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Former First Lady
Betty Ford

"A splendid man of deep concern, one of whom my family and I will ever be grateful."

  With affection, Betty Ford

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Former First Brother
Billy Carter

"Because of your concern and compassion for others, the help you gave Billy and myself was instrumental in allowing us to 'live again' not merely to exist. I'll always cherish your friendship, as did Billy."

Love, Sybil

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Buzz Aldrin

"To Joe Pursch, a true friend in need. Thanks for your helping hand."

USN - ARS -1976

Buzz Aldrin

Dr. Joseph A. Pursch, an internationally known leader in the treatment of alcohol and substance abuse who assisted the family members of two U.S. Presidents to recovery and inspired thousands of other Americans to attain sobriety, passed away at his home in Laguna Beach, California on June 20, 2021, at age 92. He was surrounded by family members, beloved friends, and devoted caregivers.

 

Obituary by Joseph Pursch Jr.

In what would become described by many as a truly American success story, Dr. Pursch was born in Chicago, Illinois on April 1, 1929, to Henry and Barbara Pursch, who at that time were immigrants from Yugoslavia. The family returned to Yugoslavia when Joseph was three years of age and built a prosperous life in their former homeland. The ravages of World War II separated the family, and young Joseph, after being briefly interned in a detainment camp, traversed Europe as a refugee until arriving in Germany in 1945. After the war, with his U.S. birth certificate that he had kept tightly folded and hidden in the heel of his shoe throughout his time as a refugee, Joseph returned to America to rebuild his life. Eventually, he was reunited with his parents, who proudly became full citizens of the United States.

Hard working illegal immigrants - Chicago, Illinois, 1929
Hard working illegal immigrants - Chicago, Illinois, 1929

Henry found work as a butcher and handyman, Barbara as a seamstress and nanny

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Joe, born in Chicago, Illinois 1929
Joe, born in Chicago, Illinois 1929

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Yugoslavia 1930-40s
Yugoslavia 1930-40s

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Hard working illegal immigrants - Chicago, Illinois, 1929
Hard working illegal immigrants - Chicago, Illinois, 1929

Henry found work as a butcher and handyman, Barbara as a seamstress and nanny

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Flight Surgeon on the USS Forrestal 1960-1963
Flight Surgeon on the USS Forrestal 1960-1963

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Flight Surgeon on the USS Forrestal 1960-1963
Flight Surgeon on the USS Forrestal 1960-1963

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Secretary of the Navy Paul Henry Nitze
Secretary of the Navy Paul Henry Nitze

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Flight Surgeon on the USS Forrestal 1960-1963
Flight Surgeon on the USS Forrestal 1960-1963

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Joseph pursued his vision of becoming a physician, attending Wayne State University in Detroit and graduating from the Indiana University School of Medicine in 1959. In 1960, he enlisted in the United States Navy as a flight surgeon, eventually serving on board the USS Forrestal and as the personal physician to Secretary of the Navy Paul Nitze. His experiences aboard ship and in naval hospitals enabled him to see the growing problem that alcohol and substance abuse posed in our society, leading him to become trained as a psychiatrist and to develop a lifelong interest in helping those struggling with addiction.

In his 20 year Naval career, he led and developed many of the Navy's best practices in dealing with service members struggling with addiction, and finished his active duty career as the commanding officer of the United States Naval Alcohol Rehabilitation Service at the Naval Regional Medical Center, Long Beach, California. During this time, Dr. Pursch was asked by the family of President Gerald R. Ford to assist in the treatment and recovery of former first lady Betty Ford from substance abuse. Dr. Pursch's successful intervention and helping of Mrs. Ford to recovery, along with Mrs. Ford’s openness about her addiction, created a national media conversation which helped launch the modern treatment and recovery movement that now benefits countless people across the United States and around the world. Dr. Pursch would also assist the family of President Jimmy Carter in the recovery of first brother Billy Carter from addiction. For his meritorious service to his country, Dr. Pursch received the Distinguished Service Medal from the President of the United States in 1980.

Long Beach Navy Hospital upon his retirement -1980
Long Beach Navy Hospital upon his retirement -1980

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Alcohol Rehab Service, Long Beach, CA 1975
Alcohol Rehab Service, Long Beach, CA 1975

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Retirement Day Joe and wife Irene
Retirement Day Joe and wife Irene

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Long Beach Navy Hospital upon his retirement -1980
Long Beach Navy Hospital upon his retirement -1980

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People Magazine
People Magazine

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President Gerald Ford and Betty Ford
President Gerald Ford and Betty Ford

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Maury Wills
Maury Wills

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People Magazine
People Magazine

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In subsequent years, Dr. Pursch would go on to treat many influential individuals throughout American society for addiction, as well as many other people from all walks of life, offering them his often frank but always caring wisdom on their way to becoming what he often called “Weller than well.” He wrote a weekly column that was seen in newspapers across the country and was the author of Dear Doc, a compendium of his wisdom on substance abuse and recovery. Dr. Pursch also became well known around the world as a keynote speaker and as the memorable star of a series of widely circulated inspirational and instructional videos for people struggling with substance abuse and those who love them. Today there are thousands of individuals living in the United States and in other parts of the world who, in whole or in part, attribute their recovery from addiction and the restoration of their everyday lives to Dr. Pursch.

Dr. Joe was fond of quoting his favorite 1930's American author Thomas Wolfe, who wrote "We are the sum of all the moments of our lives." Joe Pursch had a life of many great moments, and he made the most of them.

Joseph Arthur Pursch was married to the former Beulah Irene Hagedorn (deceased) from 1952-1981. He is survived by four children: Joseph A. Pursch Jr. (Tina) of Spokane Valley WA, Brian A. Pursch of Villa Park CA, John M. Pursch (Teri) of Tucson AZ, and Andrea L. (Pursch) Savee (Mike) of Lakewood CA, along with six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Brian, Andrea, wife Irene, Joe Jr, and John
Brian, Andrea, wife Irene, Joe Jr, and John

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Joe and Irene in Pensacola, Florida, 1965
Joe and Irene in Pensacola, Florida, 1965

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Brian, Andrea, wife Irene, Joe Jr, and John
Brian, Andrea, wife Irene, Joe Jr, and John

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