Dr. George Mann dedicated his life to helping alcoholics and addicts recover. Along the way he revolutionized the field of treatment, making it accessible to more people and creating a program that's been copied across the country and around the world.

"The memory and the effect of what George did in his lifetime will continue to work for recovering people everywhere," said Minnesota businessman Wheelock Whitney. "He was a courageous innovator and was willing to take on the system. ... Thank God for George Mann."

Mann, who started the first hospital-based addict treatment program in Minnesota and later became the driving force behind an innovative treatment program based in Wayzata, died Feb. 7 after a 20-year battle with cancer. He was 88.

"George Mann was a giant in the field of addiction treatment," said former Minnesota U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad. "George literally helped thousands of people get on the road to recovery. As a recovering alcoholic myself of 30 years, I will always be grateful to George Mann for founding St. Mary's, where I went through treatment and started my recovery. He was the first to welcome me at the door, give me a hug and say 'It's going to be all right, Jim. It's going to be all right.' I'll never forget that. It's something I think about every single day."

Mann's inspiration was his wife.

The two met during World War II while Mann served in the Navy and his wife, Marion, was a nurse, said longtime friend Raymond Spack. In 1967, Mann was an anesthesiologist at St. Mary's Hospital (now Fairview) in Minneapolis when his wife began her recovery from alcoholism.

"He was a physician who got totally frustrated with addiction in his own family," said John Curtiss, president of The Retreat, the Wayzata program that he and Mann founded. "That changed George's life. When she got sober, he became committed to helping more people have that experience."

In 1968, Mann broke the existing treatment mold and started St. Mary's Treatment Center - one of the first hospital-based programs in the state, Curtiss said. He remained its director until retiring in 1988.

"George was frustrated by the whole move where managed care tightened the bottleneck around access to treatment," Curtiss said. Mann's work on a national think tank studying how to make residential treatment more affordable and available inspired him to "make something happen," Curtiss said. "He said, let's revolutionize the field and try to come up with another way to help people that doesn't break the family bank."

"I wrote the business plan and George raised the money," Curtiss said. "George was not a fundraiser, but he was so committed to make this happen that he called in all his personal favors with friends and professional cohorts." The Retreat, an affordable treatment program grounded in the spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous, opened in 1998 and grew from 19 beds to a 134-bed facility with an international reputation. Mann remained the chairman of the board until he died.

"People always say they want to make a difference," Whitney said. "No one made a bigger difference in this field than George Mann."

In addition to his wife, Mann is survived by three sons, James of Alexandria, Eric of Minneapolis and John of Blaine; three daughters, Laure Campbell of Falcon Heights, Kathleen Solem of Blaine and Sandra Tunell of Eden Prairie; eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 7 p.m. Feb. 29 at The Retreat, 1221 Wayzata Blvd. in Wayzata.

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788