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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 06 21 24 - 48 Years After Freedom Fest 76

48 years ago, two seeds were planted in my life, one was the seed of addiction, at age 11. That age of first use is not that odd, I was hanging out with older kids, and I just went with the flow. Not an uncommon story. The notion of not doing so did not even occur to me for a whole host of reasons. It was an era of permissiveness and drug culture was very present all around me. The year was 1976. As I look back there were seeds also being planted in this same era that would assist me very much a decade later when I sought recovery. This post is about one of those seeds, Freedom Fest 76.


It was a star packed event; Dick Van Dyke was master of ceremonies. 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 in 1959 of a drug overdose, also contributed a FreedomFest cartoon to the event program (artwork above). Thanks to Jermiah Gardner, there is a phenomenal video clip of the event, FreedomFest 1976: A Celebration of Freedom from Alcohol and Drug Addiction. It was organized by Wheelock Whitney, a Minnesota businessman and civic leader who died in 2016 at age 89 and took place on the land in Bloomington MN which the Mall of the America now occupies. There is no marker in the mall recognizing this historic national event, but perhaps there should be.


Freedom Fest 76 was on Saturday June 26, 1976. 48 years ago 8 days before the US Bicentennial Celebration, which I recall well for the tall ships regatta in New York Harbor in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty and of course, all the fireworks. One of the best written articles on Freedom Fest The Legacy of FreedomFest ’76 Lives On was penned by Jeremiah Gardner in 2022. He noted that 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.


Freedom Fest 76 is believed to be the largest such recovery gathering in American history. Larger than the Unite to Face Addiction rally that I was able to attend decades later in Washington DC. In that same era, Dick Van Dyke spoke openly about his Alcoholism on the Dick Cavett Show. One of the things that it accomplished was a slight shift in views on addiction by showcasing the fact that recovery is common, restorative of life and vibrancy, hope and so much more.


These seeds were things that began to rattle around in my own brain when I began to come to terms with having an addiction problem in the mid-1980s. One way to think of them is that they were seeds of what is called recovery capital, put in a bank that grows and then available for the future. When I was in despair a decade later, I was able to recall people openly talking about recovery because of such efforts and that provided me with a glimmer of hope.


Recovering people are second class citizens even today. Even in the addictions field who are in recovery still refuse to be open about their own recovery. There are professional costs for doing so even now as we are seen as inferior and people to avoid because of widely held misguided views across our entire society. It is also true we will never change that horrible stigma if we hide in closets. Those thousands of people in that stadium in June of 1976 knew it too, and they decided to be open about recovery. I think that helped save my own life. I refuse to closet my recovery.


That Freedom Fest took place in that year and in Minnesota, a state that has long embraced recovery efforts, has a certain ring to it. For readers who may not know, much of the programming we think of when we think of a person seeking help for recovery originated out of Minnesota. One of the first books I bought in my first year in the field in the mid-1980s was a book called I'll Quit Tomorrow: A Practical Guide to Alcoholism Treatment by Vernon Johnson which was first published in 1973. Freedom for our country and freedom from addiction in the pioneer state of recovery.


One of the reasons that Freedom Fest is on my mind is my recent trip to Minnesota as part of a fellowship to look at their historical archives, which are quite impressive. Also, we are on the cusp of an important triple Anniversary, the United States Semi Quincentennial and the 50th anniversary of Freedom Fest, and Operation Understanding, which of course will all take place in 2026. Freedom Fest 76 occurred because it had a major benefactor. Such philanthropy is still hard to find because of pervasive stigma. I would point out that such an investment has a long-lasting impact. As I have noted here, some of the seeds sown in that era were ones that I was able to harvest when my own recovery took hold a decade later.


I hope that there is a Freedom Fest 2026 and can only imagine what that could be like and hope others are thinking about this too. I am grateful for all those who made these things happen, they helped set the stage for millions of us who came after them. They helped save my life.

What are you grateful for today?  

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