By Jeremiah Gardner
Strolling through the mammoth Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., it’s hard to imagine that same expansive real estate filled with nothing but people celebrating the promise and possibility of recovery from addiction.
But that’s exactly what happened on June 26, 1976, when tens of thousands of people — including numerous celebrities from TV, movies, music and politics — gathered for FreedomFest ’76. It was, and arguably still is, the largest “recovery advocacy” event in American history, held at what then was Metropolitan Stadium, original home of Minnesota’s pro football and baseball teams, and what now is the nation’s biggest shopping mall.
“They could not have selected a stadium with less experience as a host to clear-headed customers,” joked popular Minneapolis Star columnist Jim Klobuchar. “If the stadium had a personality, it would be flat-out amazed.”
Today, almost 50 years later, FreedomFest stands as one of the great and most unique legacies of organizer Wheelock Whitney, a Minnesota businessman and civic leader who died in 2016 at age 89.
Addiction-related issues are more prominent in the news now, due to the overdose epidemic and, I’d like to think, the growing voice of recovery advocates. But in 1976, addiction was totally taboo and recovery still secret, which is what made FreedomFest so significant.
Somehow, long before the grassroots organizing power of social media, Whitney and a group of volunteers managed to bring together thousands of people who were willing to break from history and be part of a public event to confront an illness that had long remained a private matter, typically whispered about only in the shadows of shame. Observers were able to see the long-hidden reality that many people actually do recover from addiction — and that it’s a disease which can be successfully managed to reveal people who are every bit as moral, productive, intelligent, talented — and humanly flawed — as the next person.
“I was highly influenced by the event,” said Marvin Seppala, M.D., former longtime chief medical officer for the nonprofit Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, who attended during his first summer in recovery, just prior to beginning college. “It seemed to me recovery was an accepted lifestyle, even celebrated. It helped me to accept my illness and to speak openly about it.”
John Curtiss also attended FreedomFest during his first summer in recovery. Just six months earlier, his family had purchased him a one-way plane ticket to Minnesota so he could get treatment for his addiction.
“At FreedomFest, I saw thousands of people who found hope and joy in their recovery — some famous, some infamous, and most just regular folks like me. It was a happening that eventually turned into a recovery movement that spread across the country and beyond,” said Curtiss, who later worked at Hazelden for several years and then founded The Retreat, where he has been president and CEO since 1998. “It was one of those powerful moments in my early recovery that made it perfectly clear I was in the right place at the right time. I will be forever grateful to all those who made this incredible event happen. All these decades later, I’m still sober, still grateful.”
Whitney’s innovative stigma-smashing strategy — the recovery festival — lives on, with similarly-styled public events now held throughout the country. In 2015, a memorable Unite to Face Addiction rally was held on the National Mall. Thanks in large part to the modern promotional power of social media, it drew an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 people, despite a hurricane threat looming over the nation’s capital. A Philadelphia “recovery walk” — or festival-on-the-go, you might say — attracts an estimated 25,000 annually. And many other smaller but still very powerful rallies and concerts are now held across America every September during National Recovery Month. One notable example in 2018 was Recovery Fest in Pawtucket, R.I., which drew 6,000 to see Macklemore. The popular rapper and recovery advocate also headlined a “Recover Out Loud” concert that was livestreamed from Las Vegas to a national audience in 2021.
In Minnesota, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation hosted Hazelfest — a direct descendant of Whitney’s groundbreaking FreedomFest —every summer for eight years until the COVID-19 pandemic stopped the streak. Held on the grounds of Hazelden Betty Ford’s rural addiction treatment and mental health care campus near the tiny hamlet of Center City, Hazelfest featured music, speakers, food, exhibits, smiles, hugs and activities for the entire family. It served as both a celebration of life for the thousands who attended and, once again, a widely publicized counterweight to the insidious and inaccurate stigma that still subtly colors too much of America’s attitude and approach to addiction.
As the nation’s 20-million-strong recovery community makes more headway than ever in changing public attitudes — by demonstrating through our lived experience that addiction is, first and foremost, a health issue — it’s valuable to look back at FreedomFest and, as historian William White wrote, “honor the brave men and women who first stepped into the public light to share their experience, strength, and hope with the world.”
Who were some of those brave men and women? For starters, actor Dick Van Dyke served as master of ceremonies and was featured in an inspiring event program Q&A entitled, “How I Won My Toughest Battle.” Other public figures there to celebrate their own recovery were game show host Garry Moore, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Major League Baseball MVP and Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Don Newcombe and former U.S. Sen. Harold Hughes of Iowa. Dennis the Menace creator Hank Ketcham, whose first wife died of a drug overdose, also contributed a FreedomFest cartoon to the event program.
Among many others there to support the cause were radio and TV personality Art Linkletter, singers Etta Cameron and Marilyn Sellars, family therapy pioneer Virginia Satir and Minnesota’s own Gov. Wendell Anderson, U.S. Sens. Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, and Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton. President Gerald Ford — whose wife, First Lady Betty Ford, would get help for her own addictions two years later and go on to become the world’s most prominent recovery advocate — also was scheduled to attend. However, the President canceled nine days ahead of the event due to a late-scheduled International Economic Summit in Puerto Rico (interestingly, the first of what would come to be known as the Group of Seven, or G7, summit).
Several of the celebrities at FreedomFest — all of whom donated their time and talents — had participated six weeks earlier — on May 8, 1976 — in a remarkable televised event in the nation’s capital, during which 52 prominent citizens publicly proclaimed their recovery from alcoholism. Sponsored by the National Council on Alcoholism, it was called Operation Understanding.
“It was a turning point in the collective consciousness of America, forever breaking the stereotype of alcoholism as the ‘hopeless Skid Row wino’,” said White.
FreedomFest took the logical next step of inviting everyday Americans to proclaim their recovery in a public setting too — people like Willis Harrington, owner of a construction firm in Farmington, Minn., who told the Minneapolis Tribune: “I wouldn’t have anything today if I were still drinking. An event like this is great — I knew there were a lot of alcoholics, but I just couldn’t picture this many of them all getting together.”
Exactly how many people attended FreedomFest? The history is sketchy. Organizers sold more than 24,000 tickets in advance and were ambitiously expecting 47,000 in a stadium that held 45,919 at the time. The Tribune’s immediate estimate was 20,000 but also noted that 4,000 tickets were sold at the gate. A later report pegged the attendance at 25,000. But former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson, in a 2011 tribute to Whitney, wrote that “the stadium overflowed.” And, looking at pictures, the stands look rather full, so allow me to split the historical difference and estimate 30,000.
Any way you slice it, the gathering was historically huge, especially on a Saturday marked by sporadic showers that prompted Van Dyke to tell the audience they were “the wettest bunch of ‘drys’ I have ever seen.”
“I remember Dick Van Dyke making that statement,” said Dr. Seppala. “But most of all I remember the entire crowd, which seemed to fill the place, saying the Serenity Prayer. It was a glorious day for a guy early in recovery.”
The event kicked off at noon, with a “Sobriety Fair” in the surrounding parking areas and inside at the adjacent Met Sports Center, home to Minnesota North Stars hockey. It was a bona fide party, featuring 40 group reunions, tailgating (with “coffee, tea, pop and milk,” of course), camping, educational booths, live music, bingo and other games, a variety show, dancing, arts and crafts, a teen drop-in center, recovery books and discussions, film showings, martial arts demonstrations, concessions and a sports clinic with famous athletes.
At 7:30 p.m., Van Dyke, accompanied on stage by 60 prominent others as well as an orchestra and chorus, kicked off the main program inside Met Stadium by leading the crowd in a chant that ended emphatically with, “I’m Free! I’m Free!”
Speakers and musicians then took their turns. All told, more than 60 musical groups performed throughout the day.
One song featured during the evening program — a contest winner named A Fest of Freedom by local musician Jerry Esnough — touched on the poignancy of celebrating freedom from addiction in the same year that America was celebrating the 200th anniversary of its founding on principles of freedom:
“Once this country was young with rebellion, strugglin’ to gather for release, aren’t we all a bit like our own country, we want peace.”
With his lyrics in the event program, Esnough was able to get the whole place singing along. It was a festive performance, in front of his largest audience ever, and the reaction was memorable, especially that of then-Gov. Anderson.
“He walked straight up to me, grabbed my hand, and with the most sincere, joyful gesture and handshake, said: ‘Man that was great.’ We talked a bit about how wonderful the event was,” Esnough recalled. “As a representative of the long-haired hippie culture back then, connecting like that with ‘the man’ — ‘the main dude of Minnesota’ — made me feel that FreedomFest was a real platform for bringing people together no matter what their station in life.”
Another song performed that day, Ode to Freedom, with lyrics written by Irene Whitney, aptly began and ended with this refrain:
“Hail a time of bright beginning, gladness dawns anew each day, we who have regained our freedom, cast the clouds of shame away.”
Irene — Wheelock Whitney’s wife who passed away 10 years later, long after overcoming her own problems with alcohol — also penned a wonderful essay in the event program about the genesis of FreedomFest. Reflecting on early discussions with her husband, she wrote:
“Freedom from addiction was available in Minnesota to a greater extent than anywhere else in the country. Perhaps we could do something in the Bicentennial year to celebrate Minnesota’s good fortune, and to offer a Birthday Gift of hope to individuals and families all over America who were still enslaved to alcohol and other drugs, and the Gift of Encouragement to those in the process of recovery to grow still further as whole persons.”
Indeed, several celebrities in attendance applauded Minnesota for its progressive approach to helping people with addiction and for the scope of its services, which at the time included 34 primary treatment centers, 44 prevention centers, 114 information and referral centers, 29 receiving centers, 17 outpatient programs, 19 rehabilitation centers, 47 halfway houses, 19 American Indian programs and 48 DWI clinics. The Legislature even passed a resolution commemorating the day and declaring: “The best interest of the State requires continued support for efforts to encourage treatment of alcohol and drug dependency by reducing the stigma attached to these diseases.” And the event program included an interesting “History of Chemical Dependency Treatment,” in which Minnesota figured prominently.
Mike Schiks was in treatment himself at the time.
“Will never forget it. Staff came back from FreedomFest and described how amazing it was, which made an impression on me and other patients that recovery was about a new life. I was discharged 7/8/76 and have been continuously in recovery since,” said Schiks, who went on to work and become a senior executive at Hazelden, and later retired as the CEO of Project Turnabout. “This marked the beginning of a number of things, both for the state of Minnesota and for me personally. Some key politicians saw the massive turnout. Legislation was written requiring that Minnesota insurance plans cover treatment. Treatment became more accepted. The stigma was challenged. Two years later, I was accepted into Hazelden’s counselor training program and proudly committed myself to work in the field and do whatever I could to keep the spirit of recovery going.”
One newspaper dubbed FreedomFest the “Most Unique Bicentennial Event.” The Tribune headline read, “Kickers of Habits Kick Up Heels.” Yet another publication, the Daily Courier n Pennsylvania, previewed the event using stigmatizing language that many would avoid today, thanks to the advocacy that began in 1976: “Ex-Drunks, Junkies to Attend Freedom Fest.”
Klobuchar, the Minneapolis Star columnist who wrote a clever preview of the event, was still drinking in 1976 but got sober two decades later, ultimately inspiring his daughter U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar to champion addiction treatment and recovery solutions on the national scene. Fellow Star columnist Don Morrison was already 18 months into recovery when he was inspired to write about it in his own preview of the event: “The healthiest way to health is to stand up and say, ‘Yes I’ve been sick.’ To hide in false shame and secrecy can inhibit many others from coming forward to seek help.”
Another person inspired by FreedomFest was Glenn Jorgenson, who had founded South Dakota’s first privately-funded, nonprofit addiction treatment center, River Park, six years earlier. By the time he received a FreedomFest flyer in the mail, Jorgenson had already been experimenting for months with his own ideas for educating the public about addiction and spreading hope. Before he knew it, he was heading to the Twin Cities with a South Dakota TV crew in tow. Jorgenson persuaded Whitney to help him arrange interviews with several of the celebrities on the day of FreedomFest. Those interviews then became the initial episodes of a TV series called It’s Great to Be Alive, a recovery advocacy program that launched on Dec. 31, 1976, airing on five stations that reached all of South Dakota and parts of North Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota. The series would continue for two decades, eventually bringing the advocacy of well-known Americans — including Johnny Cash and Brooke Shields — to people in 14 states.
Gerald T. Rogers, a filmmaker from Chicago, also had a camera crew with him at FreedomFest. Rogers was capturing footage for his 16mm documentary, One Day, which dramatized the joy of recovery by telling 10 individual stories of FreedomFest attendees and included scenes from the historic event itself.
A second and last FreedomFest was held in 1986, drawing 10,000 people to the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in St. Paul, along with more celebrities like Vikings Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller and local TV anchorman Don Shelby. White, the historian, and others argue that the recovery advocacy born in 1976 died in the 1980s, when policies and attitudes shifted back toward stigmatization and criminalization of addiction, rather than treatment and recovery.
Thankfully, people like First Lady Betty Ford kept up the sometimes lonely fight to focus attention on the promise of recovery, rather than on the sometimes salacious symptoms of addiction. Eventually, in the new century, a new recovery advocacy movement was born. Recovery leaders from around the country — including White and William C. Moyers, among many others — twice gathered in St. Paul before launching a new effort called Faces and Voices of Recovery, which remains a vital national advocacy organization. Today, it is one of many recovery advocacy groups hosting, sponsoring and participating in events that can trace their roots back to FreedomFest in 1976.
By some accounts, stigma is on the decline. Health- and community-based solutions are on the rise, too. But substance use disorders still remain under-diagnosed, under-treated, under-funded and misunderstood by many. Stigma remains deeply embedded in our institutions and collective psyche. As such, public-facing recovery events continue to serve many purposes. In a blog with Beverly Haberle, White explained it well:
“They provide a forum for recovering individuals and families to collectively honor their survival and health. They illustrate and celebrate diverse pathways and styles of long-term addiction recovery. They challenge the stigma, stereotypes, and pessimism long associated with severe alcohol and other drug problems. They provide a venue for advocating pro-recovery social policies and programs. They expand the community space in which recovery can flourish. And they send a beacon of hope into the community that no one need die from addiction, that permanent recovery is possible, and that individuals and families in recovery can live full, meaningful, and contributing lives.”
Almost 50 years later, let’s celebrate the audacity of Whitney’s ambition and the progress FreedomFest propelled, and live up to its legacy by continuing to advance it.