Advocate’s reflection guides others

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Sunday, January 20, 2008
— In nearly 28 years as a recovering alcoholic, Marv Wopat has made lists of the people hurt by his drinking and drug use.

For those unfamiliar with Alcoholics Anonymous, doing so is the eighth in a 12-step set of recovery principles.

While Wopat tries to avoid situations that add more names to the lists, he hasn’t forgotten them.

“I just wanted to say I’m sorry for the way I was and how I behaved,” Wopat tells a former supervisor who interrupted a recent interview to say hello.

“You don’t have to do that,” the former boss says during the chance encounter at a Janesville coffee shop.

“Yes, I do,” Wopat replies, following through on the ninth AA step: Make direct amends to such people wherever possible.

Wopat hadn’t seen the man in more than 30 years, but the two-minute conversation was a continuation of Wopat’s recovery, a lifestyle that has helped him become the man he is today.

While Wopat draws a weekly paycheck from General Motors, he’s not in the business of building trucks. As a representative in the UAW-GM Employee Assistance Program at the local plant, Wopat’s clearly in the people business.

“We assess, evaluate and refer,” he said. “People may have problems with their boss, problems with their family, money, the kids, or, for some reason, they’re missing too much work. It’s 24/7, taking the calls.

“It’s not a job. It’s a lifestyle.”

While it’s not a prerequisite for the position, Wopat’s lifestyle as a recovering alcoholic is the perfect mixer for the job he refers to as a lifestyle.

“Marv was a terrible drunk but a wonderful con artist,” said Nancy Nienhaus, who for nearly 30 years was known as “Nurse Nancy” on the plant’s second shift.

“I could tell stories to people who were struggling with alcohol and drugs, but Marv had walked the walk and his stories meant something. He’ll go any place, any time to help anybody. He’s helped so many people.”

Wopat sobered up in 1980 and a couple of years later moved into the position in the plant’s EAP office. Before moving off the production line, he volunteered to help teens with drug and alcohol problems.

“Those kids helped me more than I ever helped them,” he said. “When I was making suggestions to them, I had to be looking in the mirror at my own attitudes and behaviors. It really helped me reaffirm the changes that I was making in my life.”

In addition to his own sobriety, Wopat answered a calling as an advocate for those struggling with dependency issues. He knew the road they had traveled, and he was ready to help get them back on track.

Wopat’s reach is immense. In addition to the thousands of co-workers and family members he has helped privately over the years, he’s embraced public service.

Each year, Wopat is a driving force in the plant’s holiday food drive, which buys and distributes groceries to hundreds of families in need. He serves on the county’s criminal justice coordinating council, has done classes for first-time offenders, provides alcohol and other drug abuse training and lectures on the topic whenever asked.

He sits on the AODA committee for the Janesville School District and the boards of directors for the Rock County Education and Criminal Addictions Program and Partners in Prevention, which seeks healthy environments for kids and families through the reduction of alcohol and drug use.

“He’s truly interested in the community and making society better,” Nienhaus said.

None of that was on Wopat’s radar 30 years ago.

“Marv Wopat was all about Marv Wopat,” he said. “It was I, I, I; me, me, me.”

Wopat regrets the time he lost with his kids, time he spent abusing alcohol and drugs. But these days, he’s getting some of that time back in the time he spends with his grandchildren.

“And I’ve got a job at GM that even pays me to do it,” he said. “I’ve been blessed. I really enjoy seeing people change and get well.

“It’s like anything else. It has its bad days, and there are days when I forget what I should be grateful for. But if I keep working at being grateful, it’s hard to be hateful.”

Age: 60
Community: Milton
Occupation: UAW-GM Employee Assistance Program representative
Family: Wife, Lynn. Children Jeff, Janice, Matt and Mike. Step-children Kelly, Jeff and Kurt. Fifteen grandchildren
Favorite hobby or pastime: Football
Favorite CD: Kenny G, polka
Favorite movie: “The Fugitive”
Favorite book: AA’s Big Book
Role model: My father
Three words that best describe you: Caring, family-oriented, committed

Last updated: 1:36 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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