Today I have a Q & A with Karl McMillen, the author of Triumphs and Tragedies: A True Story of Wealth and Addiction, and the founder of the Thelma McMillen Center. Triumphs and Tragedies was co-authored with Bill Hayes and Jennifer Thomas.
Why did you decide to share your story in Triumphs and Tragedies?
The explanation is in the subtitle: “A True Story of Wealth and Addiction.” That is, the juxtaposition of my acquiring of massive wealth, yet my inability to use it to save my two sons from addiction and my wife from cancer. I now use my wealth to continue the fight against addiction and to help families struggling with the same challenges my family faced. This fight includes my writing of this book.
Your story is so personal. How difficult was it to relive some of these moments while being interviewed for the book?
Certainly, that was difficult—the reliving of the tragedies. As I mention in the Introduction, sometimes even I can’t believe I survived everything that I did. But what was perhaps even more difficult was the examination of all this in hindsight; the realization of my enabling and the wrestling with all the “what-ifs.”
Can you tell us a little about McMillen Family Foundation, which sales from Triumphs and Tragedies supports?
The mission statement of the Foundation sets the tone for what we do: The McMillen Family Foundation provides assistance to eligible groups in Southern California that are dedicated to helping men and women who have been impacted, directly or indirectly, by alcohol and/or drugs. We give priority in funding to those non-profits that share our values and have produced tangible and measurable results; and we continually seek out new avenues for making a difference in the lives of substance abuse sufferers. To date, the Foundation has donated more than ten million dollars in the assistance of chemical dependency programs.
You also created the Thelma McMillen Center in honor of your late wife?
Yes. In 2003, I helped the Torrance Memorial Medical Center expand a program they’d had since 1991; that is, helping people live clean and sober lives. And because of what happened to my sons, I wanted to include a program to help adolescents troubled by drug and alcohol abuse. So I pledged $5.3 million—my largest donation to date, and their largest gift ever at that time—to fund The Thelma McMillen Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment, which includes the Thelma McMillen Teen Outpatient Program. The McMillen Family Foundation now provides continuous support to what we
now affectionately call “Thelma’s Place.”
How did you build a multimillion-dollar business from the ground up, and what tips would you give to businesses?
While the horrors and pitfalls of addiction are a major part of Triumphs and Tragedies, the successes I’ve enjoyed in the business world are also a major aspect of the book and my life; all are so intertwined. If there is a “tip” that I could offer to would-be entrepreneurs and business people, it’s found in what some of my friends and associates call my “Golden Touch.” My success stems from the simple work ethic I learned from my father about working hard and understanding what people need in the way of goods and services. Then you add pure honesty in your dealings to that. You also need to see just how important your employees and partners are and treat them like gold. And your customers
Of course, my mind for “data” has helped a little, too! Along with a full knowledge of the field you are in, you need to understand business basics.
There is a quote in Triumphs and Tragedies that sums it up well: “This dynamic [the “Golden Touch”] is the combining of formal ‘book learning’ with ‘tool turning.’ It’s great to get that business degree, but it’s even more expansively practical if you can also hammer in the nail needed to hang it.” I had “calculations in my brain and calluses on my hands.”
Who struggles with addiction?
Anyone who has been touched by addiction: whether it’s through use by family members, friends, or themselves. And those numbers are huge. It spans all demographics. I can only hope that Triumphs and Tragedies will frighten and educate—frightening anyone who even has the slightest inkling to try drugs, and educating those whose lives and happiness suffer from its collateral damage.
Through all the hardship during your family’s battle with addiction, you found peace, and even sometimes humor, to help make it through. How’d you do that?
Triumphs and Tragedies opens with a scene that demonstrates just how one’s perceptions of things change after suffering the effects of drug addiction. One Christmas, Thelma and I were actually pleased and happy that both are sons were in the same jail at the same time—logistically, it made our holiday visit so much easier! There is juxtaposition for you; we all should have been in our warm beachfront home opening gifts, not in a cold “facility” watching deputies open heavy jailhouse doors.
But we sincerely appreciated just being able to be together.
What would you have done differently? You admit to yourself that you enabled your sons – how so, and how can parents avoid that?
That’s a difficult question. Because I still don’t have all the answers, and there’s no guarantee that anything I could have done would have changed things.
That said, I still think the answer lies in education. But I’m not talking about book learning. Know what your kids are doing. Know where they are. Stay very, very involved in their lives. Get them help quick and early if there are signs of problems. It’s not an excuse, but the drug epidemic that swept the youth of the 1960s took so many parents by surprise. We had no idea of what these drugs were or what they could do—and ultimately neither did the young people who were taking them. But things are different now in terms of sophisticated help and knowledge of what narcotics can do. What is not different, however, is that need for parents to be aware and involved in their children’s lives!
There are some stories in the book that not even your immediate family knew?
Yes. Some of the events that occurred are so shocking, involving my sons’ troubles with addiction and with the law. This includes my extensive outlay of resources, my trying to bribe a judge, and my helping my younger son flee to Mexico to avoid his lifelong incarceration.
This quote from Triumphs and Tragedies says it all: “Chris simply cannot go to jail for the rest of his life on this third strike! He jumps the 50-grand bail and heads for south-of-the-border sanctuary in Mexico.
And Karl helps.”
“When your child is headed for life in prison, you do whatever you have to do…”
The scope of the effects of addiction on my and Thelma’s lives, both emotionally and financially, is almost inconceivable.
After losing both your sons, how do you stay hopeful in your fight against addiction?
I want as many people to learn from my and my family’s mistakes as possible. That is why I wrote this book, That is why I established the McMillen Family Foundation; to support others who are also involved in this battle. My family did not suffer in vain—I believe that the lives of Mark, Chris, Thelma, and myself and what we all learned occurred for one reason: to help others.
About the McMillen Family Foundation
As of the end of 2012, the McMillen Family Foundation had given over $12 million to Southern California charities “dedicated to helping men and women who have been impacted, directly or indirectly, by alcohol and/or drugs” and who “share our values and have produced tangible and measurable results.”
To keep the goodwill going, Karl’s multimillion-dollar wholesale business, Todd Pipe, is set up to donate a full 20% of its profits to the McMillen Family Foundation ad infinitim. In addition, the Foundation will inherit all of Karl’s personal shares in Todd Pipe as well as seven key industrial properties he owns. In this way, Karl’s story, his generosity, and his mission will live on into the future.
All proceeds from Triumphs and Tragedies will be donated to the McMillen Family Foundation.
Visit McMillenFamilyFoundation.org for more information on resources for you or anyone you know battling addiction.