The Rev. Clarence Lassetter, Tri-State mental health pioneer and Droege House founder, dies at 88

FORT WRIGHT, Ky. -- Northern Kentucky treatment centers are exploding with demand in the shadows of a nationwide heroin epidemic. But community members are remembering the life of one man who came up with a treatment solution when local alcohol and drug addicts had none.

The Rev. Clarence Lassetter, who died Thursday of health complications at 88-years-old, was one of the earliest advocates for mental health services in the Tri-State.  

“If you can imagine this in today’s world, the day before people had mental health centers, they really didn’t have a place to go,” said Israel Lichpenstein, Lassetter’s former colleague and a close friend.

The Fort Wright resident joined the Mental Health Association of Northern Kentucky in 1957, just three years after it was formed. He chaired the association in the early 1960’s and helped lead the effort to create the region’s first community health center, Comprehensive Care, which today is called NorthKey Community Care.

“He wanted to help the people who have such mental health problems that they are not able to function to the point of earning a decent wage,” said Lichpenstein.

Lassetter’s earliest work was a giant departure from what had been the treatment norm for decades—an era where people suffering from mental illness were usually sent to state institutions where they might remain for the rest of their lives.

“In those days, there were no community based programs. If you didn’t have insurance and you couldn’t afford hospital prices, there was no program for you,” said Mac McArthur, director of Transitions, a Northern Kentucky based treatment program for addicts.

So in 1969, Lassetter decided to address the problem he had been concerned about for years. He joined forces with Covington sisters Virginia and Margaret Droege.

“The Droege family had a history of alcoholism and Clarence worked as a therapist for the mental health center. They knew they wanted to start something,” said McArthur.

The group met for months in the Droege sisters’ family living room. They gained supporters and raised some money, but it wasn’t enough to start a residential treatment program.

“Finally, Virginia, Margaret and Clarence were meeting one day and they said ‘Let’s just do it right here. We’ll put some bunk beds up in the attic’, and they donated their house to the cause,” said McArthur. 

They called it the Droege house—located at 1408 Greenup Street in Covington and named after the sisters who moved out to help others get well. It became the Greater Cincinnati’s first non-medical residential treatment program for those with the disease of addiction.

“It was the only place that people on either side of the river with no money could come for alcoholism treatment,” said McArthur.

The group cleared out the furniture in the living room of the Covington home and replaced it with folding chairs to hold Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. They hauled mattresses upstairs so addicts could detox.

Lassetter and the others would collect pocket change on street corners each weekend to raise money for their program. Lassetter’s son, 53-year-old Steve Lassetter of Middletown recalled a weekend when his father asked him to help.

“I was 8 years old and we held coffee cans outside of the Fort Mitchell Kroger asking people for donates to help start that house. My brother was there too. He built us a little stand,” Lassetter said. 

Clarence Lassetter and the Droege sisters ran the treatment program out of that house for a few years until a fire marshal realized the group had people living upstairs without a fire escape, McArthur said.

The Droege house then relocated to Dayton, Kentucky and is now owned by Transitions, Inc., where the group receives government funding—instead of the pocket change that once paid the bills.

“I can’t imagine it.  That would be his legacy. The fact that he set an example of ‘yes you can’ without a mandate, without a large professional staff,” said McArthur. “Tens of thousands of people have ended up sober, and their families and children have benefited as well just because he helped to start this program when he did. “

Lassetter also helped begin Head Start, an early childhood education program in Kenton County. Following his 12-year stint at Comprehensive Care, Lassetter became the coordinator at Northern Kentucky Transit.

He was the former pastor of Fort Mitchell Baptist Church, the president of the Northern Kentucky Interfaith Commission and a World War II Navy veteran.

“He was not just a veteran or a therapist or a founder of mental health.” Lichpenstein said. “He could be giving a sermon in church on Sunday, doing therapy with a patient on Monday and helping out at the Droege house on Wednesday. In so many places he appeared and he affected so many different groups of people.

Friends and family described him as a soft-spoken, calm and reassuring man who loved to garden and work with young children at church.

“I knew him for 38 years and he never uttered one

envious word. He never uttered any critical word of anybody. It was unbelievable. I could trust him with anything,” said Lichpenstein.

Public visitation with Lassetter’s family is scheduled for May 17 from 1 to 4 p.m. at Fort Mitchell Baptist Church. A memorial service is slated to begin at 4 p.m.  

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