The House That Frank Built: The E.M. Jellinek Center Faces Funding Cuts

For over 40 years, the low-profile Jellinek Center has given second chances to Knoxville's wayward souls. Now it needs one itself.

When residents would walk into the snug and welcoming dining hall of the E.M. Jellinek Center off North Central Street, cellphones ringing and low-slung jeans hanging almost to their knees, Frank Kolinsky set them straight but quick, at least for the span of a home-cooked meal.

But times are changing, they'd often protest, railing against Frank's particular points of etiquette and his fusty fashion sense. Well, friend, it might be two-thousand-and-change out there, Frank would always say, but inside this dining room it's still 1953.

Frank would always say never to let your mouth overrun your ass.

Frank would always say never to tell a man that you understand how he feels unless you've walked a mile in his shoes. Because if you haven't, you don't know shit.

And Frank would always say that God don't make no trash—his response when anyone had anything bad to say about the assemblage of rogues and junkies and gutter drunks that comprised the residential population of E.M. Jellinek, a Knox-area halfway house for substance abusers founded in 1971 near the Holy Ghost Catholic Church. Some of 'em you wouldn't give a quarter for when they walked in off the street, he would say, and they've ended up making it through to the other side.

Because for all of his fustiness and crustiness and ball-coach demeanor, Frank Kolinsky was a man friends remember as capable of a rare compassion. As former wife and Jellinek Assistant Director Sandy Kolinsky puts it, "He had the innate quality of being able to look at someone without judging them."

The former University of Tennessee football standout overcame his own battle with booze—buttressed by the steadfastness of Sandy Kolinsky—and became director of Jellinek in 1980. From there, he guided the organization from a two-house operation in deep debt to one of the most respected recovery institutions in the area, with the capacity to house 54 residents. With help, of course—mostly from the men to whom he had once given succor, former Jellinek residents like Executive Director Johnny Lewis or Facilitation Manager Tim King or Program Director Rick Walker.

His presence is still palpable in this collection of neatly kept old houses on Hinton Avenue, and the staff still invoke his name and his words, often, sometimes slipping up and speaking of him in present tense. His death in 2011 takes on a heightened poignancy given that his legacy is now threatened by serious funding issues, the result of cutbacks at the state level.

The state's last mental-health budget saw all of Jellinek's $610,000 in funding cut. Though half of it was subsequently restored, there are no guarantees as to what—if any—state funds will be there in the future.

Jellinek is responding to the cuts by adapting, adding a 21-day in-patient program, upping the rent its residents pay, decreasing its base program from six months to three. The latter two changes are troubling to its directors. "I really don't like the 90-day idea," says Program Director Walker. "By and large, our clients are people who need extended periods of time in the program."

But Jellinek's history has always been a study in Finding a Way, even when no such Way seemed to present itself. Sandy Kolinsky hopes that will continue, even without the man who was the program's Svengali and guiding light for so many years.

"Frank always said Jellinek was bigger than any one man," she says. "It's bigger than all of us."

***

A statuesque platinum blonde in her late 50s, Sandy Kolinsky is in nearly constant motion when she's at Jellinek, which is to say, most of the time. Especially around Thanksgiving, during which she assumes the role of chief cook for EMJ's annual dinner, an all-comers affair in which the Jellinek family caters to everyone from the area homeless to former residents who've gone on to better things.

Everyone takes a hand in keeping the four-hour feed moving along, including residents who take turns washing dishes and wiping tables. "I've got it down to a science now," she says. "Bake on Monday. Turkeys and hams on Tuesday. Sweet potatoes and dressing on Wednesday. Then I get here early on Thursday to have it all ready by 1 p.m."

Sandy met Frank Kolinsky in 1978; he was an acquaintance of her mother, and a half-hearted member of a local Alcoholics Anonymous group. A charismatic rogue with a dimpled chin and chiseled smile, overhung by a sculpted awning of brown hair, he was descended from a willful tribe of Russian immigrants. His grandmother met his grandfather selling guns to the Cossacks at age 16, escaped on a boat to the Americas a few months later.

A teamster's son, he grew up in a loud, motley migrants' neighborhood, a line of rough-hewn row houses in McKees Rocks, Penn. Drinking was a way of life and a rite of passage.

He came to Knoxville on a football scholarship in 1955; a husky 6-foot 2-inch, 245-pounder, he played offensive tackle for UT.

By the time Sandy met him, he had a couple of years of pro football, a divorce, and years of hard drinking behind him. But his charms were beyond question. "He was the pied piper," Sandy says. "Women loved him. Men loved him. But especially women."

It was love at first sight, and the pair were soon inseparable. But Frank was a wild card, a dyed-in-wool alcoholic given to dark and sometimes violent benders.

"When he was drunk, goddurn, he was mean," Sandy says. "So mean, the police wouldn't come; the AA people wouldn't come out on 12-step calls. Nobody wanted anything to do with him."

But Sandy says she stayed with him, despite his crazed antics, because "I saw something that was so good in him. And I knew that could come out."

Frank proposed marriage in 1979. She told him he would have to quit drinking. They were married. He drank again three days later.

Finally, with the help of a friend in the treatment community, Tom McLaughlin, Sandy and her mother borrowed a car and drove Frank all the way to a treatment center in Charlotte, N.C., where he was admitted, with a deferred payment.

The change that came about as a result of his treatment was the stuff of movie melodrama, of transformational cliché. Frank came out a devoted student of recovery, an Alcoholics Anonymous regular with a passion for carrying the message whenever and wherever the opportunity presented itself.

After driving a cab his first few months out of treatment, he got a job at another local treatment facility. Then one day, McLaughlin—the man who had vouched for him to get into treatment in the first place—came calling. Only this time, he had a mission.

***

The E.M. Jellinek Center was founded in 1971 after city judge Jesse Butler held a meeting with locals to discuss an outreach for alcoholics.

The meeting resulted in the chartering of E.M. Jellinek, a halfway house named for a Yale professor who was an addiction research pioneer. Local Realtor Gene Monday leased an old house at 130 Hinton St. to the committee for $1 a year.

But by 1980, Jellinek was running aground; its coffers were barren, the two houses it then comprised were on the verge of condemnation, and the board wanted to borrow $26,000 to shore up its needs. "Tom called Frank and said, you need to help them," Sandy remembers.

"Tom was like me. He saw something inside of Frank. He saw he had that capacity if it could just be brought out."

And so Frank was hired as Jellinek's new director, head of what Sandy describes as "a real rag-tag outfit; a ratty-ass office with an old desk and a one-legged bookkeeper."

Frank Kolinsky's initial gang of 12 Jellinek residents, many of them Vietnam vets, were affectionately dubbed the "Dirty Dozen."

There was Butch R., a 6'5 giant with "not an ounce of fat on him, the worst tattoos I'd ever seen on anyone," Sandy says; his wont had been to cruise through streets and puncture tires with an ice pick. And Jim H., a one-eyed house painter with a bandana seemingly pasted around his forehead.

And Big John, who had the shakes so bad his first day, he couldn't eat a spoonful of peas. Until Frank walked over, mixed John's peas with his mashed potatoes, and put them on them on the fork for him—a moment Big John never forgot.

"These men were survivalists," Sandy says. "They knew which dumpsters to go get fresh produce; so that took care of that. And sometimes when we needed something around here—a stack of boards, a box of nails—it would just show up. We were always afraid to ask."

When the fire marshal threatened to close Jellinek, for want of a fire escape on the house at 126 Hinton, a handful of the men conspired with another former resident, who was staying at a nearby facility. "There was a fire escape on a portion of that building they didn't use anymore," Sandy says. "So they made a plan. They rented a torch, took it over and put it behind the building."

That night, the conspirators' "inside" man went out for a purported smoke, uncovered the hidden torch, and dismantled the unused fire escape. His buddies from Jellinek, waiting nearby in an old blue carry-all truck, loaded up the pieces and took them back to EMJ where they were set in place by another resident, a welder.

By 8 a.m., the whole apparatus was erected and painted Jellinek green. "That was the best caper of all of them," Sandy laughs. "Frank always said, you either had a job or you pulled one."

Most of Jellinek's frugality, though, was of the non-larcenous variety. Sandy says Frank was a tireless worker, and a scrupulous money manager in those early days, the birthright of his Russian stock. He nixed the $26,000 the Jellinek board wanted to borrow. He kept repairs and maintenance in-house.

And slowly, he looked for opportunities for Jellinek to grow. He got to know homeowners on the block, made deals when they sold out, did any necessary rehab with Jellinek employees.

Then in the mid-1980s, he went to Nashville, and the E.M. Jellinek Center got its first allocation from the state. And suddenly, what had once been a couple of threadbare old cottages on Hinton Street, dog-eared hovels that had housed and fed 12 drunken miscreants on donations and detritus, became a fixture in the Knox-area recovery community.

Jellinek today includes four certified halfway houses, plus additional houses for so-called transitional living—for residents who have completed their six-month stay but still feel some need for the support of a structured, low-cost, and pro-actively familial living environment.

The base program sees new residents spend their first week on-premise. There are meetings to attend; Friday night beginner's meeting for the first 90 days; Saturday and Sunday meetings for the first 30; individual counseling sessions; four weekly outside AA or NA meetings after 30 days; Tuesday night house meetings for the duration.

Meals are served in a building in back of the houses, in a cozily appointed dining area that's part ma's kitchen and part small-town café. Breakfast at 6, Lunch at noon, and dinner at 5, with a bill of fare that consists of tasty, well-prepared comfort foods, liberally apportioned, with homemade pies the favored desert.

There's a sign inside the dining hall, constructed in more recent years, that reads The House That Frank Built.

After a week of house restriction, new residents are encouraged to look for work; there is a $100 per week rent charge at Jellinek, only recently bumped up from the longtime rate of $65, necessitated by the funding cuts. But Jellinek's counselors have a long history of making sure that no one has to leave for lack of money.

That's in large part because most of the men in charge of Jellinek are Jellinek men themselves, and they've been faced with the same unhappy circumstance as the men under their care, disinherited from the good graces of friends and family alike, lacking in either resources or self-respect.

Counselor Carl Richardson observes that, "Ultimately, all our stories are the same." And it's true, inasmuch as alcoholics and addicts can point to so many points of congruity in their personal narratives.

Which is why men like the 53-year-old Richardson—a former crack addict who walked into Jellinek a few years ago a convicted felon, an ankle monitor strapped to his leg—have been the beating heart of E.M. Jellinek since Frank Kolinsky took the reins some 32 years ago. "We didn't want someone with degrees spouting bullshit from a book," Sandy says of Richardson, Jellinek's newest staff member. "We needed someone who ‘got it.'"

Executive Director Johnny Lewis came to Jellinek in 1982, a scared, skinny Cocke County kid whose IV drug habit had finally run him crossways with Newport authorities. He never left; after four months, he got a job helping out in the office. And within a couple of years, the dope-addled kid who stole from his last job had become Frank's taciturn, rock-solid right-hand man.

Facilitation Manager Tim King, a hard-drinking Pigeon Forge native, came later, in the early '00s, after graduating to painkillers and Valiums when the beer just stopped working. And after stops at eight different treatment centers. And after losing his home, his business, two trucks, and a six-figure bank account in the blind throes of addiction. And after dropping to 150 lbs., on a frame that now carries 220 like a loaded weapon.

"I was so upset and depressed with myself," King remembers. "You get in that kind of situation and you feel you don't have any hope left.

"But Frank and Johnny took me and said, you do have some hope. We know where you're at. We have people who've been where you're at too."

Jellinek employs a 12-step treatment model, the same as a good percentage of halfway houses and treatment centers across the country. Because while addiction science has made some inroads outside the program—new pharmaceutical aids for sobriety, for instance—the 12 steps are still recognized by most recovery professionals as the only comprehensive solution to the problem of chemical dependency.

Program Director Rick Walker, who first came to Jellinek having "lost it all" more than once as a dual alcoholic/cocaine addict in his mid-40s, says, "The addicted brain is hard-wired for chemical use. And along with that comes a certain set of negative behaviors. What they've found is that changing the behavior can bypass that hardwiring.

"It's called cognitive behavioral therapy," says Walker, who with his snowy Vandyke, black specs, and long white hair looks like nothing so much as an unreconstructed hippie professor. "The 12-step model is really a recipe for change, a step-by-step recipe for change; and if you follow it, you will change."

And change is something Jellinek residents desperately need, even more than members of the rest of Knoxville's small community of halfway houses. Jellinek has built its reputation as being a refuge for the lost and the damned, as the metaphorical last house on the block.

"Most of 'em come from jail, probably three out of every four," Lewis says. "Sometimes they have to go back to jail 'til we have a bed for them."

Because Jellinek caters to the hard cases, there is a waiting list to get in. "We'll take care of people with no money," Lewis says. "Unfortunately for people in jail, they've got felonies, no one's going to hire them, their families are through with them.

"You spent 15 years messing up your life. You ain't gonna straighten it out in two or three weeks."

***

Sandy still remembers her first Christmas at Jellinek, a holiday spent with the Dirty Dozen. She and Frank bought each man a copy of the recovery devotional book Just For Today, inside of which Frank, an inveterate scribbler, wrote each a personal message. The men received their books wrapped, and paired with a package of their favorite tobacco.

"These were tough, hard, grown men," she remembers. "And four of them cried, because they had never gotten a Christmas present before."

And there were "field trips"—excursions to UT football games, picnics. "I know people stared when we went on picnics," she laughs. "They thought, Oh Lord, the prison bus has wrecked! But we were their family. They got their dignity back, their self-respect. Frank always said that what you had done before just didn't matter. All that mattered was what you did from now on."

Richardson describes feeling the same sense of compassion, of welcome, upon his introduction to the House on Hinton, more than 20 years later. "Everyone remembers their first day here," he says. "I got off the paddy wagon, and they walked me into the office. The first thing Johnny says is we've got something for you to eat back there.

"I still remember my first meal: greens, Polish sausage, potatoes au gratin, and cornbread. I thought I had arrived in heaven. I felt cared for. I felt safe."

According to David Berry, Richardson and his fellow Jellinek facilitators are paying it forward, just the way Frank would have wanted it. A North Knoxville native, Berry was "the high-school alcoholic" who got hooked on pain pills after a succession of knee surgeries in his 20s.

Like many chemical dependents, Berry describes never feeling wholly at ease with himself, a pain exacerbated by the loss of his mother ("my best friend") after high school. Divorced, unable to care for his two children, and saddled with multiple drug charges, Berry came to Jellinek after four months in jail and an inside treatment program.

Even in jail, he says, Jellinek had a good rep; that was where everyone pointed him, counselors and cellmates alike.

Still: "I had a perception it would be terrible. I don't know why, but I imagined it would be like, guys with bare feet piled on top of each other."

But the morning Berry came to Jellinek, that changed. "Compared to the perception I had had, I felt like I was at the Marriott. Like I'm somewhere.

"There was a feeling of home here, a feeling I probably haven't felt since I was a teenager, before my mom died."

That was five months ago. Berry progressed, and was eventually tapped by Lewis to be house manager of the unit he occupies. "Johnny saw something in me, and that meant a lot," Berry says. "I have an overwhelming sense of gratitude for this place. Living here has been nothing that I expected it to be."

Now in his 40s, James Mize spent more than half his life behind bars in a series of prison stints. He'd never held a legitimate job in adulthood. So when Knox County Criminal Court Judge Mary Beth Leibowitz gave Mize perhaps his first real break in more than two decades of drug use, street life, and socio-economic hardship, he was ready to make a change. "And they told me back in jail, you need to go to E.M. Jellinek," Mize remembers.

So after another 18 months inside and three weeks at the CenterPointe treatment program, Mize showed up at 130 Hinton on Jan. 26, 2011, with a bag full of court papers and two pairs of jeans.

In the nearly two years since, Mize has become a steadfast employee at his first real job—at a local manufacturer of railroad parts—paying rent for the first time in his life, and digging deeply into Alcoholics Anonymous, attending as many meetings as his schedule will allow.

Mize has many good things to say about Jellinek—that the place has given him structure, self-respect, and a way out of prison. But his best testimony is the simple acknowledgment that, "This place saved my life."

That Mize is still here, living in transitional housing long after his initial six-month program expired, bears witness both to his own dedication and to the dearth of options for so many Jellinek residents. That scarcity of choices will become more pressing as the house faces cutbacks, an uncertain future in the wake of this past year's budget issue.

On one hand, Jellinek administrators learned they may have been too dependent on state funds as their primary budget source in recent years. And that perhaps their program allows the residents to stay too long—by particular definition—in transitional housing, for too little money.

On the other hand, running a full-time halfway house with a paid staff of six doesn't leave a lot of room for promotional efforts.

"Frank always said that it's double-dipping, crying with a loaf of bread under your arm," Sandy says. "He said that if we were out there begging from every church, standing out with a monkey and a tin can and an organ grinder, then we wouldn't be a non-profit. If we got what we needed, then let that go to someone else."

And there's maybe no better illustration of why the Jellinek plan is an open-ended one than the example of Chris Bayless, a 23-year-old East Knoxvillian, who, by his own admission, "always had a problem with authority, with someone trying to tell me what to do."

The child of a single mother, Bayless graduated from hanging out and skipping school to selling dope to pay for his own marijuana use. After run-ins with police, jail time, and probation, "I'm like, f--k some rules; I started hanging out in the projects."

But after his last arrest, a lawyer pushed him toward treatment, and a halfway house program. Reluctantly at first, Bayless acquiesced.

After completing a Christian-based treatment program, Bayless came to Jellinek in July.

Says Sandy, "He's gotten a job. He's always respectful. He's done everything he can do. But now they want us to make an exit plan for him, and where's he going to go?

"We've asked him where he would go right now, and his answer is, ‘Where I don't need to be.' He said, ‘I can't do it.'

"What are we supposed to do? Say thank you for your diploma, then stick him back on the street to wait for the next drug dealer? We'd be setting him up to fail."

***

In 2006, Frank Kolinsky suffered a serious bout of intestinal bleeding. He was a strong man, and resilient. But this time, something was different, and Frank, now in his early 70s, was slow to recover.

He was still active, intermittently shuttling back and forth between lobbying efforts in Nashville and his hands-on work at Jellinek. But he was less buoyant, as if his perpetually robust health was now in decline.

"He was one of those guys who'd tough it out, it'll be all right tomorrow," Lewis remembers. "You never did know how bad he felt."

Then he was laid low by a hernia, further complicated by an infection. He finally recovered, says Sandy, but shortly thereafter, "I noticed his stomach was swelling. I didn't like the look of that. But he wasn't going back to the hospital."

A day later, Frank made an early exit from a family function, complaining of chest pains. He promised to see a doctor the next morning. He passed out that night.

Sandy came to see him as he was wheeled into the OR. Though the couple divorced in 1995, they remained close—friends, Jellinek co-workers, parents and grandparents to Frank's brood from a first marriage. "The doctor said ‘This is the sickest man I've ever seen in my life,'" she remembers. "He said I'm giving him a heart catheter, but I don't expect him to live through it.

"Frank looked at me and said, ‘I love you, Whitey.' That was his nickname for me. I looked down and said, ‘I love you, too.'"

He survived the catheter. But as orderlies wheeled him into the ICU, his family heard Frank Kolinsky cry out one more time. By the time they arrived at his bedside, moments later, he was gone.

Frank's loss came hard at Jellinek, and it's still felt, some 19 months later. The ever-stoic Johnny Lewis couldn't come to the office without losing composure in the days following his death. Some Jellinek folk look up on a chill morning and, just for a minute, imagine they see his car, parked like always on the side of Hinton Street. Son Mike Kolinsky, director of operations at Jellinek, confesses that, "I hear his voice every day."

So says Walker, who always knew Frank as "Coach": "Because he was my coach," Walker says. "His voice is still in my head on a daily basis. And whenever I come to a crossroads, I ask, what would Frank do?"

That's a question everyone at Jellinek may have to ask themselves in the coming years. But even in the face of new challenges, Sandy Kolinsky remains hopeful. "Frank was Jellinek," she says. "But he also taught the rest of us how to be tough, and how to go on. And how to work for the greater good."