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B. (Toledo, Ohio)
article originally appeared in the © Grapevine,
Volume 56, Issue 4 (September 1999)
"Ebby had been
enabled to bring me the gift of grace because he could
reach me at depth through the language of the heart. He
had pushed ajar that great gate through which all in AA
have since passed to find their freedom under God."
-- Bill W., Grapevine
attending the annual Bill W. dinner in New York in October
1963, I noticed a man with a sad expression seated at the
table that Bill and Lois shared with close friends. Since
the general atmosphere in the large banquet room was festive,
his sadness seemed out of place. Someone told me he was
Ebby T., the friend who had called on Bill in late 1934
to bring him the Oxford Group's spiritual message that helped
Bill get sober and helped form AA.
months later, during one of the last discussions I ever
had with Bill, he told me that he had been able to place
Ebby in a country rest home in upstate New York. Ebby died
two years later from emphysema, the same affliction that
would claim Bill's life in 1971.
Bill Wilson (left) and Ebby Thacher (right)
in 1955, two years after Searcy W. got him
sober at his clinic in Dallas, Texas
physical problems had been compounded by his frequent bouts
with alcohol during the years since he had carried the message
to Bill. His was the kind of story that causes continuing
anguish in AA: a wonderful burst of initial sobriety followed
by a devastating slip and then a pattern of repeated binges
despite his best efforts and those of his friends. He had
a tortured life, and yet there were times when he struggled
valiantly to put his demons to rest.
never actually met Ebby, but I kept learning more about
him as the years passed. While serving as a contributing
writer to Pass It On in 1980 and 1981, I had access to the
correspondence that flowed between him and Bill. There was
also an opportunity to spend a day with Margaret, the kindly
nurse who cared for Ebby during his last two years of life.
Albany, New York's capital city, there is archival information
in the state library about Ebby's distinguished family members
and their achievements in politics and business. Three members
of the T. family were Albany mayors, and one lost a gubernatorial
nomination by a very narrow margin. Ebby's parents were
also prominent in social and church affairs. An assistant
to the mayor at that time told me "you couldn't find
a better family than the T.'s" and put me in touch
with Ebby's nephew, Ken T., Jr. When I returned to Albany
some years later, Ken took me to visit Ebby's grave in the
Albany Rural Cemetery, just north of the city.
no denying that Ebby was the "lost sheep" of the
family, but it never completely rejected him or lost hope
that he might someday recover. His last surviving brother,
Ken T., Sr., stayed loyal to him right up to the time of
his own death, just a few months before Ebby's passing.
if Ebby had a friend who was unfailingly loyal and devoted,
it was Bill W., who always called Ebby his sponsor and seemingly
moved heaven and earth in trying to help Ebby regain sobriety.
Indeed, it almost seemed that Bill threw his own good judgment
out the window and became an "enabler" when Ebby
was involved. The late Yev G., a member of the Manhattan
Group since 1941, told me in 1980 that Bill seemed to lose
all perspective when Ebby went off on another drunk. Yev
recalled it this way:
was so definitely concerned about Ebby and so fond of him
and felt so grateful and indebted to him that he would do
anything rather than have anything happen to Ebby. Some
of us were Bill's selected emissaries to find Ebby when
he went out on one of his episodes. We knew his watering
holes, the rooming houses, and the places where he went.
So we'd get him and bring him back in the group, and he'd
go along very well. But we had to observe, really, that
Bill did not treat Ebby with the same kind of approach that
he realistically would with the average kind of alcoholic
member we had in those days in New York."
even Bill became exasperated with Ebby at times, and this
is revealed in some of his correspondence with and about
Ebby. But he never lost hope that Ebby would recover, and
years after his own recovery he would tell Ebby of his gratitude.
It was an astonishing friendship, and one early AA told
me that Bill and Ebby were almost like brothers.
brief outline of Ebby's life goes this way: he was born
in Albany in 1896, the youngest of five brothers. His father
headed a family-owned foundry that manufactured railroad-car
wheels, and Ebby entered life with the proverbial silver
spoon in his mouth. Like his brothers, he attended Albany
Academy, a prestigious private school that is highly regarded
and whose graduates usually go on to college. But though
his brothers excelled at the academy, Ebby was a lackluster
student and did not graduate.
family spent their summers in the resort town of Manchester,
Vermont, seven miles south of Bill's hometown, East Dorset.
Ebby's father was a golfing partner of Robert Todd Lincoln,
a wealthy industrialist and the only son of Abraham Lincoln
to reach adulthood. Lois's family was also a member of this
social group, the "summer people" who awed Bill
as he was growing up. Although Bill felt inferior in status
to Ebby's family and Lois's family, he was something of
a hero to other boys in Manchester because of his skill
as a baseball pitcher. Ebby remembered meeting him in 1910
or 11 and perhaps watched him play.
may have sipped a little wine on family occasions, but he
didn't have his real first drink until 1915, at age nineteen,
when he walked into Albany's Hotel Ten Eyck and ordered
a glass of beer. At about the same time, he went to work
in the family business. By the time the firm closed in 1922,
Ebby was getting drunk frequently. Later on in the nineteen-twenties
he worked in the Albany office of a brokerage firm, but
there's reason to believe he was never a real producer.
In the meantime, Bill W. had become a New York stockbroker
and was soaring with the surging market on Wall Street.
January 1929, Bill stopped in Albany on his way to visit
friends in Vermont, and he gave Ebby a call. He and Ebby
spent the evening drinking and then agreed on a daring way
to arrive in Manchester: by air, a risky action in those
early days of aviation. They hired a barnstorming pilot
to fly them to Manchester, which had just built an airfield,
and they arrived, very drunk, the next day. Bill recalled
(as quoted in Pass It On): "We somehow slid out of
the cockpit, fell on the ground, and there we lay, immobile.
Such was the history-making episode of the first airplane
ever to light at Manchester, Vermont." Their drunken
venture may have created an odd bond between Ebby and Bill
that would be among the reasons Ebby would call on him in
drinking worsened, and by late 1932 he had become such an
embarrassment to his family that he slunk off to Manchester,
and moved back into his family's summer home. He had periods
of sobriety, but by mid-1934 his drinking had led to troubles
and arrests in Manchester. While his brothers were still
actively employed or in business, the family money supporting
Ebby had largely run out. According to some tales circulated
later, he sold some of the family furniture to buy booze.
this time, several Oxford Group members in the area chose
Ebby as a likely prospect for their spiritual message. They
were Rowland H., Shep C., and Cebra G. He resisted their
approach, but became more receptive when another drunken
incident brought him before a judge in Bennington. He expected
to be jailed for the weekend, but was permitted to go home
on the promise that he would return -- sober -- on Monday.
it was at this point, I think, that Ebby won a battle that
became important for all of us. Waiting for him in the cellar
at home were several bottles of his favorite ale, which
he planned to drink immediately after the local constable
let him off at the house. He was in agony when he raced
down the stairs to get them. But then his promise to the
judge stopped him cold, and he began to wrestle with his
conscience. After a fierce struggle he took the bottles
over to a neighbor. The action gave him peace. That was
his last attempt to drink for two years and seven months.
like to think of this moment as Ebby's Magnificent Victory.
I've wondered whether, if he'd lost this struggle, he might
not have stayed sober and been able to carry the message
to Bill. In any case, he returned to court sober and was
released to the custody of Rowland H., who then became what
we AA's would call a sponsor. Along with giving Ebby a grounding
in Oxford Group principles, Rowland took him to New York
City. After staying with Shep for a short time, Ebby moved
to Calvary Mission, run by Dr. Sam Shoemaker's Calvary Church
on Gramercy Park.
November night in 1934, Ebby came to see Bill, who was then
living in Brooklyn with his wife, Lois. Ebby told Bill,
"I've got religion," and while Bill drank gin
and pineapple juice, Ebby recounted his friendship with
Rowland, described the principles of the Oxford Group (like
the importance of absolute honesty when dealing with defects),
and talked about his growing belief in God and the efficacy
of prayer. Ebby's words, and his sober demeanor, stayed
with Bill, who later recalled, "The good of what he
said stuck so well that in no waking moment thereafter could
I get that man and his message out of my head." Bill
kept drinking, but he decided to pay a visit to the mission,
which he did after stopping at a number of bars on the way
and hooking up with a drunk Finnish fisherman. When he arrived
at the mission, he ended up giving a kind of drunken monologue
at the evening meeting where the derelict men gave testimonials
about not drinking. On December 11, Bill checked himself
back into Towns Hospital, where he'd previously been treated.
Ebby visited him there, and a few days later, Bill had his
"white light" experience and never took another
stayed on in New York, continued to work with Bill, and
moved in with Bill and Lois after Calvary Mission closed
in 1936. But by 1937 he was back in Albany, working in a
Ford factory. While he still worked with alcoholics and
apparently kept up his Oxford Group connections, tensions
were building up in his personal life. Finally, on a trip
to New York City, he drank again, after two years and seven
months of sobriety.
life then became a nightmarish succession of binges followed
by short periods of sobriety. He held jobs briefly and sometimes
performed well for short periods of time. During World War
II, for example, he worked as a Navy civilian employee and
was well-liked by his superiors. He was given opportunities
by other AA members, and both Bill W. and his older brother
Jack sought ways to help him back to continuous sobriety
and well-being. In the following years, he often lived with
Bill and Lois for months at a time -- something Lois tolerated
for Bill's sake.
also became a sort of a game by AA members to become the
person who helped Ebby recover. In 1953, a New York member
named Charlie M. collaborated with AA members in Dallas,
Texas, to take Ebby to the Lone Star state for treatment
at a clinic run by Searcy W., an early member who still
recalls his years with Ebby. After initial troubles, Ebby
found sobriety in Texas and stayed there for eight years.
He also found steady employment for several years.
clear that Ebby's Texas interlude was the best period of
his adult life. He was lionized by grateful Texas people
who went out of their way to meet him or hear him speak.
In 1954, Ralph J. and his wife Mary Lee even invited Ebby
for a two-month stay at their sheep ranch near Ozona, Texas,
and loved every minute of his visit. Two members, Olie L.
and Icky S., virtually adopted him, and Searcy became Ebby's
one of Ebby's obsessions had been the belief that "finding
the right woman" would be his salvation. He did find
a woman in Texas who seemed to be the love of his life,
but when she died suddenly, he began taking mood-changing
pills and soon was drinking again. He returned to the New
York area in late 1961 and stayed for a time with his brother
W. had continued to help Ebby with occasional checks, and
now he came forward again to manage Ebby's life more closely,
partly because of Ebby's declining physical condition. With
help from others, Bill had created a fund for Ebby to cover
his expenses at a treatment-type facility. Health problems
were closing in on Ebby, however, and it was clear that
he could no longer live independently. And that's probably
why Ebby appeared so sad when I saw him at Bill's banquet
in 1963. He was in very poor health, to say nothing of the
other demons that plagued him.
there was a miracle of sorts waiting for Ebby. In the final
two years of his life, he would find peace, sobriety, and
tender loving care given by Margaret M. and her husband
Mickey at their rest farm in Galway, near Saratoga Springs,
New York. Symbolically enough, the farm was on a road named
had met the M.'s and when he learned that Margaret was in
New York attending a nurse's convention, he asked her to
come over to talk with him at GSO. She agreed to give Ebby
care at the farm for seventy-five dollars a week -- a cost
Bill could easily manage with the fund and Ebby's Social
drove Ebby up to the rest farm in May 1964, and turned him
over to Margaret and Mickey. Ebby was angry and defensive
at first, but soon responded to their attempts to help him.
Usually a likable person, Ebby even became popular with
the other residents and awed them by his ability to work
the New York Times crossword puzzles. The farm was only
twenty-five miles from Albany, so he also had visits from
his brother Ken and other friends and relatives. There couldn't
have been a better place for Ebby's last years. Bill, writing
to Ebby's old friends in Texas, would comment on the fine
care Margaret was giving Ebby, and would also note that
she had a good doctor on call.
Ebby's brother Ken died in January 1966, Ebby was too weak
to travel the twenty-five miles to Albany for the funeral.
He seemed to lose the will to live after that, and one morning
in March the housekeeper told Margaret that Ebby couldn't
come down for breakfast. He was rushed to the nearby Ballston
Spa hospital, where he died early in the morning on March
and Lois were on a trip to Mexico, but returned quickly
for the funeral in Albany. It was a small funeral, and one
woman who attended thought it symbolic that twelve persons
were there to see him off. A brief notice in the local newspaper
mentioned that Ebby was the brother of a former prominent
death, Ebby rejoined his prominent family at the Albany
Rural Cemetery, where he lies next to his brother Ken. The
large plot is defined by the monument of his grandfather,
who launched the family business and also served as Albany's
mayor during the Civil War. (Ken, Jr., who was so generous
in supplying information about Ebby and the family, passed
away two months after showing me Ebby's grave. He is also
felt some of that gratitude myself when I visited the old
farmhouse with Margaret in 1980. She had operated it after
Mickey's death but finally closed it in 1979.
AA members learn that I've become a student of Ebby's life,
their first question is usually, "Did he die sober?"
I believe, as did Ebby's Texas sponsor, Searcy W., that
Ebby was sober two-and-a-half years when he died. This may
have taken lots of supervision by Bill and Margaret, but
he did put this much together in his final years. We should
give him credit for that, because he gave us so much --
particularly when he won the battle with ale that weekend
in 1934. Without that magnificent victory, the outcome could
have been much different for all of us.
Mel B., Toledo, Ohio, copyright
AA Grapevine Inc.