Ex-Ketchum leader Bob Carter had bumpy ride to sobriety

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As Bob Carter ascended through the ranks of the fundraising profession in the 1970s and '80s, lunch regularly included a couple of rounds of martinis while dinner meetings meant entertaining clients at restaurants where still more cocktails flowed.

Mr. Carter loved doing business over drinks.

A standout athlete in football, basketball and lacrosse at a Maryland prep school who went on to play lacrosse at Johns Hopkins University -- where his team won two Division I national championships -- the Baltimore native said he started drinking as a teen and "drank a lot, played hard and experimented with a lot of things," while in college.

By age 40, he was consuming, by his own estimate, more than a quart of vodka daily. Up until then, the alcohol never got in the way of his career.

After he launched the first formal fundraising and development program for the Boys' Latin School in Baltimore -- his alma mater where he taught for a couple years right out of college -- Mr. Carter was hired to work in annual giving at Johns Hopkins. There he was introduced to consultants from Ketchum Inc., the storied Pittsburgh fundraising firm that later recruited him and where he worked for 26 years, including 15 as president.

In his early 40s, though, the amount he was drinking began to catch up with him.

"That was the beginning of the blackouts. I was skipping stuff and cutting corners because I didn't feel good. I was functional but I wasn't on top of my game, and I knew it."

So he began attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and managed to quit drinking.

But sobriety didn't last, he said, "because I had pretty much quit for everybody else."

When he started drinking again in his late 40s, "It wasn't a slow buildup. I accelerated to right back to where I was."

In July 1997, he woke up sprawled on the floor of his Squirrel Hill home. He was throwing up blood. "I had a moment of clarity. It was a matter of life or death. I made the decision lying there to live."

He called a colleague, who drove him to Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Aliquippa, Beaver County. He was admitted to the detox unit and stayed for nearly a month for intense in-patient counseling. When he was discharged, his outpatient therapy included meeting with a dozen other recovering alcoholics every Saturday and spending time with new patients in a detox unit on Sundays.

He resumed his career.

"I basically did everything they told me to do. And lo and behold, it worked."

Since his stint in rehab 16 years ago, Mr. Carter, 67, said he has not had a drink. He still attends AA meetings and has a sponsor in the AA program. When he lunches with business associates, he abstains from the wine. And his company doesn't serve alcohol at its holiday parties.

Now residing on Florida's Gulf Coast where he runs his own consulting business, Mr. Carter will return to Pittsburgh on Dec. 11 for Gateway Rehabilitation's annual fundraising gala at the Westin Convention Center Pittsburgh, Downtown, where he will speak for the first time publicly about his addiction and recovery.

"Gateway was such a vital part of the rest of my life that if my story is helpful to anyone attending the gala, I will have accomplished something," he said in phone interview from Monterey, Calif., where he was traveling on business.

While Gateway provides specialized programs for professionals such as doctors, nurses, pharmacists, attorneys and pilots whose behavior is monitored by government licensing organizations, it doesn't have a treatment plan specifically targeted for executives.

"They have an epiphany on their own, and frequently the last negative consequence that drives them into treatment is that their jobs are compromised," said Frank Salotti, director of outpatient services at Gateway. "They could have family difficulties like divorce, separations or medical problems, but when they are faced with the possibility their job is really on the line, that's like the last wake-up call."

At the Greenbriar Treatment Center, which has facilities in Allegheny and Washington counties, all professionals can expect to "leave their ties at the door," said Vanessa Sebetich, assistant director of community and corporate services.

"You may be an executive, but in group therapy, we are all equal," she said. "All are treated equally whether they are millionaires or deep in poverty. If they were in a program just for executives, it could work against them. With addiction, it doesn't matter what you do."

While entertainment and sports celebrities who enter rehab programs can generate headlines, high-ranking business professionals are likely to pursue treatment out of the limelight.

Some talk about it after the fact.

Years after he entered the Mayo Clinic for rehab, the late Sam Johnson, who ran his family's wax and cleaning products business, S.C. Johnson & Son, disclosed his alcoholism in a 2000 film documentary and in published interviews. In 2003, fashion designer Calvin Klein acknowledged seeking treatment for substance abuse after he caused a disturbance at a New York Knicks basketball game.

But it's tough to track hard data on how widely alcohol and drug abuse impacts the C-suite.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a Rockville, Md.-based unit of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, out of 21.5 million illicit drug users aged 18 or older in 2012, 68 percent were employed either full time or part time. Of 57.9 million adult binge drinkers, 75 percent were employed.

The agency has no breakdown on the types of jobs the individuals held.

Another finding from the agency's latest survey was that among people aged 12 or older who believed they needed treatment but didn't obtain it, 9.5 percent said treatment might negatively impact their job.

"The No. 1 barrier for someone who is a successful professional to coming in for treatment is the deep fear of losing their job," Ms. Sebetich said.

Many aren't aware of options such as attending outpatient programs in the evening that wouldn't interfere with their work schedules; or seeking treatment at facilities in neighboring communities where they wouldn't be recognized, she said. Many individuals who hesitate to pursue treatment because of job concerns might qualify for time off from work under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

"People have a deep, deep fear and let the addiction progress for fear of losing their job. But if you let it progress, you're going to lose your job anyway."

In Mr. Carter's case, he managed to rise to the top and stay there because people around him took care of him.

"I could carry out business and do what I was supposed to do. I had access to drivers, so there was little threat of a [charge of driving under the influence]. And I was flying on airplanes a lot. The people around me were somewhat protective. The word is enabling and I took advantage of that for a long time. ... Not all alcoholics live under a bridge."

Since he ran Ketchum in Pittsburgh, it has been sold several times and is now owned by Dallas-based Pursuant. His firm, Bob Carter Companies LLC, provides fundraising expertise to organizations in North America, Europe and the Middle East, and counts among its clients the Father Martin's Ashley treatment center in Maryland.

By consulting for a rehab facility, "I stay in touch with the program and it reminds me who I am," he said.

Mr. Carter, who has two grown sons, lives in Anna Maria, Fla., with his wife, Carol, who had a long career in fundraising positions for schools including Duquesne University, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh.

Besides traveling for his business, he devotes a significant chunk of his time to serving on nonprofit boards. Currently he chairs the National Aquarium and the Association of Fundraising Professionals; is on the board of advisers at the School of Philanthropy at Indiana University; and is chair emeritus of several organizations including Gateway Rehabilitation.

"As I reviewed all the risks I took and the difficult situations I created, there must be a reason God kept me on earth. That's why I do a lot of volunteering."

He was somewhat taken aback when Gateway asked him to appear at this year's gala because past speakers have included prominent people in recovery, including baseball star Darryl Strawberry, entertainer Judy Collins, Reagan administration staffer Michael Deaver, and author and activist Christopher Kennedy Lawford.

"These are all big shots, and here I am," Mr. Carter said. "The interesting thing is, we all have the same disease."

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Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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