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A.A. "Came of Age"
Bill W. stepped to the podium in Kiel Auditorium, St. Louis,
Missouri, at four o'clock Sunday afternoon, July 3,
1955, it was a watershed moment in the history of Alcoholics
Anonymous. The three days of the 20th Anniversary International
Convention that preceded that Sunday afternoon were themselves
full of historic significance.
figures important to A.A.'s formative years were present,
including: Ebby T., who first brought the message to Bill;
the Rev. Sam Shoemaker, whose teachings helped shape the
Twelve Steps; Father Ed Dowling, Bill W.'s "spiritual
sponsor;" Dr. Harry Tiebout, the first psychiatrist
to recognize A.A.; Dr. Kirby Collier, Rochester, N.Y., psychiatrist
who fostered acceptance of A.A. among physicians generally;
Bernard Smith, architect of the General Service Conference;
Leonard V. Harrison, early Chairman of the Alcoholics Anonymous
Foundation; Dr. John L. ("Dr. Jack") Norris,
pioneer of A.A. in industry and a trustee; Austin MacCormick,
national authority on correctional institutions and also
a trustee. With Bill W. and his wife, Lois, and his mother,
who had divorced his father and departed when Bill was 11
years old. Nevertheless, her approval was important to Bill
all his life, so having her at this epochal convention,
to hear him speak and witness the adulation heaped upon
him, was for Bill, "the icing on the cake."
fifth General Service Conference met during the Convention:
75 delegates from all over the U.S. and Canada, meeting
with the trustees and General Service Office and Grapevine
staff members. This meeting marked the end of the five-year
trial period for the Conference. The members had already
adopted the permanent charter when they assembled on the
stage in Kiel Auditorium on Sunday.
second edition of the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, was
officially introduced at the St. Louis Convention. Bill
spun once again the tale of the Big Book's precarious
- well-nigh miraculous beginnings, and noted that about
300,000 copies of the first edition had now been sold.
today's perspective," recalls Nell Wing, Bill's
longtime secretary, "it's hard for people to
realize what a momentous decision was made that Sunday morning
30 years ago. It was dramatic and very moving to us who
knew what an effort of Bill's this was, over a lot
of opposition." Bill had pushed through the idea of
a Conference largely by campaigning for it vigorously and
personally. One of the members who opposed the idea, the
influential and controversial Father P., had announced he
was going to rise and speak against it. "So after
Bill had presented his resolution and Bern Smith asked for
the vote of approval," Nell continues, "we from
the office sat with baited breath." But Father P.
Manders, non-alcoholic bookkeeper in 1955, left the steaming-hot
registration area to attend the ceremony. "I remember
the hushed silence of the whole auditorium as they invoked
the guidance of God. And than a roar of approval went up
from the audience. Tears came to my eyes. It was tremendously
emotional . . . Bill made it very dramatic, as he physically
stepped down from the stage. I like to kid about that: he
didn't finish that last step until twelve years later."
astounding were the growth and accomplishments of Alcoholics
Anonymous in the first 20 years and so bright the future
- as representatives of medicine, religion and the press
heaped paeans of praise on the Fellowship during the Convention
-that this occasion seemed a pinnacle in A.A. history.
1955, there were 7,000 A.A. groups with an estimated membership
of 200,000 - and the founders of many of these groups were
there in St. Louis to exchange experiences. Akron had been
the site of the first group; New York, of the second, at
Bill & Lois' home at 182 Clinton St., in Brooklyn.
By 1939, footholds had been established in Cleveland, in
the Midwest and in Greenwich, Connecticut, in the east,
followed closely by Upper Montclair, New Jersey. As new
groups formed in New York City, their members carried the
A.A. message to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. In the
same way, recovered drunks from Akron and Cleveland pioneered
A.A. in Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, Kansas City and other
midwestern cities. In the South, the Fellowship spread through
travelers; to Charlotte, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Houston,
and elsewhere. Little Rock and Los Angeles showed that an
A.A. group could be started by the Big Book alone - plus
correspondence with the service office in New York. (For
detailed history of the spread and growth of A.A. in the
U.S., see Chapter 2.)
in the early 1940's, A.A. had crossed the border into
Canada. From Toronto, it spread to the Ontario towns, and
from Vancouver, B.C., it spread eastward to prairie provinces
of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. During World War
II the movement took root in Montreal. The first French-speaking
A.A.s met in 1947, after which groups spread like wildfire
through Quebec. (For detailed history of spread and growth
of A.A. in Canada, see Chapter 3.)
was able to state proudly at the St. Louis convention that
"A.A. had established beachheads in 70 foreign lands."
In World War II, Captain Jack S., skipper of a Socony Vacuum
oil tanker, had found sobriety and planted the A.A. seed
in foreign parts throughout the world for many years thereafter.
In other countries, the message was carried by traveling
members, or by a sober member in the U.S. trying to share
his sobriety with a relative abroad, or by magazine articles,
notably a 1946 Readers Digest article that was translated
in the foreign editions of the Digest. Most of the "beachheads"
were lone members or struggling groups. However, on a trip
to Europe in 1950, Bill and Lois had seen at first hand,
that A.A. was firmly established and growing in Norway and
Finland, Holland and the British Isles. It was also well
established in South Africa, Mexico, El Salvador, Brazil,
New Zealand and Australia. The Service Structure adopted
in St. Louis was to prove the key to A.A.'s growth
and health overseas as well. (For detailed history of the
spread and growth in other countries around the world, see
important feature of the St. Louis Convention was the get-together
of lone members from remote outposts and ships at sea. Accustomed
to relying heavily on the Big Book and on letters from "Headquarters"
and fellow loners, they were overjoyed to share in the big
celebration. In other workshops, there was a lively swapping
of experience on how best to help the still—suffering
alcoholics in hospitals and prisons—a work well under
way in many parts of the U.S. and Canada, with help from
the New York Office. Intergroup offices which were providing
vital services in many cities, were represented by workers
who gathered in St. Louis to discuss their mutual problems.
Convention afforded an opportunity for membership at large
to get to know their trustees, as well as "Headquarters"
and A.A. Grapevine staff. Repeatedly in his talks over the
three days, Bill acknowledged the enormous debt the struggling
Fellowship owed to the non—alcoholic trustees of the
Alcoholic Foundation. Formed in 1938, the Foundation had
helped guide A.A. through its critical early years, and
only the year before had been renamed the General Service
Board, to reflect better its true function. Among non—alcoholic
trustees, who constituted a majority, those present in St.
Louis included Leonard Harrison, "long-time Chairman
of the Alcoholic Foundation during the uncertain period
of our adolescence;" Archibald Roosevelt, that "exuberant
and genial man," Treasurer of the Board; and as mentioned
earlier, "Dr. Jack" Norris and Bernard Smith,
Chairman. Other non-alcoholic Trustees, who did not make
it to St. Louis were Jack Alexander, author of the famous
Saturday Evening Post article; Frank Amos, whose 1938 report
on the early Fellowship, had caught the eye of John D. Rockefeller;
Frank Gulden, of the Gulden's Mustard Family; Trustee
Emeritus LeRoy Chipman, retired treasurer of the Board,
who was ill.
a session called "Presenting the Headquarters Staff,"
the convention-goers met the manager, Hank G. and five staff
"secretaries," (as they were then called): Marian
F., Ann M., Eve M., Hazel fl., and Lib S. Similarly, an
A.A. Grapevine session showed the monthly magazine enjoyed
a circulation of 40,000. Editor Don C. was present along
with three editorial assistants: Louise S., Katharine S.,
and Sarah T.
to the feeling of enthusiasm and accomplishment that pervaded
the Convention was the flood of favorable press attention
A.A. had received for the past 15 years and continued to
receive in St. Louis. Ralph B. was in charge of the pressroom,
surrounded by phones, typewriters, piles of releases, clippings
and telegrams. The 1955 Convention generated far more coverage
in the press than any other previous A.A. event. Bill was
quick to emphasize that far from being "ballyhoo"
or "promotion" contrary to our Traditions, this
was the same kind of help we had given Jack Alexander. "Good
communications," said Bill, "were the arteries
through which A.A.'s life-giving blood circulated
to brother and sister sufferers everywhere. . . Not much
Twelfth Step work ever could have been done until the sick
ones and their families had been reached and persuaded A.A.
might offer hope for them. The press . . . had drawn thousands
of alcoholics into our membership and were still doing so."
of the brightest highlights of the Convention," Bill
recalled, was a telegram of congratulations and good wishes,
datelined "The White House" and signed by Dwight
D. Eisenhower, President of the United States. "When
this telegram was read to the Convention," related
Bill, "we experienced great elation mixed with deep
humility. A.A. had indeed come of age."
was not harmony within the Fellowship, however, which accounted
for a smaller-than-expected attendance at the St. Louis
Convention. A.A. had grown up in two places simultaneously
- Akron and New York, each with its own co-founder. So it
is not surprising that there was a feeling of separateness
- some would say a schism - between the Akron/Cleveland
axis and the New York axis. The Akronites had clung longer
to the Oxford Groups and were more conservative generally;
Bill, the visionary, on the other hand pushed ahead with
the writing and publishing of the Big Book, the establishing
of a "Headquarters" office and, in the late
1940s, a plan for a General Service Conference.
against this idea was led by Clarence S., of Cleveland.
With the help of Henrietta Seiberling (who now lived in
New York), an "Orthodox Group" was formed to
mobilize opposition to the Conference plan among A.A. groups
nationwide. They took pride in the fact they would have
nothing to do with Bill W, the "Headquarters"
office or any form of organization of A.A. Their most vigorous
efforts took place after the first trial conference was
held in 1951. The groups and members with the "Orthodox
Group" view chose, not surprisingly, to boycott the
St. Louis gathering where the Conference idea was to be
this dissent was not referred to in the proceedings, it
was felt in the attendance. Dennis Manders recalls, "The
figure in the press releases and later in Alcoholics Anonymous
Comes of Age is 5,000, but actually there were only 3,800
paid registrations. Still, it was a huge audience in Kiel
Auditorium that historic Sunday afternoon."
Anonymous, by the time of the 1955 Convention, had weathered
many other storms that might have torn it apart, but had
not. Out of the mistakes of the early groups which had caused
so much conflict and disunity, the Twelve Traditions had
been forged. Said Bill W, on Saturday, "The great
question in the early days was this: would we blow up or
could we stay together? Today we have the answers. This
anniversary meeting in St. Louis is a vast testament to
the fact we have held together." The principles of
non-endorsement and non-affiliation, of self-support, and
of personal anonymity of the public level were already firmly
established. So was the need for individual and collective
humility. Receipt of the Lasker Award from the American
Public Health Association (1951), and fulsome praise in
the press tempted the new society to think it could be all
things to all people. This led Bill to warn, from the stage
of Kiel Auditorium, "This could well prove to be a
heady drink for most of us. . . Let us resist the proud
assumption that since God enabled us to do well in one area
we are destined to be a channel of saving grace for everybody."
Now he offered the Fellowship an example of personal and
organizational humility: relinquishing his own leadership
in favor of an absolute democracy. In light of all these
moves toward maturity and responsibility, Bill was justified
in declaring A.A. was about to "Come of Age."
as Bill sat on the stage in Kiel Auditorium that Sunday
afternoon, he later recalled, "I looked out upon the
sea of faces gathered there, and I was powerfully stirred
by the wonder of all that happened in the incredible twenty
years now coming to a climax. Had this meeting place been
a hundred times larger, it still could not have held all
of the A.A. members and their families and friends. Who
could render an account of all the miseries that had once
been ours, and who could estimate the release and joy that
these years had brought to us?"
the invitation of Bernard Smith, chairman, Bill made a few
minutes' introductory remarks and presented his resolution,
the heart of which were the words:
IT THEREFORE RESOLVED: That the General Service Conference
of Alcoholics Anonymous should become, as of this date,
July 3, 1955, the guardian of the Traditions of Alcoholics
Anonymous, the perpetuator of the World Services of
our Society, the voice of the group conscience of our
entire Fellowship, and the sole successors to its co-founders,
Dr. Bob and Bill.
resolution ended with the provision that "neither
the Twelve Traditions nor the Warrantees of Article XII
of the Conference Charter shall ever be changed or amended"
except by consent of three-fourths of the groups in the
world - and the Warrantees themselves were included in the
resolution, as well.
Bill sat down, the roar of approval went up from the assembled
throng. As it died away, Bern Smith turned to the members
of the Conference, seated on the stage, and said, "Members
of the Conference . . . I will now ask for a motion that
the resolution as read by Bill and as approved by this Convention,
be adopted by this Conference." The motion was made
and seconded and carried unanimously by a show of hands.
the first person called upon to speak at this dramatic and
emotion-filled time was Lois W., expressing her gratitude
and that of other members of the Al-Anon Family Groups for
the A.A. program.
Bern Smith introduced Bill once again, most movingly, for
the final summing-up. Likening Lois and himself to parents
letting loose of their offspring so they may "come
of age," he offered some fatherly words of admonition:
have great faith that we shall never embrace and persist
in a fatal error; and yet we still might do so, fallible
human being that we are. This is the area in the future
life of A.A. where we can never be too prudent or too vigilant.
Let us not suppose, just because A.A. as a whole has never
had a grievous problem, that it never can have one. If such
a difficulty ever comes, I feel sure that it will center
about false pride and anger, the two most destructive defects
that we alcoholics have.
a society we must never become so vain as to suppose that
we have been the authors and inventors of a new religion.
We will humbly reflect that each of A.A.'s principles,
every one of them, has been borrowed from ancient sources.
We shall remember that we are laymen, holding ourselves
in readiness to co-operate with all men of good will, whatever
their creed or nationality.
too, it would be a product of false pride to believe that
Alcoholics Anonymous is a cure all, even for alcoholism
Here we must remember our debt to the men of medicine. Here
we must be friendly and, above all, open-minded toward every
new development in the medical or psychiatric art that promises
to be helpful to sick people.
should always be friendly to those in the fields of alcoholic
research, rehabilitation, and education. We should endorse
none especially but hold ourselves in readiness to co-operate
so far as we can with them all. Let us constantly remind
ourselves that the experts in religion are the clergymen;
that the practice of medicine is for physicians; and that
we, the recovered alcoholics, are their assistants.
us never be a closed corporation; let us never deny our
experience for whatever it may be worth to the world around
us. Let our individual members heed the call to every field
of human endeavor. Let them carry the experience and spirit
of A.A. into all these affairs, for whatever good they may
accomplish. For not only has God saved us from alcoholism;
the world has received us back into its citizenship. Yet
believing in paradoxes as we do, we must still realize that
the more the society of Alcoholics Anonymous as such tends
to its own affairs and minds its own business, the greater
will be our general influence, the less will be any opposition
to us, and the wider will be the circle in which our fellowship
will be likely to enjoy the confidence and respect of men.
are certain areas where anger and contention could prove
to be our undoing. We know this because stronger societies
than our own have been undone. The whole modern world is
in fact coming apart as never before because of political
and religious strife; because men blindly pursue wealth,
fame, and personal power regardless of the consequences
to anyone, even to themselves. These are the destructive
drives that are inevitably spurred by self-justification,
and in all their disastrous collisions they are powered
by righteous indignation, then by unreasoning anger, and
finally by blind fury.
the most heartfelt gratitude I can report that we have never
yet had to endure any such trials by fire in A.A. In all
these twenty marvelous years no such thing as religious
or political dissention has touched us. Very few have tried
to exploit A.A. for wealth or fame or personal power. We
have had great problems, but they have always been resolved.
Never has a grave issue cut across and scarred the face
of this far-flung fellowship. But, again, this is no earned
virtue of ours. Too many of us in our drinking days have
suffered the terrible penalties of proud and angry pursuits
to forget them now. These very pains have been the beginning
of whatever wisdom we have since incorporated in A.A.'s
Twelve Traditions. Hence, I feel confident that these forces
of destruction will never rule among us. We are prepared
to pay the price of peace. We will make every personal sacrifice
necessary to insure the unity of Alcoholics Anonymous. We
will do this because we have learned to love God and one
rising to heights of inspiration and eloquence, Bill concluded
with these words which would be so often quoted in the decades
give thanks to our Heavenly Father who, through so many
friends and through so many means and channels, has allowed
us to construct this wonderful edifice of the Spirit in
which we are now dwelling. It seems as though He has directed
us to construct this cathedral whose foundations already
rest upon the corners of the earth. On its great floor 200,000
of us are now sustained in peace, and long since we have
inscribed thereon our Twelve Steps of Recovery. The older
ones among us have seen the side walls of this cathedral
going up, and one by one they have seen the buttresses of
A.A. Tradition set in place to contain us in unity for so
long as God may will it so. And now eager hearts and hands
have lifted the spire of our cathedral into its place. That
spire bears the name of Service. May it ever point straight
upward toward God.
Bill's evaluation afterward of that watershed moment
was on a less eloquent but more pragmatic - and even prophetic
- note: "...Alcoholics Anonymous was at last safe
- even from me."