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Celebrating Catherine Caron: Memories from Her Family

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Catherine Caron’s birth, her brother-in-law, children, and grandchildren share some of their thoughts and memories:

Who was Catherine Caron?

John (Brother-in-law): Catherine was quite a woman. Dick influenced tens of thousands of people and she was an essential part of his success.

Linda (Daughter): My mother was a nurse having attended nursing school in Chicago, which proved helpful in her role at Caron. She was always a strong woman and it’s amazing that she accomplished all she did considering the generation she grew up in. When I wanted to go to college, Dad thought it was a waste of time and said, "She's pretty and she is just going to get married." Mother was a feminist before her time; she insisted I go to college and become a teacher.

As children, my siblings and I never knew how many people would come for dinner or spend the night. It was normal to get a tap on the shoulder to go downstairs to sleep on the couch because Dad had brought someone home. The visitors suffering from alcoholism always got the bed, because they were sick. Sometimes on a busy night we might even have to give up the sofa and snuggle on the floor with blankets! My mother and father never turned anyone away and they never gave up hope.

Michael (Son): My mother was very open and caring. She believed that everyone is “just people.” Some people have a problem, or an issue, or a disease, but they’re no different from anybody else. I think this work was so important to my mom because she’d been through it with my father; she knew how tough it could be. She saw that no matter who you are, you can recover. She also saw how it affected the family; she saw what wives, husbands, and children went through and she wanted to help everyone.

Richard (Son): A loving, supportive, compassionate, and "make it happen" woman of God. A wife and mother.

Sandra (Daughter): My mother cared about people and always gave a lot of herself. She was unselfish in so many ways.

Christina (Granddaughter): My mother, my brother, and I lived with Grammy when she was ill and battling breast cancer. She was kind of the matriarch of my little family. My grandmother was also the heart of the home, the center. She wanted to make sure we had what we needed and she made birthdays and Christmas special for me. She also taught us that for those to whom much is given, much is expected. While she was a kind and loving person, she was also very strict and tough. If you stepped out of line, there would be repercussions. She was old school and I think we need more of that today.

Jaime (Grandson): My grandmother was like a father to me. Chit Chat Farms was really a family-run operation with my grandmother in charge. She ran the facility with care, compassion and love, and wanted to make sure everyone was going to get the help they needed. I remember years later talking about patients who didn’t have the money to pay who were working in the kitchen or in landscaping so they could get treatment. She said, “We’ll make it work; we’ll get them in there and make something happen.”

What is your favorite memory of her?

John (Brother-in-law): I heard that Catherine went to Dick’s sponsor and said, “If he doesn’t stop drinking, I’m going to leave him.” My brother’s sponsor replied, “Have you ever told him that?” “No,” she said. After this conversation, Catherine did tell him and that was the start of Dick’s real transformation.

Linda (Daughter): People in Reading, PA began to understand that Dick and Catherine were willing to help alcoholics and really, anyone who needed help. We would have neighbors calling and bringing Uncle Joe over to talk with Dad, or the police would just drop off a drunk they found walking around. One day, a bartender called our home and told my mother that a woman was at his bar in downtown Reading (in a very bad area) and she was really intoxicated and had two little children with her. Mother got into the station wagon and immediately drove downtown, picked up those kids, and brought them home. She told the woman she could have them back after she got sober. Those kids stayed with us for several weeks while their mother went through the farm (attended the Caron program) and got sober. Then my mother took my sister and me over to the projects to clean up the woman’s home before she returned there with her children. She was an amazing mother to the hundreds of people who came through our doors.

Michael (Son): My favorite memory of my mother was how she interacted with everyone. She would be walking around, or planting flowers, and no matter what she was doing, she’d stop the patients and talk. She’d ask them how they were doing, or how their family was, or whether they had talked to their family lately. It didn’t matter whether the person was going to therapy or to their job. Back then, everyone had a job to do for an hour or so, whether it was kitchen detail or mowing the lawn. My parents taught everyone that they should improve the facility for the next person who came.

Yet another fond memory is of the celebrations on Thanksgiving and Christmas. She wanted it to be just like home for patients, so she had the chef, Reggie, cook a special dinner for each holiday. For Christmas, she’d also buy presents for everybody and hand them out on Christmas Eve. She wanted patients to have as normal an experience as possible even though they were away from their families.

Richard (Son): My favorite memory of my mother was how she always wanted to make Chit Chat Farms like a home for the patients. She was always making sure it was clean, pretty, colorful, and cheerful. My mother would plant flowers on campus, even when she was president. She saw the suffering so many people were going through and wanted to help them recover.

Sandra (Daughter): One of my favorite memories of her goes back a number of years. To save money, my mother and I went to the kitchen in the basement of the original Highland Hotel at Chit Chat Farms late at night and washed and waxed the floor. She was always doing little things to keep as much money as possible for the patients.

Christina (Granddaughter): One memory concerns our dog Muffy, a Bichon Frise who bit me one day. It was a bad bite and I was upset and wanted my mother, who wasn’t home. Grammy took such wonderful care of me that it has stayed with me all these years. The way she was there for me and comforted me really took the place of my mother being there.

I was a chubby kid and another memory involves my weight. As an example of how she combined a loving approach with toughness, she’d occasionally have me run around the house before lunch or dinner. I was probably wearing my Superwoman costume and my grandmother probably said, “O.K., Superwoman, go run around the house.” She wanted to make sure I got exercise.

Jaime (Grandson): One of my favorite memories was visiting her office when I was about six. As I was walking through the typing pool on the way there, the women offered me powdered doughnuts. When she saw the powdered sugar all over my mouth, my grandmother asked me if I had had any doughnuts. I said no, to which she responded, “Don’t lie to your grandmother.” So I said, “Maybe one. Well, maybe more than one. Maybe a couple.” She just told me to go wash my face and not have any more. She had to tell the ladies to please stop letting me have doughnuts or I’d weigh 400 pounds.

What do you want people to know about her?

John (Brother-in-law): Anyone who knows the Caron story knows that my brother’s wife Catherine was a crucial part of his sobriety and Caron’s success. Catherine not only supported Dick in his recovery, she was 100% behind him in his mission. He came up with the ideas for helping others, but she saw the potential in his mission and helped him see his thoughts through to fruition. It couldn’t have been easy to open her home to strangers suffering from a challenging disease when she had four children, but she was patient and calm. She believed in Dick’s effort and worked alongside him.

Linda (Daughter): I’d like people to know that when it came to Caron, my mother and father did everything together. She was never the “little woman” helping out her man; they were so in sync that he could not have done what he did without her. When he passed away, she became chairman of the board, president, and CEO of Chit Chat Farms and founded the Chit Chat Auxiliary to educate the local community about Caron’s mission and to raise funds for many needed projects at Caron.

Caron Hospital, the first detox hospital of its kind in the U. S., opened about a week after my father died. It was under my mother’s leadership that the hospital thrived. Chit Chat Farms continued to grow and develop more programs, such as the family program which was near to her heart because she always felt that addiction was a family disease. She would tell my father that the whole family was hurting and needed help. Dad brought the 12 Steps to Reading and Mom founded the first Al-anon meetings in Reading and Berks County.

Michael (Son): I’d like people to know how caring she was and her conviction that people can recover. She believed that no matter how bad it gets, you can make it through.

Richard (Son): I’d like people to know about her strong Catholic faith. Pope Francis has designated this year as the Year of Mercy, which is a reminder that there’s always forgiveness --anyone can find forgiveness in God. It’s kind of kismet that this is the 100th anniversary of my mother’s birth, since she was so merciful to people who were hurting. So many people suffering from the disease of addiction feel alone and abandoned; they know they’ve hurt people and they’re hurt themselves. One of her most important efforts was to see that everyone got a chance to attend services on Saturday, Sunday, or whatever day they worship and to whatever God or Higher Power.

Sandra (Daughter): Whether waxing the floors at night or planting flowers, she was always doing little things to keep as much money as possible for the patients. Many people may not have realized how much she was actually doing. She really cared about others.

Christina (Granddaughter): I’d like people to know how much she encouraged my brother and me to give back. We always went to church and took on as many volunteer activities as we could. Her attitude has followed me. My grandmother had a big impact on my life.

Jaime (Grandson): I believe when Chit Chat Farms began, she really was the backbone of the operation for my grandfather. People didn’t always know that, or they didn’t understand. It took full dedication to turn over her life to helping people. If she wasn’t going to buy into it, it wasn’t going to work. My grandmother’s contribution was overlooked for a long time, and I want her to get the recognition she deserves. She put her life on hold so that her husband could get sober and she took up the cause with passion.

When my grandfather passed away, it could have been easy for her to say, “I’m done.” and step off into the sunset, but she picked up that mantle and kept going. She pushed the treatment program forward and got more people involved.