SPECIAL NOTE: In 2020, Fairbanks will mark our 75th year of helping individuals live in recovery. It’s fitting then, that the first blog post of the year celebrates 35 years of sobriety from one of our amazing alumni, Jerry Conner.
35 YEARS LATER, JERRY CONNER CONTINUES TO CELEBRATE THOSE WHO LED HIM TO FAIRBANKS.
Police work is dangerous and demanding. Jerry Conner doesn’t blame his career choice for his history with alcohol, but he admits the stresses of a challenging job didn’t help. Fortunately for Jerry, he was surrounded by law enforcement associates who cared about his welfare—and who helped him find the support he needed at Fairbanks.
A stressful career. A destructive habit.
Raised on a farm in Greenfield, Indiana, Jerry joined the Air Force after high school, but decided to settle down after marrying. The Indiana State Police was a natural fit for the gregarious young man who, after several years in uniform, moved on to specialize in investigations.
Long hours spent probing notorious crimes such as the horrific Steven Judy murders were all part of the job. Alcohol was a way to unwind. “There were times I’d drive home, pull in the garage, and since I had a refrigerator out there, I didn’t even get in the house,” Jerry remembers. “I thought I could handle it. But I knew otherwise.”
Everything changed on September 7, 1984. “I had been with a group of people at a Department picnic,” says Jerry. “And I’d come back to a music place there in town, and it was a bar. I was probably there an hour or something, and when I pulled out, I hit a car. There was no question it was my fault. And the Department did what they had to do. I was processed just like anybody else.”
“You need to go to Fairbanks.”
After bailing himself out and getting a ride home from his fellow officers, Jerry received a visit from another State Police representative—one of the volunteer chaplains. “Father Richard Cooley came to my house, and he said, ‘Here’s the deal. I don’t know where you’re going to go with the Department, but you need help.’ I said, ‘I understand that.’ And he said, ‘You need to go to Fairbanks.’”
Jerry agreed. But he had no idea how difficult it would be both physically and emotionally. “I told myself, ‘Look, I can do anything for 30 days. I’ve been through a lot worse than this.’ I found out I was completely wrong.”
“There were probably 20 or fewer of us in the group at Fairbanks,” Jerry recalls. “There were times it got pretty tough trying to bear your guts to people. And that’s not easy to do. And I think being a police officer, it’s even harder.”
The constant support of Father Cooley and the people at Fairbanks, along with others in the Department who did not want to lose Jerry’s experience and expertise, kept him going. He would eventually be assisting in interventions that mirrored his own, telling other officers struggling with addiction about the choices they faced.
“You’d say, ‘Look, you can keep drinking, you can keep doing what you’re doing. And two things are going to happen: You’re going to kill yourself; you’re going to lose your family. Or you can give us a chance to help you.”
35 years sober. And grateful for every minute.
This year marks Jerry’s 35th year of sobriety—as well as his 55th wedding anniversary. Now retired and living in Virginia after a second career training investigators with the National White Collar Crime Center, Jerry returns to Fairbanks every year to offer support and encouragement to others dealing with alcohol or similar substance issues.
“If it hadn’t been for what happened at Fairbanks, I don’t know where I would be today,” Jerry insists. “But you gotta own it. I keep saying I met fate and Fairbanks by accident, and I sure did. Luckily nobody was hurt. And I’m still here to tell the story.”