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O'Reilly: Msgr. William B. O'Brien, a man on a mission

Msgr. William B. O'Brien.

Msgr. William B. O'Brien. Credit: Edwin L. Bennett Funeral Homes / Archdiocese

I went to dinner on Thursday with some very good old friends. Some I had not seen in more than 30 years.

There were 10 of us in all. Ten clear-eyed adults with dozens of children among us and all sorts of careers. One -- my first love -- is a Hudson Valley schoolteacher. One owns a sword shop in Connecticut. Debbie is a scientist. Dan is embarking on a second career as a Bruce Willis impersonator -- he looks more like Bruce Willis than Bruce Willis. Dina came all the way from Nottingham, UK, to be there. Arnie drove from Vermont.

We huddled in the back of a restaurant passing faded photographs of when we were young. Anyone eavesdropping couldn't have helped but notice the unusual cadence of our conversation: "God, look at that haircut!" "Oh, remember him? That was so sad . . ."

The pages of the five photo albums Arnie brought were filled with pictures of lost young people circa 1980 who went on to lead productive lives -- and some who did not. I counted at least seven on those pages who died at a young age from drug overdoses, suicide or what later became known as AIDS.

The Saturday before, I had watched as a casket rolled out of a Scarsdale church with Cardinal Timothy Dolan behind it. I wanted to reach out and touch it as it passed, but I was afraid I would look stupid doing it. I wish I had now.

The casket belonged to Msgr. William B. O'Brien, the man responsible for saving the lives of every one of us at that dinner on Thursday.

Msgr. O'Brien had been a Bronx parish priest in the 1950s and '60s, when he got tired of presiding over funerals. Heroin was then raging through the streets of New York, and Msgr. O'Brien refused to accept the prevailing notion of the day that "addicts will always be addicts." There was nothing one could do.

Msgr. O'Brien and two others borrowed radical notions from an experimental California drug treatment program called Synanon that had wandered into utopian dreamland territory at the time. (One idea was that Synanon members were to remain at Synanon for life.) But this trio realized that Synanon's tough-love approach to addicts was working, and in 1963 they opened in Staten Island the first DAYTOP Village in the world. (DAYTOP: Drug Addiction Yields to Persuasion.)

In the years that followed, Msgr. O'Brien would open 28 DAYTOP Village facilities in five states, and DAYTOP-inspired programs in 66 countries. More than 200,000 young Americans have gone through DAYTOP's treatment in 51 years, with an 80 percent success rate for those who graduate.

Most people who walked through the doors when I was there did not graduate. I don't know if this statistic is accurate, but it used to be said that only 1 in 10 entering DAYTOP finished the program, and that feels about right. It was a tough place. DAYTOP back then was run by hard-core ex-junkies who had almost all served prison time. Many were Vietnam vets who had gotten strung out overseas before returning home with habits. Today, DAYTOP employs psychologists and social workers. That would have been laughable then.

The idea was to break down addicts, and those on the path to addiction like I was at age 16, by virtually any means necessary, and then to build them back up again. The average length of treatment then was 32 months. There were shaved heads; yelling, screaming, scrubbing and signs around necks that read things like: "Confront me on why I'm a liar" or "Confront me on why I'm poison to my friends." "Extended group" sessions would go on for more than 24 hours at a time. Exhaustion would eventually exhaust your defenses. Before I got there, there were marathon groups that would run several days. In today's litigious and PC world, the whole place would be rounded up and carted off to court. But back then . . . it just worked.

To the young people in the program, Msgr. O'Brien was a gigantic figure. He would visit each facility once or twice a year, and the freneticness with which we would prepare for his visits would stand in stark contrast to the calmness he brought all those around him when he arrived. The monsignor spoke almost in a whisper. When he laid his hand on your head, you remembered it.

More than 30 years later, 10 of us talked and laughed about days we hardly ever think about any more. We are too busy raising children and grandchildren. We are too busy living lives we might not have had without him.

Msgr. William B. O'Brien, RIP.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant who is working on the Rob Astorino campaign for governor.

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