Roger Zellars, Cincinnati leader in addiction recovery, dies at 80
He was a warrior and a healer.
Roger Zellars, who dedicated decades of his life to helping men achieve and stay sober, died March 7, leaving a legacy in his work as associate director, clinical director, counselor, admissions director and leader versatile at the Prospect House. Zellars was 80 and still working at the East Price Hill Rehabilitation Center for men with alcoholism and other addictions. He died from cancer.
“He could tell a joke, tell a story. He taught by parable,” said David Logan, retired executive director of Prospect House. If two center men didn’t get along, Zellars would make them spend half an hour a day together, each telling the other his own story.
“At the end of the week, they found they were similar in how they dealt with the world,” Logan said.
Zellars was a two-time Vietnam War veteran, enlisting in the army shortly after graduating from the former De Porres High School in 1961. His tours began in 1966. He was wounded two times and he was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. His military background was evident in his work at Prospect House, Logan said. Zellars wanted every file, every report to be done correctly.
Zellars came to Prospect House in 1985 while recovering from alcoholism on his own. He had more than 38 years of recovery when he died, and his understanding of the disease helped him help others along the way, said Logan, who is also recovering from alcoholism.
As a black man, Zellars believed that drug and alcohol addicted black men needed a safe space in which to share and interpret their experiences, Logan said.
“He knew black men deserved a place to be culturally specific, to speak freely,” Logan said, and so Zellars formed the Black Support Group at Prospect House.
The group was enthusiastically received and now reaches about 50 people per week. Logan attributes his success to Zellars.
From the group, an annual event evolved: the annual Black Support Picnic, which just before the novel coronavirus pandemic attracted up to 2,000 customers, graduates and their families from Prospect House. The picnic will be back, Logan promised.
Similarly, Zellars co-founded with the late senior Prospect House adviser Sonny Richardson a group called AfterNam, which became AfterWars, helping veterans with PTSD. “They realized that desert warfare isn’t that different from jungle warfare,” Logan said.
Nan Franks, retired CEO of the Addiction Services Council, another nonprofit, praised Zellars’ work for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
But he did not limit his reach to particular types of drug addicts, say those who knew him.
“Roger was a great advocate and spokesperson for people with addictions,” Franks said. He was part of the task force that first attempted to address the region’s opioid epidemic, releasing Reversing the Tide: Hamilton County’s Response to the Opioid Epidemic in March 2015.
Zellars was a Certified Independent Chemical Dependency Counselor and a National Certified Substance Abuse Counselor. And he didn’t keep his successes to himself, Logan said.
Zellars has made educational presentations for professionals in his field and for the public, on alcoholism, drug addiction and PTSD.
He has served on the board of the Ohio Chemical Dependency Counselors, was a founding member of Ohio Citizens Advocacy, served on the committee that created the licensing structure for Ohio addiction counselors, and was founding board member of the Alliance Project in Washington, DC. , which later became Faces and Voices of Recovery. He started a local chapter here.
“Roger often said that getting well was the best thing that ever happened to him,” Logan said.
Much of what Prospect House has become is due to Zellars, Logan said. “It’s a small agency, but it punches above its weight.”
Kind of like Zellars, a short man.
“Sometimes people would say, ‘Who is that little dark-skinned black man,'” Logan said. “I would have to think about that. I never thought of him as small. He was outspoken. He was energetic. He had a great intuition of people.”
Zellars survivors include his sons Solomon, Michael, Terrance and Roger Jr.
About 400 people, including many recovering Prospect House clients, family, friends and colleagues attended Zellars’ funeral last week at Overflow Ministries Covenant Church in East Price Hill. In his name, donations may be made to Prospect House, 682 Hawthorne Ave., Cincinnati, OH, 45204, or to a charity of your choice.