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An architect of the ‘Minnesota Model,’ Rev. Gordon Grimm held fast to Hazelden’s mission

When Grimm died on Jan. 5, he left behind a legacy of accomplishment in addiction treatment, but those who worked with him say he will be best remembered for his focus on individuals, his generous spirit and his commitment to improving the lives of people worldwide struggling with the disease of addiction.

One of the architects of the Minnesota Model of addiction treatment, Rev. Gordon “Gordy” Grimm was a big deal at Hazelden back in 1996, when William Cope Moyers began working as a policy analyst on the addiction treatment organization’s Center City campus.

Rev. Gordon Grimm
Hazelden Betty Ford
Rev. Gordon Grimm
“When I started, Gordy had just retired,” Moyers recalled. “I say ‘just’ retired  because he wasn’t a staff person anymore but he was still around there in a pretty significant way. I was introduced to him very early on. It felt important. You can imagine what it was like for me, a neophyte, to be in the presence of one of Dan Anderson’s lieutenants.”

Hazelden was a different place when Grimm arrived in 1965, hand-recruited by Anderson, then the organization’s vice president. Anderson lured Grimm away from his job as chaplain of the alcohol unit at Willmar State Hospital, and the two men hit it off; as the Hazelden Foundation’s first full-time pastor, Grimm launched a spiritual care department and training program for clergy. An ordained Lutheran minister, his spiritual perspective on the disease of addiction became central to the distinctive addiction-treatment approach that would come to be known worldwide as the Minnesota Model.

Moyers, now Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s VP of public affairs and community relations, said Grimm’s open-minded, welcoming approach to treatment grew out of his close relationship with Anderson. His personal ethos of generosity informed the way he did his job — and, ultimately, the way the entire organization operated.

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“One of the things Dan made sure that Gordy did was to give away what Hazelden believed and worked and practiced,” Moyers said. “This whole notion that the alcoholic is worth saving, the alcoholic has an illness of the mind, body and spirit and could recover, was central to the approach they championed. Gordy was a gentle giant with a fierce passion for suffering alcoholics.”

When Grimm died on Jan. 5 at the age of 86, he left behind a legacy of accomplishment in addiction treatment, but those who worked with him say he will be best remembered for his focus on individuals, his generous spirit and his commitment to improving the lives of people worldwide struggling with the disease of addiction.

Moyers, who publicly recounted his own intense addiction to drugs and alcohol in his book “Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption,” said that Grimm made a point of drawing him in to the Hazelden fold. It didn’t matter that Grimm was a key figure in the recovery movement — he was focused on making a new hire feel like he was part of something important, something larger than himself, and his contributions were welcome.

“Gordy lived less than five minutes from the Center City campus,” Moyers said. “He’d come over for lunch. He was a giant in the field. He came and sat down with me — of all people. I wasn’t even a licensed counselor. I was just 35 years old. He’d shoot the breeze with me for over an hour.”

This focused time with Grim was significant, Moyers said. The newly retired leader was an important figure on campus, and staff still jockeyed for his attention. “There were a lot of people who knew who Gordy Grimm was. He was a big man. He had a deep voice. He never held himself above or separate from anyone. He’d never bat an eye if 10 people came over to the table while we were eating lunch. He was all about what was right in front of him. He must’ve had an ego, but it never got in the way of being who he was in the moment.”

Don Freeman, Hazelden Publishing’s long-time director of design and editorial production, said that Grimm’s ability to stay centered, positive and in the moment seemed like an extension of his spirituality. It was part of who he was, and many of his friends and colleagues found his mere presence to be reassuring.

“I don’t think there’s ever been another person here who just exudes real positive energy like Gordy did,” Freeman said. “It was just his presence. He didn’t have to say a word. You’d just see him in a room and you felt good and you felt safe.”

Colleagues said they felt safe in Grimm’s presence because they understood instinctively that he had their best interest in mind, explained Bruce Larson, former clinical director at Hazelden-Center City. Grimm wasn’t competitive or out to best anyone. His focus was on saving as many lives as possible.

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“Gordy had a huge heart and passion for supporting Hazelden’s mission, vision and values, for the organization itself and all the patients and families and professionals we served,” Larson said. “And Gordy also had a huge heart for supporting staff.”

Larson worked at Hazelden for 39 years before he retired in 2015. In 1978, Grimm hired him to work in the organization’s fledgling counselor-training program.

Grimm was an “outstanding” boss, Larson said: “His leadership style was spiritual, relational and consultative. He really valued what everybody brought to Hazelden and whatever we were working on, rather than him dominating and directing everything. From that standpoint, people had plenty of opportunity to make contributions and to grow personally and professionally.”

‘He was all about the mission’

 Grimm’s funeral was held at Chisago Lake Lutheran Church in Center City (once featured in the film “Grumpy Old Men”). He and his wife, Esther, lived in the area for decades, raising their three children, John, Mary and Jim.

Gathered in the church “were really the last retired vestiges of the heart and soul of Hazelden as it was once known,” Moyers said. “Today we’re a big, sprawling health care system. In the days of Gordy Grimm, it was all about treatment, and the people who were there really cared, not just about quality treatment but also spreading it around, making sure that this vast resource of expertise was accessible to other treatment providers in Minnesota and around the country and the world.”

Jane Nakken is now retired, but for years she worked beside Grimm in leadership at Hazelden. She said she believes that he represented an earlier time, when the organization was just starting out and focused on spreading the word about the potential of recovery to as many people as possible.

Back then, Nakken said, “We would give away all our secrets. We trained people how to do things and didn’t ask for any financial reward. We gave help and we asked others for their knowledge. We saw it as a give-and-take. People would come to us because Hazelden had a worldwide reputation. We had a model that seemed to be working. We’d say to anyone who asked, ‘This is how you set up a treatment program like ours.’” 

Providing free advice on how to emulate Hazelden’s success required an open, giving heart, Nakken added. Grimm was perfectly suited to the job.

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“Gordy didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He didn’t have sharp elbows. He had open arms.”

David Spohn worked for 31 years as art director at Hazelden Publishing. He said that by the time Grimm retired, he was one of a handful of leaders who still held on to the organization’s original, more open approach.

“As Hazelden grew and changed it became more corporate,” Spohn said. “The leaders that were brought in were more about keeping the bottom line going. Gordy didn’t really fit in with that. He was all about the mission, about saving people’s lives. He built that place. It changed. He tried to work with that new culture but there were points were it wasn’t going to fit. He was pushed out.”

Grimm’s lack of focus on the bottom line was part of what made him so beloved, Larson said. As Hazelden Betty Ford expanded to different markets and took on more projects, he stayed true to the original idea of fostering a movement of hope and healing for people with addiction. “That was one of the qualities that endeared him to so many people,” Larson said. “He never lost that, even as the organization became more corporate.”

To Moyers, it felt like many of the people gathered at Grimm’s funeral were there to acknowledge the end of an earlier era in addiction treatment. While the organization today continues to do good work saving countless lives, he said that he’ll miss the spirit that Grimm brought to his work. “Gordy was one of those last pioneers who believed in everything that made Hazelden great and everything that Hazelden believed others needed to know,” Moyers said. “I owe Gordy Grimm more than I can articulate. What he did for me and for thousands and thousands of people was to give us hope, help and healing.”

Focus on parity

During his decades at Hazelden, Grimm played many roles, but one of the most significant was that of “goodwill ambassador,” working to influence public policy in Minnesota and at the U.S. Capitol. Grimm’s role beginning in the 1980s turned to advancing health care parity for people with addiction, working to convince lawmakers that health insurance companies should cover addiction treatment.

“He was all about access to treatment,” Moyers said. “He wanted to make sure that anyone who needed treatment could get treatment, whether it was at Hazelden or anywhere else. He wanted to make sure public policy matched that mission.”

Rev. Gordon Grimm
Hazelden Betty Ford
Rev. Gordon Grimm
It was a tough row to hoe, Nakken said. But Grimm was determined to see a change.

“Access to treatment was not an easy sell ever with politicians. But Gordy was at Hazelden through a couple of important times where there was enough momentum coming from other places that we were able to get some marvelous things done.”

A modest Midwesterner, Grimm did not immediately seem well suited to rubbing elbows with influential people, Spohn said.

“He did not strike you as a real traditional power broker.” But maybe his more down-home approach helped him excel at the job, Grimm added: “When you looked at Gordy and talked to him it was like this was a guy who was as much at home sitting at the Swedish Inn and shooting the breeze with farmers as he was talking with people in the U.S. Capitol. He was just that easy to be around.”

In the mid-1980s, he was selected to be part of the White House Conference for a Drug Free America, a group that sponsored regional and national conferences and ultimately issued a report to then-President Ronald Reagan.

Key connections gained from this work helped Grimm make advances in Washington that earlier advocates had been unable to achieve, Larson said.

“They were having trouble getting in the rooms with the congressmen and women and senators, so Gordy told me he reached out Mrs. [Betty] Ford and she said she was happy to help, but she knew this was a non-partisan issue, that addiction impacted everybody and all families. She reached out to Mrs. [Rosalynn] Carter. Together, Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Carter started opening the doors and getting into the offices of Congress, giving them a chance to educate key politicians as to the importance of parity.”

Grimm’s continued work with Minnesota Sens. Jim Ramstad and Paul Wellstone further advanced the issue, eventually paving the way for passage of the Mental Health Equity and Addiction Parity Act.

This may be Grimm’s most significant achievement, Larson said: “I believe Gordy Grim was a gift from God to Hazelden and Center City — and the people who worked for Hazelden Foundation and everyone we served.”

‘A force for good’

No matter how influential he became, Grimm continued to be concerned about the health and welfare of his colleagues. His own personal experiences influenced the way he moved in the world. He took difficult things that happened in his life and found the good in them, Moyers said.

An obituary published by Hazelden said that Grimm’s interest in serving those with addiction grew from an early experience of having his father kicked out of church because of alcoholism. When his youngest son, Jim, was born with a severe disability, he became an outspoken advocate for disabled people and their families.

Mark Sheets is executive director of Hazelden’s program for teens and young adults. When his daughter Hannah was born with Down syndrome, Grimm paid him a visit.

“Gordy went out of his way to go over to talk to me,” Sheets recalled. “He didn’t have to do that. I was one of hundreds of employees. But he came and talked to me about his experience with his son. He told me, ‘These are special people. All we need to do is love them to the best of our ability.’ That just struck home.”

Sheets said that Grimm’s advice helped him look at Hannah’s future from a different perspective.

“When I first had Hannah I didn’t know what to do,” Sheets said. “But I’d just remember what he said and I felt better. I knew what I had to do. That’s the kind of guy he was. He was really down to earth, full of grace, always loving and kind. He always had a good word for anyone who needed a good word.”

Rev. Gordon Grimm
Hazelden Betty Ford
Rev. Gordon Grimm
Spohn recalls that his decades-long relationship with Grimm began after a Hazelden Publishing colleague, J.D. Davis, died of a stroke.

At the time, the publishing division “was a real small venture, just six to seven people in a farmhouse adjacent to the main campus.” Davis’ death, Spohn said, “was horrible. We were a really close-knit group. We were stunned and shocked at JD’s passing.” While Spohn and his colleagues struggled to keep going, Grimm walked over to the farmhouse and paid them a visit.

“Not many people from the campus would come over there,” Spohn said. “Gordy was this big, gregarious guy. He just showed up, came in talked about JD. He knew him a little bit. He just had such a way of just knowing what everyone in our group was going through, and talking about JD and getting us to talk about him and ourselves. When he left, I just thought, ‘That’s really a special man.’”

Spohn said that he and Grimm became closer in his later years. One of the last times they talked, the two men discussed the pitfalls of aging. Grimm told a story about how he’d bent down to get something off the floor and struggled to get back up.

Instead of bemoaning his situation, Spohn recalled Grimm saying, “When I find myself on the floor, I look around and I ask myself, ‘What else needs to be done while I’m down here?'”

“That was classic Gordy Grimm,” Spohn said. “If he was handed lemons, he would make lemonade. That will be my lasting memory of him. He was such a force for good.”