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Wilson -- Ebby Thacher
The Man Who Carried The Message To Bill W.
1960, at the Long Beach, California Convention of Alcoholics
Anonymous, Bill Wilson wrote this dedication in an AA book
that he gave to Ebby Thacher.
No day passes that I do not remember that you brought
me the message that saved me - and only God knows how
was Ebby who found relief from his alcoholism in the simple
spiritual practices of the Oxford Group which was an attempt
to return to First Century Christianity - before it was
complicated and distorted by religious doctrines, dogma
and opinions. The program offered by Ebby to Bill involved
taking a personal moral inventory, admitting to another
person the wrongs we had done, making things right by amends
and restitution, and a genuine effort to be of real service
to others. In order to obtain the power to overcome these
problems, Ebby had been encouraged to call on God, as he
understood God, for help.
was deeply impressed by Ebby's words, but was even more
affected by Ebby's example of action. Here was someone who
drank like Bill drank - and yet Ebby was sober, due to a
simple religious idea and a practical program of action.
The results were an inexplicably different person, fresh-skinned,
glowing face, with a different look in his eyes. A miracle
sat directly across the kitchen table from Bill. Ebby was
not some"do-gooder" who had read something in
a book. Here was a hopeless alcoholic who had been completely
defeated by John Barleycorn, and yet, had in effect, been
raised from the dead. It was a message of hope for an alcoholic
- that God would do for us what we could not do for ourselves.
continued to drink in a more restrained way for a short
while, and then was admitted to Towns Hospital on December
11, 1934. Ebby visited him there on December 14th and essentially
helped Bill take what would become Steps Four, Five, Six,
Seven and Eight.
that "boost" from Ebby's visit wore off and that
night, Bill's feeling of hopelessness deepened and a terrifying
darkness yawned in the abyss. As the last trace of self-will
was crushed, Bill said to himself, with neither faith nor
do anything, anything at all! If there be a God, let Him
Conference approved biography, Pass It On, quotes Bill as
describing this experience:
happened next was electric. Suddenly, my room blazed with
an indescribably white light. I was seized with an ecstasy
beyond description. Every joy I had known was pale by
comparison. The light, the ecstasy - I was conscious of
nothing else for a time.
seen in the mind's eye, there was a mountain. I stood
upon its summit, where a great wind blew. A wind, not
of air, but of spirit. In great, clean strength, it blew
right through me. Then came the blazing thought, "You
are a free man." I know not at all how long I remained
in this state, but finally the light and the ecstasy subsided.
I again saw the wall of my room. As I became more quiet,
a great peace stole over me, and this was accompanied
by a sensation difficult to describe. I became acutely
conscious of a Presence, which seemed like a veritable
sea of living spirit. I lay on the shores of a new world."
had carried the message of the Oxford Group to Bill with
great care and dedication---that recovery from alcoholism
was possible using spiritual principles, but only if it
was combined with practical actions. Bill Wilson never took
another drink, and left Towns Hospital to dedicate the rest
of his life to carrying the message to other alcoholics.
however, took a different path, one that caused him to have
a series of relapses. The man whom Bill Wilson called his
sponsor could not stay sober himself, and became an embarrassment.
There were periods of sobriety, some long, some short, but
eventually Ebby would, "fall off the wagon," as
he called it.
revealingly, Ebby referred to his periods of sobriety as,
"being on the wagon." For an AA to regularly use
this sort of language is an indication that the commitment
to sobriety is temporary in nature. If there is an "on
the wagon" then there is an "off the wagon"
too. And that was the on/off cycle of Ebby's drinking.
was born on April 29, 1896, into a prominent and well-to-do
family in Albany, New York, with roots going back before
the American Revolution. His grandfather started a railroad
wheel manufacturing business in 1852 and became the main
supplier of wheels for the New York Central Railroad, as
well as Mayor of Albany Two other members of Ebby's family
were also mayors of Albany, including his older brother,
"Jack." One of New York State's most beautiful
parks, located on the Helderberg escarpment southwest of
Albany, was donated by the widow of Ebby's uncle, John Boyd
Thacher and is named after him.
full name was Edwin Throckmorton Thacher and he can be said
to have arrived in the world with "a silver spoon in
his mouth." It is possible that because of his upper-class
origins, with servants waiting on him and the respect brought
by his family name, Ebby developed the attitude that life
should always be easy for him. He was 'entitled', it seems.
Wilson shared her insights into Ebby in her biography, Lois
Remembers, and stated that while Bill wanted sobriety with
his whole soul, Ebby appeared to want just enough sobriety
to stay out of trouble. In addition, Lois said, "Beyond
that crucial visit with Bill, Ebby seemed to do very little
about helping others. He never appeared really a member
of AA. After his first slip, many harmful thoughts seemed
to take possession of him. He appeared jealous of Bill and
critical, even when sober, of both the Oxford Group and
AA." Lois felt that it was important that AA's know
why Ebby was not considered the founder of AA. Ebby carried
the message to Bill, but he never followed it up with the
years of devoted action needed to develop the AA program.
his failure to follow through after his vital visit with
Bill, Ebby still seemed to feel he was not recognized adequately
for his contribution to the start of AA. His employer for
many years in Texas said that Ebby, "kind of thought
the world owed him a living, to a certain extent. He thought
he never got the recognition that he should. That was stuck
in his craw for years."
AA who had known Ebby in Texas said that, "Ebby held
a deep resentment for Bill, Dr. Bob, and others, because
he felt he was more the founder of what was to become AA
than anyone else". In the author's opinion, this resentment
may be the reason for his repeated "slips" in
also had the idea that he needed the right woman and an
ideal job in order to stay sober. The implication is that
if he didn't have the perfect woman and the perfect job,
he couldn't stay sober. And he didn't stay sober. AA members
know that sobriety has to be sought without any conditions,
that we have to be "willing to go to any length to
get it" and that "half measures availed us nothing."
of Ebby's own letters bring to mind Lois's observation noted
earlier, that Ebby seemed to be "around" AA, but
never really "in" it. Typical correspondence from
AA's devotes substantial discussion to the AA Program and
the application of the Steps to their own lives. Ebby's
letters avoid these topics and are significant for what
they don't say. In 1954, Bill wrote that Ebby now, "shows
more signs of really joining AA than ever before."
The implication is that Ebby had shown less commitment to
the AA program before then, but even at that time, there
were still substantial doubts about his sincerity.
in 1947, his sister-in-law received a letter from Ebby,
and she wrote back suggesting that the answer to his problems
was to devote himself to helping others and then continued,
as I read your letter this thought is far from your mind
and you are again concerned with the petty and material
affairs of your surroundings and the bickerings and by-plays
of your associates, with the thought still deep in your
mind that you have been persecuted and discriminated against
by others, while the real facts might well be that it
is your own ego that is at fault."
drifted in and out of sobriety, and in and out of AA, with
many AA members trying to help him regain a more stable
sobriety. The person who was ultimately successful was Searcy
W., who had established a hospital for alcoholics in Texas.
Early in 1953, Searcy had asked Bill what he would like
to see happen in AA, and Bill said, "I would like for
Ebby to have a chance to sober up in your clinic."
Several months later, it came to pass, and after a short
slip in 1954, Ebby remained sober for seven years.
1961, Ebby's girlfriend died and the next day Ebby got drunk.
He apparently still believed that his sobriety was conditional
on having the right woman, and now she was gone. Ebby moved
back to New York and lived at several places for the next
two years, one of which was at his brother Ken's home in
Delmar, a suburb of Albany. He had emphysema, the same disease
that caused Bill's death, and was in poor health, his weight
having dropped from 170 to 122 pounds.
eventually came to Margaret and Micky McPike's farm outside
Ballston Spa, New York, in May, 1964 and it was under their
loving care that he finished the final two years of his
life, dying sober on March 21, 1966. While at McPike's farm,
he never even attempted to get something to drink although
he never attended any AA meetings. Still, AA visitors were
frequent and AA principles were in constant evidence, permeating
the entire atmosphere at McPike's. Dr. Bob said that the
AA program boiled down to love and service and that was
the essence of Margaret and Micky McPike, who helped more
than four thousand persons to recover from alcoholism. Ebby
was one of them.
agree that no matter what happens to them, the most important
thing is to not pick up that first "sucker" drink.
Once alcohol is placed in our bodies, the results are physically
inevitable in the same way that once a dose of castor oil
has been taken, all the mental will power in the world is
of no avail. Our problem as alcoholics centers in our minds,
in having an entire psychic change as a result of taking
the actions set out exactly in the 12 Steps. It is said
in the rooms, "If you do what we did, you'll get what
we got." Ebby was unable, for whatever reasons, to
put the AA program of action into his life on a regular
of his life, Ebby was overshadowed by the recognition and
success of his father and grandfather and in his own generation,
by the accomplishments and respect given to his older brothers.
This may have developed in him a sense of "never good
enough" so familiar to alcoholics. It is also likely
that his privileged childhood accentuated the sense of self-importance
and self-focus that the AA program requires us to deflate
Ebby had been recognized as the founder of the AA program,
it would have given him respect and recognition far surpassing
anyone in his family. After Bill received the message of
recovery from Ebby, he devoted the rest of his life to helping
other alcoholics. If Ebby had been willing and able to take
similar actions of love and service, he would have been
a co-founder with Bill Wilson. But he would not, or could
not, do the day-to-day work with others needed to bring
AA into a concrete reality.
than realistically looking at his own shortcomings in establishing
AA, Ebby wallowed in resentments, the greatest obstacle
to sobriety and the number one killer of alcoholics. Perhaps
Bill was thinking of the example of his sponsor, Ebby, when
he wrote the many strong statements in the Big Book condemning
resentments. For whatever the reasons, Ebby never seemed
to give himself completely to the simple program of Alcoholics
are many others who achieve periods of sobriety yet relapse
from time to time. They are not to be condemned, but welcomed
back into the Fellowship. Their experience is a lesson to
others that alcohol as an enemy is indeed cunning, baffling
and powerful. If anyone might feel smug or superior, he
or she should be grateful that they have not gotten that
bad - yet.
there is a Higher Power, then by implication there is a
lower power. And the lower power can never win, unless we
give up. Despite many slips, Ebby never gave in to the lower
power and always came back. He ran the race; he kept the
faith and died sober. Ebby deserves to be honored for carrying
the message of spiritual recovery to Bill and for acting
as his sponsor. Whatever his problems may have been with
sobriety, Bill was always grateful to Ebby and so should
said, in "The Language of the Heart", "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."
of the above material is synthesized from Ebby's biography
by Mel B., Ebby-The Man Who Sponsored Bill W., published
by Hazelden. Other material was taken from sections of Conference
approved books listed in the reference section below. Comments
and inferences in the article are the opinion of the author.
Alcoholics Anonymous (The Big Book). Alcoholics Anonymous
World Services, Box 459 Grand Central Station, New York,
Comes of Age. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Box 459
Grand Central Station, New York, NY 10163.
of the Heart. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Box 459
Grand Central Station, New York, NY 10163.
Remembers. Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, 1600 Corporate
Landing Parkway, Virginia Beach, VA 23454-5617.
It On. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Box 459 Grand
Central Station, New York, NY 10163.