Sable House: 25 years of changing lives

The Sable House, a home for recovering alcoholics and substance abusers founded by Dan (below) and his wife, Jean who died in 2008, located at 131 N. Fremont St. in Whitewater, will celebrate its 25-year anniversary on Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m.  (Heather Ruenz photos)
The Sable House, a home for recovering alcoholics and substance abusers founded by Dan Sable (below) and his wife, Jean who died in 2008, located at 131 N. Fremont St. in Whitewater, will celebrate its 25-year anniversary on Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. (Heather Ruenz photos)

web 18 Sable DanBy Heather Ruenz

The story of the Sable House has been told many times over the years, and the one-person play written and acted out by Jean Sable about her last night of drinking is well known in the area.

The side of the story not heard so often is that of Jean’s husband, Dan, and the efforts he has put forth to support the vision Jean had for the Sable House and in continuing the mission since she died six years ago.

“It started when our son was 12 and began acting odd. We found out he got his first hit from marijuana during recess at school,” Dan said.

That discovery – and the pain that came with it – eventually led Jean to drink more, initially, Dan said, and it quickly got out of hand.

“I started finding bottles hidden around the house and her decline went very fast as within 18 months she was an alcoholic. That was in 1975,” he said.

After an incident Dan still has a hard time talking about in which Jean had a reaction to a medication she was on combined with drinking, Jean spent a few weeks in rehab.

“It’s hard watching someone you love go through that but she was strong and fought her way through and I had so much respect for her for doing so,” Dan said.

Jean began attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings and Dan attended Al-Anon meetings. The first amazing thing to come out of the challenge the Sable’s faced, Dan said, was that it brought them closer together.

“That kind of thing tears a lot of people apart but not us. It really brought us closer together and we were close to begin with,” he said.

In the mid-1980s, Dan said Jean began getting up early in the morning and he noticed on several occasions that she was writing. He said he didn’t want to pry, trusting that if and when she wanted to share it with him she would.

“Eventually she told me she wrote a play about our family and her last night of drinking,” he said.

Jean began performing the play – initially called “Please Remember Me,” and later “One Mother’s Story” at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater where she worked as a secretary and Dan as a biology professor.

“It was a very emotional play and brought back a lot of memories. But she did it with so much passion and it really touched people,” he said.

Soon after the initial performances, people from throughout the area were contacting her, asking her to perform it elsewhere.

“One example of the power in it is this, and it’s hard for me to talk about. She performed the play in Fort Atkinson and afterwards three girls and their mom came up to Jean,” Dan said, pausing as he gathered his emotions.

“They told Jean they had seen the play in Whitewater and wanted their mom to see it because she had a drinking problem. That was an emotional moment but we heard later that the mom turned her life around and Jean’s play had a role in that,” Dan said.

In addition to the play, Jean had another idea as a way to help others: open a home for women recovering from alcoholism in Whitewater. But after researching programs in the area, the Sables decided to make the program co-ed.

That decision led them to the Sable House, which they bought in 1989, in shambles, according to Dan.

“It was owned by a professor who was retiring and wanted to sell the properties he owned. I think this place had been occupied by 300 football players. Of course, I say that jokingly but the place was a mess. I asked myself numerous times what we were doing here but Jean had a vision,” Dan said.

The home, which was originally built by Frederick Starin in 1856 and boasts “28 rooms depending on how you count them,” according to Dan, underwent a major overhaul.

Jean worked on the house day and night, Dan said, and he helped at night. After several months of hard work – and them teaming up with an organization for referrals, the Sable House became a reality.

Initially, they offered a 90-day program including a counselor, two assistant counselors and a cook, allowing up to eight people in recovery at one time.

Within a year, the Sables broke away from the organization they had been working with and teamed up with United Way of Jefferson and northern Walworth counties.

In addition to funding from the United Way, Dan said there are several private donors including several UW-Whitewater organizations.

Those wishing to live at the Sable House need to have been sober for at least 30 days, apply and be interviewed, and have someone sign for them in the event that they relapse in which case they are removed from the home immediately.

There is no time restriction on how long someone can live at the home. Dan said they’ve had people there as little as a few days – generally because they’re relapsed and had to leave – and as long as 22 months. The cost to live at the Sable House is $70 a week though Dan said they have been known to help people along, permitted they’re making an effort at getting a job and paying.

Dan said his assistant, Don, a recovering alcoholic and former resident of the Sable House, helps him keep the program going.

“The Sable House is a protective environment. People who come here can be sure they won’t walk in and see someone drinking a beer in front of the TV or see bottles of wine when they open the fridge,” Don said.

“AA, which we all know stands for Alcoholics Anonymous, is also well known in the recovery community as attitude adjustment and to support that, the person needs to live in a stable environment,” Don said.

The most important thing, according to Don, is that the people they welcome “have had enough and are sick and tired of being sick and tired because that’s when they’ll change. We’ve had people say, ‘the court says I have to stay sober.’ That’s not going to cut it here.”

Dan gives much of the credit to Jean for the work that has been done – and all of the people helped – at the Sable House the past 25 years.

“It was her idea. She set it up and saw it through. She was an amazing person,” Dan said.

But Dan’s compassion for helping others, and his giving heart, are not easy to miss.

“I care about these people and I want them to succeed. Sometimes all it takes is a safe place and the right support system,” he said.

The Sable House, 131 N. Fremont St. in Whitewater, will hold an Open House from 1 to 4 p.m., Saturday including refreshments and a look at the inside of the home.

For more information call Dan Sable or Don at (262) 473-3811.

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