its services and throughout the organization, which also encompasses a graduate school of addiction studies, a publishing division, an addiction research center, recovery advocacy and thought leadership, professional and medical education programs, school-based prevention resources and a specialized program for children who grow up in families with addiction.