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Tennant's Tenacious, Flamboyant Style : Medical Expertise Puts Him at Front of Anti-Drug War

September 28, 1986|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

Forest Tennant seems to have heard the question before, and almost instinctively his lips begin to narrow, his eyelids flutter with exasperation and his brow furls like an off-center Venetian blind.

The 45-year-old physician and West Covina councilman would rather talk about his ongoing battle against drug abuse, a fight that has taken him inside professional sports, inside hundreds of private corporations that seek his counsel and into the lives of thousands of addicts throughout Southern California served by his two dozen clinics each year.

But because Tennant has ruffled so many feathers since he came to the San Gabriel Valley nearly 15 years ago, he also knows he eventually will be asked about his penchant for antagonizing everyone from local political colleagues to the National Football League players' union.

"I've not only ruffled some feathers, I've run them over like a steamroller," Tennant responded without apology. "If I don't have some adversaries out there, I'm not accomplishing anything."

A farm boy from Dodge City who worked his way through the University of Kansas Medical School by selling crystal and fine china door-to-door, Tennant is riding at the forefront of the current wave of anti-drug sentiment.

Drug Abuse Adviser

He serves as drug abuse adviser for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the National Football League, as an instructor in drug abuse recognition for the state Department of Justice and the California Highway Patrol, and as a drug consultant for private firms such as Southern Pacific Railroad and Texaco Inc. He has been called as an expert witness in the trials of physicians accused of improperly prescribing drugs to Elvis Presley and Howard Hughes.

Yet, along the way, Tennant has consistently irritated others with his tenacious and flamboyant style, from his apparent reversal on the witness stand during a highly publicized trial involving drug overdoses in Orange County, to clashes with Los Angeles County health officials over the maintenance of his methadone program, to a public feud with Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum over the future of waste-to-energy plants in the San Gabriel Valley.

Most recently, Tennant outraged the National Football League Players' Assn. by making a remark quoted in a Boston newspaper about drug problems among players on the New England Patriots that was interpreted by the players' union as a violation of confidentiality.

Union officials will not comment on Tennant's role because a proposed drug testing program is currently under arbitration, but NFL officials say that Tennant, who has already made four videos dealing with drug problems for the league, will continue to serve as drug adviser regardless of the arbitrator's conclusions.

"He's certainly at times unpredictable," West Covina City Councilwoman Nancy Manners said. "Sometimes he comes off like a bull in a china shop. But then, that's his style and it's part of his charm, too."

Critic's Viewpoint

Others are less affectionate.

"What motivates an individual like Forest Tennant to suddenly set himself up as the guardian of all things? I don't know," said Pete Watson, who has served as a spokesman for the developers of a proposed waste-to-energy incinerator in Irwindale that Tennant vigorously opposes. "He wanted to be the czar. . . . He would have liked to get the whole valley up shouting (his) name."

Similarly, some fellow physicians say they are concerned that Tennant's flashy approach and snappy one-liners are sometimes viewed by the public as representative of the entire medical profession.

"He always has a short answer," said Leon Marder, a physician, associate professor at USC's medical school and director of drug treatment at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in Downey. "It's quick, it's catchy, but it may not be telling the full picture."

Most colleagues agree, however, that Tennant should be applauded for the quality of medical care he provides, regardless of the headlines that sometimes accompany his public statements.

"Whatever his personality is, his work is what's really important because he is saving lives," said Michael Stone, an Orange County physician specializing in chemical dependency. "Forest Tennant . . . makes people well."

Network of Clinics

Indeed, at the center of everything Tennant does is Community Health Projects Inc., a nonprofit network of two dozen clinics in 15 California cities, including Pomona, Pasadena, Baldwin Park, El Monte, La Puente, Glendora and West Covina.

Founded in 1974, Tennant's clinics gross $5 million a year and provide low-cost health care to about 2,000 patients a week, about one-third of them for drug problems.

Under a contract with the state Department of Corrections, Community Health Projects administers methadone treatment and drug-abuse services to about 850 parolees from state prisons each year. As drug consultant for the Dodgers, Tennant used his clinics to provide detoxification treatment for former Dodger pitcher Steve Howe.

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