Author: By Jerry Taylor, Globe Staff
Date: 10/05/1997
Page: 1 Section: Northwest Weekly
   WOBURN -- After two decades addicted to alcohol and virtually every other drug he could get his hands on, Phil Malonson has opened sober houses where more than 100 other recovering addicts are seeking a new life. ``I started the first house five years ago at 27 Lake Ave. for selfish reasons, to keep me from drinking and drugging,'' Malonson said this week in his newest and largest sober house, the former Glendale Nursing Home in Woburn's Four Corners, where 43 men live. ``It just grew so quick. We can't keep what we have unless we give it away.''

He recalls beginning by sniffing glue in 1964 in woods 100 yards from the Lake Avenue house. He was 10. Over the next five years he acquired a taste for beer, whiskey, marijuana, LSD, mescaline, amphetamines, barbiturates, methedrine, codeine, heroin, methadone, morphine, cocaine and crack. He dropped out of Woburn High School at 16. ``I remember my first drunk,'' Malonson said. ``I was in the sixth grade. Me and some friends got some Schlitz and Pabst Blue Ribbon and a peanut butter jar full of Seagram's 7. I was 12 when I first got arrested for being drunk. The police chief in Winchester, who knew my father, called him and asked him to come get me.''

Malonson says he has been sober since Jan. 13, 1988, after being detoxified perhaps 50 times, after being arrested more than 100 times, mainly held in protective custody while intoxicated, and bouncing around the country for 15 years, serving in the Army in Texas, becoming Fast Phil the bartender in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., landing in an addiction treatment center in Norman, Okla., among other places. Returning to Woburn 10 years ago, he earned a GED, enrolled in Northern Essex Community College and became a substance abuse counselor at Choate Health Systems' Caulfield Center, a 21-bed psychiatric hospital and detox unit in Woburn.

The reputation Malonson has built since changing direction is stunning. He credits his parents, three young sisters and supportive friends. Prominent among his admirers are Woburn District Court's chief probation officer, Charles Winchester, who now has a dozen offenders in the sober homes, and Woburn's police chief, Philip Mahoney, who once arrested him. ``Ninety percent of our cases are alcohol- or substance-abuse-related,'' Winchester said.

``Thank God for Phil Malonson. The guy's amazing.'' Mahoney said: ``We've had great success with Phil Malonson. He's turned his whole life around. He runs the sober homes excellently. Our only concern is that Woburn is not the magnet. They could use one of his houses in Winchester or Lexington, too.''

Malonson, 43, a lifelong gun enthusiast, received a license to carry firearms Sept. 15 after a hearing in the Woburn court before Judge Marie Jackson-Thompson at which Mahoney vouched for his character. Malonson is also a professional clown on the side, rides a Fat Boy, the biggest Harley-Davidson motorcycle made, and wears a ponytail.

Jack Conlon, the owner of 27 Lake, a two-story house with dark green shamrock awnings, joins the chorus of praise for Malonson and his organization, Twelve Step Education Program of New England. ``Some people asked how I could put a bunch of drunks in my father's house, but the neighbors have learned to like it,'' said Conlon, still landlord to eight recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. ``I couldn't have done better with any tenants. There hasn't been a drop of alcohol on that property. The men are friendly. They take care of the yard. The property is being used like it was in the old days.''

In August, Malonson said, 400 recovering users attended the annual cookout at 27 Lake St. he hosts for Cocaine Anonymous. The co-owners of Choate Health Systems, Dr. Stuart Koman and Dr. David Fassler, each lent their employee Malonson $1,200, which enabled him to lease the house from Conlon in November 1992.

``We felt it was an important service that existed in very few places in the country, certainly not in Massachusetts,'' Koman said. ``If you don't have a stable place to live after detox, you're likely to repeat. We felt it would be a safe environment, but we didn't think it would be as successful as it is. That's a credit to Phil.''

The house manager at 27 Lake is Ed, 47, a part-time UPS driver and childhood friend of Malonson. Six of the other seven residents have outside jobs. ``One kid relapsed,'' Ed told a visitor over the kitchen table. ``Got into an accident while drunk. Then he got into a second accident while drunk and got arrested. After he did a couple of months in jail, Phil gave him another chance, his fourth or fifth. Phil's attitude is, if they'd thrown in the towel on him when he was struggling, he might be dead. Phil can be tough, but it's a fine line he walks.''

The former nursing home -- a white building with black shutters at 171 Old Cambridge Road overlooking a Kentucky Fried Chicken on Cambridge Street (Route 3) -- is one of six sober houses in Woburn, two of them for women. Two other women's houses, on North Street in Medford and Church Avenue in Woburn, became men's houses last month after nearly all the female residents either relapsed or left abruptly on their own, according to Malonson and his wife, Doreen.

Jeannette, 47, one of five residents of the women's house on Richardson Street, lamented the loss of the two other homes. ``When these things happen, it scares us to death,'' she said in the cozy living room, pink curtains on its windows. ``We're so grateful to have this. We know how desperately women need places. We're learning to live all over again.''

Twelve Step opened a sober house in 1994 in a former crack house in Leominster. It now has 27 men. This week Twelve Step plans to open a thrift store at 135 Main St. here, selling used furniture, appliances and clothing. It is designed to offer residents of the sober houses a chance to repair and pick up donated items. All the sober houses have a steady turnover, although Malonson said he did not know what percentage comply with their contracts (no drinking and no drug use are the most important requirements) before leaving. Residents, half of whom are mentally ill by Malonson's estimate, pay $80 a week for room and board at the smaller houses, $90 a week at the former nursing home.

Attendance at three Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week is mandatory. Don Cochran, 45, manager of the Four Corners house, celebrated his second anniversary of sobriety Sept. 7. The house mascot is a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig named Gizmo. Cochran's pet, rarely leaving his shoulder, is Mona, a green Amazon parrot. ``Phil's compassion is so great it's almost a fault,'' said Cochran, who this week is seeing his daughter for the first time in 16 years. ``He doesn't want to stop helping. We give urine and saliva tests if we think someone's using. Our rule is, three strikes and you're out. Sometimes Phil will give people a fourth or fifth chance. He doesn't see the evil in people, only the good. Phil will make sure people have money for bus fare or cigarettes when they leave, even if he's kicked them out.''

Richard Sargent of Arlington, an insurance consultant and president of the Twelve Step board, marvels at Malonson's combination of street smarts, compassion and energy. ``He gets burned by a lot of people, but he can tolerate that,'' Sargent said. ``But he has no tolerance for dishonesty.''
Malonson said he will open a 20-bed sober house in Salem by the end of October and is negotiating to lease three 40-bed houses, in Medford, Stoneham and Billerica. ``This gives me the energy to keep going,'' he said. ``I get spiritual help around here.''
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