Union Gospel Mission director gave up law, liquor for different life

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Bill Russell, executive director of Union Gospel Missioni in Old Town, battled alcoholism in his earlier years, giving up his position as district attorney in Idaho to focus on his own life and addicts and homeless. Hes been with Union Gospel Mission since 1989.Bill Russell was on a guided fly-fishing outing a few weeks ago. After the fishing, Russell, the executive director of Old Town’s Union Gospel Mission, was relaxing at a fly shop with his companions, among the nonprofit’s major donors.

One of the men handed Russell a red plastic cup — the exact same type of cup he remembers from college keggers years ago. Russell took the cup in hand and started walking over to a beer keg, which had been brought out. And then he stopped. He changed direction and filled his cup with water.

“I still have to remind myself,” Russell says.

The Union Gospel Mission serves meals to Old Town’s homeless and operates a three-year residency program to help homeless addicts and alcoholics regain sobriety. Russell has been the mission’s executive director for 14 years. He served as its ministry director for 10 years before that.

But the 59-year-old Russell arrived at this point, could only have arrived at this point, he says, by giving up two things he loved. One was alcohol. The other was the law.

Liquor had always been part of his life. He drank in college, and he drank touring with his rock band buddies. He told himself he’d stop drinking in law school but he didn’t. He became an attorney and says if you’d asked him at the time if he was happy he would have said yes. He says he was “a working alcoholic.”

More success brought more pressure and more drinking, not less. In 1978 a talk with his law firm mentor made him start thinking that he might need to change. The mentor told him that despite his many homes, his four marriages and his lavish lifestyle, he wasn’t happy.

Around that time Russell injured an ankle playing handball. The doctor treating him had him fill out a medical history form and then said he wanted to talk. He told Russell that his family history and the broken capillaries at the end of his nose were all evidence that he was an alcoholic.

Russell’s response? “I thought it was crazy, but it bothered me that he said that.”

A few months later, on Jan. 27 (Russell remembers the date), Russell spent a day taking depositions with witnesses. Afterward, he joined another lawyer and the court reporter for drinks that lasted until 2 a.m. He woke up the next morning in his own bed in his own home, still wearing his suit and tie. This time the need to change felt stronger.

That Sunday, Russell, not a particularly religious man, attended a Presbyterian church and experienced what he calls a “spiritual transformation.” He hadn’t experienced some great trauma. He hadn’t woken in a gutter, or hit somebody while driving his car while drunk. For Russell the first step toward change began not so much with a bottoming out as with the uplift of an awakening.

Sick, not evil

Jan. 28, 1979, became Bill Russell’s sobriety date. It remains that. But his journey from affluent attorney to heading up a Christianity-based mission for the homeless took three more years.

In 1982, Russell, working for the district attorney in Nez Perce County, Idaho, was prosecuting a mid-30s defendant for the latest in a series of burglaries he had committed. The pre-sentencing report said the defendant had been a heroin addict for 18 years. Russell asked for a five-year sentence, but before the judge ruled, the defendant asked the judge for a longer term. He told the judge, according to Russell, that he didn’t function well in society, that he was a hopeless heroin addict, and he did better in prison.

The judge ignored the request and sentenced the man to the standard five years. But the defendant’s speech had a powerful effect on Russell, who could no longer see the point of imprisoning addicts, or providing them with the treatment and structure they needed only when they were locked up.

“It occurred to me at that time that the system treats sick people as evil people,” he says.

Soon after that, Russell says, he was offered the chief district attorney’s position in his county. He declined, gave notice that he was leaving his job, and six months later began a career as a prison chaplain. His new job involved recruiting volunteers to run sobriety programs inside prisons. He made about a third of what he had earned as an attorney, but found what he calls “a more gratifying, satisfying life.”

In 1989 Russell went to work at Union Gospel Mission. He still has that urge when he walks by the beer vendor at Blazer games. He still has that desire to take someone to court when he sees a physician prescribe painkillers to one of his addicts. And he eschews the idea that his chosen work is saintly.

“I don’t believe in altruism,” Russell says. “I didn’t do this without a thought of receiving a reward for what I’m doing. That notion that you purely sacrifice and it’s a great noble thing to mankind is bull. I think what we do is trade one reward for a better reward.”