Rudderless to taking the helm: John Earls’ journey with Prospect House

When he entered Prospect House in 1995, John Earls felt rudderless. 

He’s come a long way since then. So far, in fact, that he recently took the helm of the East Price Hill-based residential drug and alcohol treatment center, serving as its interim executive director from October 2022 to January 2023. He attributes much of his progress to the help he got there.

“The Prospect House is part of who I am,” Earls said. “I wouldn’t have the life I have today if it weren’t for the Prospect House and AA and sobriety.” 

Joanne and John Earls
John Earls with his wife, Joanne

Going ‘bankrupt’ 

Earls has spent most of his life in Cincinnati, save for a few years in Virginia. There, he earned his bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Virginia and worked a short stint as a sportswriter in Charlottesville. After returning to the Queen City, he spent a decade as a commercial lending officer before embarking on a 15-year hotel industry career, during which he served as national sales manager or director of sales and marketing for several properties.

“In the hotel business, there was a lot of entertaining,” he said. “It got to the point where I really enjoyed the drinking. … I had a period of time where really, kind of my main job was drinking.”

By 1995, Earls realized he had a problem. He’d gotten divorced a few years earlier, and he was working jobs that didn’t mesh with his resume (which by then also included an MBA from Xavier University).

“I can remember going to my mother and saying, ‘Somebody in my head is making decisions for me and I don’t understand why these decisions are being made,’ ” he said. “I was just morally bankrupt. I was rudderless.”

His sister-in-law connected him with David Logan, then executive director of Prospect House. 

“I had this long meeting with (Logan) and we spoke the same language,” he said. “It was kind of this realization that maybe I really am an alcoholic, and maybe this really is where I belong.” 

Four months later a spot opened up, and Earls entered Prospect House. During the first 90 days, he did nothing but work on his recovery. 

“If I would have known that, I never would have come in here,” he said. “I felt that I was so important that the world would stop spinning if I was here for 90 days. Of course, what happened is that I stopped spinning.” 

He stayed for 2½ years. After his first 90 days, he started working with newcomers to the program.

“I loved being able to share my experience, strength and hope with other people and to watch people get sober,” he said. 

From resident to director

Prospect House remained part of Earls’ story long after he was no longer a resident. In 1999, he was invited to join Prospect House’s board. Two years later, he became the nonprofit’s first development director; a year after that, its CFO. He held the latter role until his retirement in 2019.

That retirement was short-lived, however. He’d rejoined Prospect House’s board in February 2022. In October, the executive director who’d replaced Logan left for another opportunity. The board tapped Earls to fill the interim role. 

He asked his wife, Joanne, what she thought. (They married in 2001; she has never seen him drink alcohol.) “She said, ‘You can’t say no to The Prospect House,’ ” he recalled. 

So he didn’t. 

“He came out of retirement to do this,” said Butch England, associate director and clinical supervisor at Prospect House. “That says a lot about the guy.”

The two first met in April 1997, when England came to Prospect House as a resident. Earls was more than a year and a half into his recovery.

“He was a role model,” England said. “He was one of the guys that I looked up to, that other people looked up to. … He was warm and open and kind of set a standard for guys who were looking to really change their life.”

Like Earls, England’s time at the Prospect House led him to change careers. The former journeyman machinist discovered he had a knack for counseling. He worked in outpatient counseling for seven years before he got the opportunity to come back to Prospect House, which was “like home,” as a counselor in 2005. Earls, then the CFO, became a colleague. 

Earls was “always on top of things,” building on the financial stability he inherited to make the nonprofit even stronger, England said. 

England, who learned a lot about finance from Earls over the years, also has admired Earls’ insightfulness, empathy, generosity and pragmatism.

“He handles things with a real respect and consideration,” England said. “He’s passionate about making sure that we are running well.

“John’s been a calming influence here,” he added. “He’s a stable, consistent, positive energy.”

Beyond his work at Prospect House, Earls devotes his energy to giving back through the John C. Griswold Family Foundation, which his grandfather, a successful businessman, founded upon his death in 1987. Earls and Griswold’s seven other grandchildren each allocate an eighth of that year’s distribution (typically $60,000 to $80,000 per person). The caveat is they have to be involved with the organizations they give to in some way. 

“We call it engaged giving,” he said. “My grandfather, he’d say, ‘You can give money to organizations, but the time you spend is much more important to them.’ ”

Earls certainly took that to heart. During his tenure as Prospect House’s CFO, he started getting invitations to join boards. Early on, he got involved with Literacy Center West and Santa Maria Community Services. Currently, he serves on boards for the Cincinnati Opera, May Festival, Cincinnati Vocal Arts Ensemble (where he’s currently board president), Chorus America (where he’s currently treasurer) and Linton Chamber Music Series. An avid golfer, he just came off the board for Maketewah Country Club, where he served two years as president. 

Joanne and John Earls in the audience at a concert at Memorial Hall.
Joanne and John Earls (on left) in the audience at a VAE concert at Memorial Hall.

“Somehow I tend to go into leadership,” he said. “I’m somebody who doesn’t want to be on a board just to put it on a resume. I tend to speak up.”

“He brings a lot to the table as a board member and as a board leader,” said Craig Hella Johnson, music director for the Vocal Arts Ensemble (VAE) and a fellow board member of Chorus America. “I think at the very top of that list of his gifts and skills is he’s a real relationship builder. … He’s really brought a lot of people together.” 

Johnson came to VAE as a guest conductor in 2013. Earls helped convince him to stay on as music director. 

“Usually the stereotype of a finance person is they aren’t necessarily the visionaries,” Johnson said. “John comes with all of the awareness of the financial realities, but with that background he still carries a large vision.” 

Johnson described Earls’ commitment to service as inspirational. Earls loves that he’s in a position to help. Much like the quality time he shares with his two grown daughters and four grandchildren who live locally (his son and a fifth grandchild live in Austin, Texas), being able to give back is part of a life he never could have envisioned before he went to Prospect House.

“I’ve been so lucky in my life and things have been given to me because of being sober, and I never want to take that for granted,” he said. “It’s really heartening to be in a position to be able to give back.”