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Published: Sunday, 7/3/2005

Worker counselor draws on his own difficult past

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

That Toledo Jeep Assembly Plant workers have drug and alcohol abuse problems hasn't surprised 30-year plant employee Lee Herbert.

He was a substance abuser, too, before entering a month-long treatment program 21 years ago.

But Mr. Herbert's ability to easily slip into survivor mode and deal with others' needs after calamities - even in the hours following Myles Meyers' deadly January shooting rampage at a Toledo Jeep factory - has at times made the United Auto Workers Local 12 member wonder whether something was wrong with him psychologically.

Violence is as common as alcohol and drug abuse in Mr. Herbert's life. Within a seven-week period in 1978, one brother was killed by a drunken driver and another was gunned down in their mother's house by a dope dealer.

So his instinct to immediately address an issue such as the shooting at Toledo Jeep that left two dead and two wounded comes not from a psychological problem but experiencing grief and other emotions in the aftermath of personal disasters.

"It's pictured in my head forever," the 55-year-old said of tragedy, "but it's with the blood of my siblings."

For the past seven years, Mr. Herbert has coordinated the employee assistance program at the DaimlerChrysler AG plant that makes Jeep Libertys and Wranglers.

But the Holland, Ohio, resident's interest in helping co-workers goes back much further.

Soon after getting clean from his substance addictions in 1984, Mr. Herbert and co-workers pored over Alcoholics Anonymous literature while sitting on milk crates during lunch.

Substance abuse, he realized, was a problem among some of the thousands of workers at the plant. He helped foster a drug awareness program and became a certified chemical dependency counselor.

"I was part of that, and that's why I know it so well," Mr. Herbert said. "That's why it's so hard to [fool] me."

These days, mental health problems, including some that may be chemically induced, are a problem at the plant, Mr. Herbert said.

So are workers who are addicted to overprescribed medications, become "emergency room junkies" by going from hospital to hospital to get drugs, have multiple doctors to get multiple prescriptions, have trouble coping with death, and are experiencing problems at home, he said.

Some tragedies at Toledo Jeep have become well known, such as when Meyers sneaked in with a shotgun, killed a supervisor, wounded two other employees, and killed himself. Last month, co-worker Archie Cox shot his estranged wife and her friend while they were working at Barney's Convenience Mart in north Toledo.

Other troubling deaths have had their impact but are not as well known outside the plant. Some workers were shook up a couple of weeks ago when their supervisor, Pete Miller, died of a heart attack at home, Mr. Herbert said. Those workers needed assistance, he added.

"There's so many things going on right now," he said.

The recipient last week of the UAW's prestigious Doug Fraser Award for outstanding service to the community, he got his start at the plant in 1968. He was hired at 18 by the former Kaiser Jeep Corp. as a "quota baby" to meet government-contract requirements for minorities, he said.

He was laid off less than two years later, worked at another Local 12 shop, was idled again, and worked as a manual laborer. He returned to Toledo Jeep in 1975 without seniority but with welding skills.

Mr. Herbert's substance abuse continued for years despite the fates of two of his four brothers.

Thomas Herbert was flung 68 feet when he was hit by a drunken driver, and Mr. Herbert had to identify his remains at the hospital without any idea of what had happened.

Jerome Herbert's girlfriend called with the news that he had been shot in the foot, but in reality he had suffered a fatal gunshot wound inflicted by a drug dealer, and Mr. Herbert had to help clean up before their mother returned home.

In 1984, though, Mr. Herbert entered a treatment program and learned how to deal with grief, pain, and other issues, lessons that were tested the next year when his brother and fellow Toledo Jeep worker Harry Herbert died of cancer after months of suffering. From there, his current career path was forged.

Deborah Boden, of Lake Township, knew Mr. Herbert before she started working at Toledo Jeep nearly 28 years ago, because he often partied with her first husband.

They drifted apart over the years, but when Ms. Boden ran into him at a factory concessions stand in the late 1980s, she told him how angry she was about her husband's drinking. She requested counseling.

Mr. Herbert helped her get counseling, checked on her regularly, and didn't tell her husband she was gathering strength to file for divorce, Ms. Boden said. Listening and maintaining confidentiality are among his strengths, she said.

"He has a good reputation in the plant," she said. "If you tell Lee Herbert something, you don't have to worry that you're going to hear it the next day from the next person on the line."

A father of five and grandfather of 10, Mr. Herbert started volunteering with the employee assistance program in 1987 and became certified as a counselor three years later, when he started working with it full time.

"He's just a top-notch guy," said Bruce Baumhower, Local 12's president. "He's got credibility with everybody: With our membership, certainly with the union leadership, and with management."

Chrysler officials declined to comment, saying company policy prohibits comments about specific employees.

Mr. Herbert readily admits he doesn't know everything, but he tries to remedy his shortcomings.

When a coughing worker who had tested positive for HIV came to talk with him soon after he took over the employee assistance program in 1998, Mr. Herbert was hesitant. So he took training to understand the virus that causes AIDS and how it is spread, he said.

"Every problem that our employees have, we won't back away from it," Mr. Herbert said.

Mr. Herbert arranges counseling and provides training to hourly and salaried employees on subjects such as conflict resolution and dealing with hepatitis C. And some of what Mr. Herbert does goes beyond talking and listening.

He works with Harbor House women's homeless shelter in Toledo and can help female workers who lose their jobs get housing there. He keeps in touch with other social services agencies and gets applications for job openings around town, too, for workers' extended family members down on their luck.

Mr. Herbert will give gas money to reinstated workers strapped for cash or 10 bus tokens plus the use of a bicycle he keeps in his office.

Workers who get turned down for loans at Jeep Federal Credit Union, for which Mr. Herbert is a board member, are given financial counseling so they can improve their credit.

He also arranges chaplains for employee funerals and gives Bibles to their families.

"My job is not a job," he said. "It's a passion."

Toledo Jeep workers understand that, under Mr. Herbert, the employee assistance program handles a variety of needs, Ms. Boden said.

"People realize now it's just not alcohol," she said. "There's no stigma now to have an EAP come out."

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at: jmckinnon@theblade.com or 419-724-6087.



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