The General Service Conferences
Never did the co-founder and de facto leader of a social movement ever try so early and so fiercely to relinquish his power and authority as did Bill W. Incredibly, only twelve years after the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous, nine years after the formation of the Alcoholic Foundation and eight years after the Big Book was published, Bill wrote the first of several controversial and even explosive memos proposing a General Service Conference. The story of his battle with the trustees over the issue for the next three years is related in Chapter XX on the General Service Board. But finally in 1950, the trustees voted reluctantly to "give the Conference a try."
It was agreed that Conferences would be held on an experimental basis from 1951 through 1954, and that in 1955 the whole concept would be evaluated and a final decision made. As part of this process, the Fourth Conference reviewed and approved six basic reasons why the Conference idea was needed. These were introduced at the 1954 meeting by Helen B., the Conference secretary, but they were obviously authored by Bill. They were:
(1) Realization that Dr. Bob and Bill couldn't live forever.
(2) The fact that the trustees were generally unknown in the Fellowship.
(3) Recognition that the trustees would need future guidance from the movement itself.
(4) Appreciation that A.A. was "growing up" and was able to assume rightful responsibility for Headquarters and services.
(5) The importance of bringing the trustees into closer contact with the movement.
(6) The need to be prepared to face some potentially grave crisis with action in the best interests of A.A.
The first General Service Conference was held April 20-22, 1951, at the Commodore Hotel in New York. Bernard Smith, Chairman of the Alcoholic Foundation and "architect of the Conference", presided - and also furnished the theme, which was, "Not to Govern—But to Serve." The purpose was re-stated as, "The Conference is the means by which collective conscience can be expressed and can guide the Trustees of the Foundation on matters of policy affecting A.A. today and tomorrow" (a statement which neatly summarized two of the Concepts which were to follow more than a decade later.)
Thirty-seven Delegates from the U.S. and Canada attended—with a second panel of the same size to be elected the next year. They met with 15 Trustees, eight nonalcoholic and seven A.A.'s, and, of course, with Bill and the staff members from G.S.O. and the Grapevine. But the Trustees and staff had no vote. In fact a principal raison d'etre of the conference was to oversee what went on at "Headquarters", and space was provided on the agenda for the Delegates to "interview" the directors and staff. The Delegates, mostly A.A. pioneers in various areas, were awed with their responsibility and were "scared to death" at the prospect of meeting the Trustees and the staff. The Headquarters people were equally "scared to death" at the prospect of being looked over by the Delegates.
Dennis Manders, who had been at the office eight months, recalls: "The feeling was that, wow, here are all these out-of-state examiners coming in, like bank examiners, to see what we're doing. Now we're really in trouble, probably all get fired. That was our feeling—great apprehension, great fear. Of course, when the Delegates came in, they had the same apprehension and fear that we had—fear of the unknown. It worked out fine. Very quickly it settled into the typical feel of a General Service Conference, even that first one."
The figures the Delegates looked at were very impressive. A.A. in 1951 had 4,000 registered groups with a reported membership of 120,000. Headquarters, with an annual operating budget of $107,000, handled 88,000 pieces of mail that year and distributed one million books and pamphlets. However, income from the Big Book was inadequate to keep the office going, so the first appeal to A.A. members for support was written. Among the other actions taken during the three days of sessions were these:
Bill's royalty from his books was increased to 15% with the assurance that it would continue for his lifetime. Nonalcoholic members of the Foundation should continue in office; the sense of the meeting was that "we need and will continue to need nonalcoholic Trustees." The alcoholic Board members, however, should have fixed terms of office. A.A. literature should have Conference-approval. The Conference affirmed it was operating under a temporary charter for the coming three years. Some other decisions were deferred until the following year when the Conference would be at full strength with two panels.
Five committees of the Conference were functioning in 1951.(1) Advisory committee on the budget. (2) Agenda committee. (3) Conference report—which was actually written by Ralph B. (4) Committee on new Trustees. Plus (5) a special committee for literature. (All these committees were still functioning in 1985 - plus eight more.)
The Second G.S. Conference, now lengthened to five days, was held in the same location April 23-27, 1952. With Delegates from two panels before him, Bill W. declared exuberantly, "For the first time in all A.A. history there is now a broad, complete and reliable cross-section of A.A. opinion with which to fortify our Headquarters and with which we can deal with the problems of the future as they come to us." And for the benefit of the new Delegates, Bern Smith emphasized again that "the purpose of the Conference is not to govern A.A., but to serve it." He continued, "What we do here. . . is not nearly as important, in my judgement, as the fact that we are here." And he declared, "We seek not compromise but certainty. Unless we are sure, unless we are certain, if there is yet time left to us to make a decision, I regard no decision as important as to postpone ultimate consideration."
Bill asked to be released from routine duties in order to concentrate on writing: updating the story section of the Big Book and writing a new series of essays on the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. The Literature Committee reported ten projects had been completed, and ten more were suggested by the Delegates. Volunteers couldn't accomplish all this work, so the Conference approved employment of professional writers' in A.A.
Dr. Jack recalls, "Several Delegates proposed a three-year term for Delegates. For most of them, the Conference was an exciting and rewarding experience; I thought their selfish desires would speak for a third term. But discussion emphasized that a third term would deprive other members of the opportunity, and reduce the number who could participate. So the third year was voted down. It was the group conscience in action, with the good of A.A. as the deciding factor."
According to the final report of the Second Conference, its underlying tones were progress and humility. Although no important new decisions were made (the full slate of Delegates did vote again for retention of nonalcoholic Trustees), Bernard Smith said in his closing remarks, "I feel the most important decisions that were made were decisions to table decisions...We seek not compromise, but certainty."
At the Third Conference, held April 22-26, 1953, it was noted that this was the first year that no Delegates were present who had attended the 1951 Conference; i. e., the principle of rotation was -fully in effect. In summarizing the sense of the Conference, Bill W. sounded one of his favorite themes: "We are standing on the threshold of maturity. No one can say in truth that we are really mature yet. This process of maturing will, of course, go on as long as we last." He also emphasized the policy of "full participation" by all; i.e., by staff and Trustees as well as Delegates. By Conference action - the name of the publishing arm was changed from "Works Publishing, Inc." to "Alcoholics Anonymous, Inc." The Conference also rejected the idea of incorporation of A.A. per se, as "spiritual faith and a way of life cannot be incorporated." It was reported that foreign membership had grown in five years from 82 groups with 2,000 members to 773 groups with 15,520 members!
Bill led a discussion on uniformity, saying, "The more we insist on conformity, the more resistance we create,...We become rigid, and at that point begin to die." Bernard Smith closed the session with these words, "We and the life we lead within the precepts of A.A. bring a message to this world: that the Spirit can take hold of our material world and completely transform it."
The Fourth Conference was the last of the "trial" Conferences. Held April 21-25, 1954, it struck a new note of confidence, according to Bill W., who also observed that the Conference was now recognized as a vital factor in the preservation of the Third Legacy. A significant action was to change the name of "The Alcoholic Foundation" to "The General Service- Board of Alcoholics Anonymous, Inc." The Board reported it had turned down a bequest of $17,000. According to the final report, the Delegates showed an awareness that in A.A., responsibility is always composed of two important elements: responsibility to respect local autonomy, and responsibility to ensure the survival of the movement itself.
The Fifth G.S. Conference differed from its predecessors in many ways. The 76 Delegates came to St.Louis to meet June 26-29, 1955, immediately before the 20th Anniversary International Convention (See Chap. 1). In the words of the final report, this Conference "executed its social contract with the future" by adopting the permanent charter, "to assure continuation of A.A.'s Third Legacy of World Service." Two of its other actions were of significance: It approved the second edition of the Big Book, with updated personal histories, with a retail price of $4.50. -And it defeated a motion to change the ratio of nonalcoholic to alcoholic Trustees. The Conference also decided that its meeting should not again be combined with an International Convention.
Hence, the Sixth Conference was again back in the Commodore Hotel in New York, April 18-22, 1956. The mood was one of "great confidence." The Delegates were aware of what they had been able to do, so that "the inherent stability of the Conference structure no longer appears to be on trial." A number of policy matters that were discussed involved relations with the media and the public. The Conference voted again to retain the proportion between Class A and ClassB Trustees on the Board. By this time, according to Dr. jack's recollection, bath the Board and the Conference had begun to work more through committees, -accomplishing more with more careful consideration of the subjects. Among the actions relating to literature, it authorized the production of A.A. Comes of Age "in a first-class manner" and specified that the circle-and-triangle symbol be used to indicate conference proved literature. Puerto Rico was represented for the first time by a Delegate. At the final session, Bill offered four principles that should be observed in A.A.: "Petition, Appeal, Participation and Decision"—thus presaging Concepts III, IV and V.
The theme of the Seventh 'Conference, held April 17-21, 1957, was "Stability and Responsibility without Complacency." It was observed that the Delegates were less concerned with their own areas back home or their own committee work, and more concerned with the need to strengthen and preserve the structure of A.A. From several locales, pressure was coming to increase the number of delegates. So this Conference, after spending considerable time in discussion, approved, as a guide for future Admissions Committees, the following considerations (paraphrased here) affecting the number of delegates from a given state or province:
(a) the more delegates, the less opportunity for each delegate to participate at the Conference; (b) granting a request for an. additional delegate from an area opens the way for requests from other areas; (c) no request for an additional delegate should be granted unless the needs are based on A.A. population and mileage in an area; and (d) any requests should be - accompanied by a map showing proposed divisions together with the A.A. population and number of groups involved, and evidence that an attempt has been made to solve the problem by restructuring locally within the area. (Actually, additional Delegates continued to be admitted throughout the 1960's, until a more severe limit was placed on the size of the Conference. See below.) Also at this Conference, Bill made a full accounting of all monies received by him from 1938, when the Alcoholic Foundation had created the royalty plan, to 1955.
"There was a quite a bit of resistance at some of these Conferences to the royalties that Bill was getting from his writings," according to Dr. Jack. "I remember one particularly when, the criticisms were pretty direct, with Bill sitting right there. I can still see him as he stood up to defend himself." That may have been the instance Paul C. remembers when he was Delegate from Northern California. "The Delegate from Florida got up and read a long thing that his area had asked him to read. It was a diatribe against Bill, how he was making a fortune off of A.A., Calling him two-faced—literally shredding his character to pieces. Even the Florida Delegate became so overwhelmed he couldn't finish and somebody else had to take over reading it. The following day I was sitting on a bench and Bill came in and sat down alongside me, and I said, 'Bill, that thing that was read yesterday was really terrible. I was sorry to hear it." He put his hand on my knee and said, 'Paul, at one time the best friend I had in the world didn't speak to me for five years. I'm used to this kind of thing and it doesn't bother me.' Which I thought was really great."
The venue of the Eighth Conference was changed to the Prince George Hotel, an older establishment on 28th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, in the slightly shabby wholesale district of New York. The change had been pushed by Hank C., general manager of the office, in the interest of saving money. When one of the delegates arose on the floor and called the hotel "a dump," Hank G., who was presiding, walked out in a rage. Confusion reigned until Archie Roosevelt persuaded him to return. This Conference, held April 23-27, 1958, voted change the name of A.A.'s "General Headquarters" to "General Service Office," more accurately conveying its position in the service structure and its function. In the continuing debate over the trustee ratio (which was to continue for six more years!), this Conference proposed that the Board be changed from eight nonalcoholic and seven A.A. trustees, to nine of each—and that this proposal be taken back to the areas and decided upon at the 1959 Conference. (It failed, see below.)
At the Ninth Conference, held back at the Commodore Hotel, April 22-26, 1959, there was much concern about A.A.'s relations with "outside agencies." Many A.A. members, including Delegates, were working in these agencies, and misunderstandings had developed. A study committee on the subject was appointed, to report back to the Conference; and the possibility of a pamphlet on the subject was suggested. It was agreed, however, that it was proper for members as individuals to accept positions in "outside agencies." The Conference voted to change the name of A.A.'s publishing arm from "Alcoholics Anonymous, Inc." to "A.A. World Services, Inc." which it has remained. It voted not to change the trustee ratio. And it changed the recommended contribution to -support the office from $2 to $3 per member. For the first time, it adopted a limit of three minutes on each Delegate's time at the microphone during discussions.
All was not sweetness and light nor smooth sailing at the Conference in these days. The Delegates from California were rebellious; they were highly critical of the General Service Board and G.S.O. Dr. Jack recalls, "There were two or three people who wanted to start their own G.S.O. out in Southern California. Al H. was sort of the leader of that group, but of course he came around. Jules P. was another. He was at the microphone so much during the Conference that he got 'the crying towel,' the award the Delegates gave to the worst mike-hoggers." And Paul C. tells of his antagonism to G.S.O. as a Delegate in 1957-58. "When we got there, they handed us a mimeographed agenda and summary of what would be discussed. I read it through and as the Conference -evolved, everything that was suggested in this document was what took place. When I questioned what was in it or wanted to change it or argue about it, the then G.S. manager, Hank G., who was very articulate, would keep talking and finally 'the consensus of opinion was...' whatever was in the document. When I got home, I wrote to him and said 'You're always honking about lack of money. To save yourselves all this dough, next year just mail us all this mimeographed stuff and we'll initial it and mail it back to you—then you can go ahead."
However, at the Tenth Conference a change toward more tolerance was noted, a spirit of "live and let live." This meeting, April 20—24, 1960, was the first held at the Hotel Roosevelt at 45th Street and Madison Avenue, where—except for three years - all following Conferences were held. The sense of the meeting was that there was a need for improved communications, both internal and external, and it was recommended that the Board make a film showing the scope of A.A. 's World Services and the demands made on the General Service Office. (Although such a film was to wait until (WHAT YEAR), an illustrated flip-chart presentation was made, to show to groups in the hope of stimulating contributions.) Clubs for A.A.'s had often created special problems, and a special Conference Study Committee was appointed to study the subject. With regard to A.A. and outside agencies, the policy was determined to be "cooperation, yes—affiliation, no." Area Highlights were first introduced at the 1960 Conference.
The Eleventh Conference, held April 19-23, 1961, with 84 Delegates present, was the first after the triumphant 25th Anniversary International Convention in Long Beach, California.. Bill used the occasion to look back on the past ten Conferences and note the common characteristics: namely, Service; the potential for helping around the world; spirituality and responsibility; and improving communications. "At St.Louis," he said, "we old-timers realized that a linkage had to be made...that this Conference had to be established." He called it "the transfer of service leadership."
An accounting of A.A. abroad indicated the groups numbered 1,112, with 17,737 members. The Conference turned down a proposal for a paperback Big Book. It also voted against the release of a moving and historic documentary film of the Long Beach Convention on the grounds that people wire shown full face and the anonymity of the many people in the crowds was broken. Toronto was approved as the site for the 1965 Convention.
As Dr. Norris's election as Chairman of the General Service board was announced at this Conference, outgoing Chairman Bernard Smith delivered one of his most eloquent, most memorable and most repeated talks, which began: "We owe an obligation to society to insure that this ideal fellowship which we possess survives, that this flame of faith, this beacon light of hope for the world, musk never be extinguished. We may not need a General Service Conference to insure our own recovery. We do need it to insure the recovery of the alcoholic who still stumbles in the darkness one short block from this room. We need it to insure the recovery-of a child being born tonight, destined to alcoholism..."
"One Primary Purpose" was the theme of the 1962 (and Twelfth) Conference (April 25-29, 1962) and a new dedication to unity was felt. The Conference adopted a plan for six regions in the U.S. structure, and along with it the addition of two A.A. regional trustees and two nonalcoholic trustees to the Board, raising it to 19 members. However, the Conference reaffirmed overwhelmingly that the majority of nonalcoholics be retained. The crowning action of the 1962 Conference was the acceptance of "Bill's long awaited Twelve Concepts for World Service.
"My main service tasks are now complete," Bill told the Conference, in which he played a less prominent role than before. "The future belongs to you." He traced the steps he had taken to place A.A. wholly on its own. "So let us cast aside our fears. Let us trust each other..." Bill called the Conference "this wonderful organ of consultation and action" and also expressed special gratitude to his "associates in World Service operations. Under trying conditions, their dedication to this world effort is something without parallel." And again referring to his oft-expressed wish "to be made a member of this Society," he ended by saying, "Please know that I will be among you. I am not leaving; I am simply changing my stance."
"The Fellowship Takes Its Inventory" was the theme of the Thirteenth Conference (April 24—28, 1963) and was the subject of a special presentation by three nonalcoholic Trustees, each recognized authority in. a field concerned with alcoholism. This emphasis was prompted by the shock of the sharply critical article by Arthur Cain in Harper's magazine that January (See Chaps. 2 &13) Acknowledging that the article "had done great damage" by discouraging men women from coming to A.A., Austin MacCorinick also pointed out good statements the author made, including, "I still believe that A.A. provides the best possible way, at present for most alcoholics to get sober and start a new life without -alcohol." Prof. Harrison Trice said the article may be of great benefit to A.A. by forcing it to "consider real questions, not ritual ones." He warned, A.A. does "run a grave risk of being identified with religion" and asked, "How can any social movement 'come of age' in any realistic sense when it has been so universally admired, so over-protected [from criticism]?" Dr. Harry Tiebout, the psychiatrist, compared the organization to the individual member who starts out with enthusiasm and a kind of blind fervor. Then "this phase of putting A.A. on a pedestal evaporates. . . Each member does what he can and leaves the rest to a Higher Power." So, he concluded, most A.A.'s are able to look at the contents of the article objectively and thus profit from the insights it contains. WA.A. is known not by' its advertising, but by its works. Its position in community life is secure. No article can shake the hold which over 25 years 'of successful service has created."
Bill W. called the presentation "a historic moment in our development" and praised the inventory-taking process. And the sense of the conference was summed up as being '"preoccupied with the function of A.A. rather than its structure" and acknowledging that "what we are doing and how well we are doing it should be reviewed continuously."
Among the Conference recommendations was that G.S.O. staff members visit the Areas more frequently providing the economic problems involved can be resolved.
The Fourteenth Conference ran from Tuesday, the 21st, through most of Sunday, the 26th of April, 1964—thus becoming the first to cover a six-day span. It directed that the sentence, "This is A.A. General Service Conference approved literature" appear on applicable pieces. The Conference also approved the royalty agreement on Bill's writings which had been worked out between the co-founder and AAWS and approved by the General Service Board, to provide for Lois W. after Bill's death. (For more detail, see Chap. XX- on GSB) This is the agreement that was still in effect in 1985.
The plan for restructuring the General Service Board, hammered out by the Board itself and containing the much discussed ratio-change, was presented to the Fifteenth Conference by Dr. Jack Norris, Board Chairman. He asked the Delegates to consider the plan for a year and be prepared to vote on it in April 1966. Eighty-seven Delegates were present plus 36 other members of the Conference for a total of 123 meeting April 19-24, 1965. Bill W. then endorsed the Trustees' plan in a lengthy and eloquent address in which he traced the history of the Foundation and the Board and stressed to spiritual values of the proposal.
Dr. Jack recalled later, "For those eleven years that Bill was pushing for the ratio change, a great deal of time and energy at the Conferences was spent in battling over it. A majority of the Delegates were reluctant to consider a change because, I think, of 'their sense of loyalty to the nonalcoholics. One or two of the nonalcoholics - Austin MacCormick, for one - were in favor of the change. There had never been a split between the nonalcoholic and the alcoholic Trustees. In any foreseeable situation, we nonalcoholics would always bow to the opinions of the alcoholics. They were closer to reality than we were."
The desirability of a three—year term for Delegates was again raised, and the Conference reaffirmed the value of the two-year term. Similarly, it disapproved a related proposal that former Delegates be permitted to attend Conference meetings as observers.
Mike R. from Oklahoma was there as a Delegate 1965-66. "When I was elected Delegate, I was never so thrilled in my life. That period of service was the most exciting 'time of my life. . .When the Conference talked about a proposed three-year term for Delegates, I wanted that more than anything in the world. I felt I had just reached the point that I knew enough to be useful to the Fellowship. But as they discussed this, I felt more and more the three-year term was wrong. So I voted against it; and it just killed me."
An important financial recommendation was that group discounts on the Big Book which had been waived to permit creation of an adequate Reserve Fund now be devoted, instead, to develop a pension plan for employees of G.S.O. and the Grapevine upon their retirement. And they heard with enthusiasm that advance reservations for the 30th Anniversary Convention in. Toronto already exceeded 6,000.
So the historic action of the Sixteenth Conference, meeting April 18-23, 1966, was the acceptance of the restructuring of the Board including the ratio change to 14 alcoholic and seven nonalcoholic Trustees. (For more detail, see Chap. XX on CSB) Mike R. again: "Roy S. [from Oklahoma] was the outgoing Regional Trustee my first year, and he was disenchanted with the idea of a structural change in the Board. Lane P. [another past Delegate] also opposed it. He said, 'How can they say A.A. has come of age when we're not really even self-supporting?' That hit home with me. So much as I wanted to vote with Bill and to give him what he wanted, I didn't think it was right. I voted against it. A bunch out of Canada were leading that side of the fight. Since that time, I've come to realize I was wrong. But it's the way I felt at the time. And it's funny, you know, because if I had been successful with the vote I made, I probably never would have been Regional Trustee!
"After that vote and Bill W. won, he was the happiest man I've ever seen."
From the theme of the Conference, "Principles before Personalities" and from the "I am Responsible" declaration adopted at the Toronto Convention, the key ideas of "principles" and "responsibility" were reiterated again and again during the week and were expressed in many of the recommendations. A Conference Institutions Committee was established. Encouragement's were suggested to help Loners become groups, and to help A.A. groups in small communities. G.S.0. and Area committees were urged to help strengthen Intergroups and Central Offices.
The Seventeenth Conference was smooth and harmonious, with "Sponsorship - the Hand of A.A." as its theme. Held April 17-22, 1967, it hailed new Regional, Trustees, elected at the Conference for the first time. It. also hailed new and successful literature (The A.A. way of Life and the first pamphlet in comic-book format. See Chap. XX on Literature). It approved Miami as the site of the
1970 International Convention; and raised the limit on individual contributions from $100 to $200. The 89 Delegates presented a plaque of appreciation to Herb M. upon announcement of his retirement as General Manager of C.S.O. He had suffered a severe heart attack seven years previously and felt now that he had been "running too hard." (For more on Herb M., see Chap. XX on GSB and Chap. XX on G.S.O.)
The Eighteenth Conference (April 22-27, 1968) also proceeded with a minimum of controversy but its members took a number of actions of major and lasting importance. They put their stamp of approval on the idea of a World Service Meeting and agreed to participate in the first one to be held in New York in 1969. In the area of Public Information, they approved a proposal to conduct a survey among A.A. members, the first of its kind ever attempted. And they reaffirmed that full-face appearance by an A.A. member on TV, press and films is an anonymity break even though the name is withheld. (See Chap. 13) Bill spoke to the Conference on the importance of unity—and, since the Twelve Traditions relate to unity, he bade A.A. hold fast to the Traditions. He noted, "We are entering a new era of growth." (A.A.'s size, as recorded at the 1968 Conference, was 14,154 groups worldwide with 263,000 reported members, or over 400,000 estimated membership.) "The problems of the future may be greater than those we have already survived. Still, there is a love among us that passeth all understanding. And that will sustain us through all the trials that lie ahead, no matter how formidable."
At the Nineteenth Conference, Bob H., the newly chosen general manager of G.S.O. delivered possibly the most cogent, incisive and clearest summary of A.A. 's service structure and the relationship of its parts ever attempted, ending with, "To sum up: The Board formulates policy; the Conference approves policy; and G. S .0. Implements policy." In a similar vein, Dennis M., AAWS controller, used large bar-graphs and charts to present in complete and frank detail how A.A. s finances work. He emphasized the difficulty of budgeting against erratic contribution income, with all services operating at a deficit until the last weeks of the year, and urged the groups to follow a Regular Contribution Plan.
Held April 21-26, 1969, the Conference was the first to discuss Young People in A.A. as a discrete group. Having grown now to 90 Delegates, it declared a two-year moratorium on admission of additional Delegates. And it elected Warren S., Delegate from Southern California, and Charles D., Delegate from Central Michigan, (both drawn from the hat) to represent North America at the first World Service Meeting to be held that October.
It followed, then, that several reports of that first World Service Meeting (See Chap. 17) were high points of the Twentieth Conference, which approved participation in future WSM's. Due to problems with the Hotel Roosevelt, the venue of this Conference was moved to the Hotel New Yorker, 34th St. and Eighth Ave. It wrestled with two issues it had broached before and would deal with many times in the future: the attendance of nonalcoholics at closed meetings (in this case, in institutions), and the problem of dual addiction to both alcohol and mood-changing drugs. In the latter discussion, nonalcoholic Trustee, Dr. Vincent Dole, himself an authority in the drug field, urged A.A. not to dilute its efforts.
Many times during the five days, the conferees referred to the theme, "Service: The Heart of A.A" Eric B., Delegate from Washington state, dwelt movingly on it in his keynote, saying, "What is service? Yes, it is a cup of coffee. It is getting up at 2:00 o'clock in the morning to call on a sick alcoholic. It is an area assembly or a General Service Conference. It is the end of a broom..."
The Twenty-First Conference, held April 19-24, 1971, at the Hotel New Yorker for a second year, was the first without Bill W. He had died January 24, 1971 (For a full account, see Chap. XX on the GSB). Among the moving tributes was that of Dr. Jack Norris, Chairman of the Genera]. Service Board, who had known him so well. He said, "As I see it, Bill. was the good sponsor, the wise old-timer—willing to let go of us before we were willing to let go of him. This was not only because he wished us all the greatest good, but because he had an abiding faith that our Fellowship not only could, but should, run without him.
"I know that Bill believed that the wisdom of A.A. was to be found in the group conscience," Dr. Norris continued, "that it came out of church basements and not from the pulpit; that it was directed from the groups up through the delegates and the Conference structure, rather than the other way around."
The loss of Bernard Smith, long-time nonalcoholic Trustee, was also mourned. He had died July 31, 1970, immediately after the Miami International Convention. Margaret C., Delegate Chairperson, said, "Bern Smith loved the spiritual 'oneness' upon which this Fellowship is based, so much that he gave over twenty-five years of service to help create the structural 'oneness' that will keep us strong."
Several remarked on the - aptness of the Conference theme, "Communication: Key to A.A. Growth", in discussing ways to carry the message more effectively. With much more stringent guidelines in place on applications for additional area delegates, the moratorium was lifted.
The 1972 Conference (the Twenty-Second), April 17-22, back at -the Hotel Roosevelt, was an active one in terms of recommendations made. Bill's widow, Lois W. offered their home, Stepping Stones, as a gift to Alcoholics Anonymous. After lengthy and emotional discussion, the Conference voted unanimously not to accept the property, in keeping with the Traditions. From the viewpoint of the G.S.O. staff, a critically important action was taken when the Conference declared, "...G .S .0. should not be asked to intervene or otherwise involve itself in local disputes or misunderstandings." Also, G.S.O. should not accept contributions from clubs. The limit on contributions from individual members was raised from $200 to $300 annually. Advisory actions regarding groups were: An AA. group should not be named after a person, living or deceased. "Family groups" (i e., those made up of A.A.'s and their nonalcoholic mates) should not be listed as such in the Directories, as they should be regarded as "meetings" and not A.A. groups. And alcohol and pill groups should not be listed in A.A. directories or meeting lists. To avoid politicking at the Conference, it was decided a Delegate shall not be eligible to be proposed for trustee candidate until after he has attended his last Conference.
The thrust of the Twenty-Third Conference, held April 24-29, 1973, was an in-depth examination of the service structure—the G.S .R, the D. C.M., the Area Committee, the Delegate and the Trustee; the conduct of Area Assemblies and the General Service Conference. As part of the result, the Conference suggested that past delegates not hold office as G.S.R.'s or D.C.M.'s, but find other ways to become involved in area service; also, that newcomers should learn about, and become involved in, the A.A. service structure as soon as possible. The electoral procedure for Regional Trustees came under intense scrutiny, but no major changes were made. The A.A. Directories were examined in detail,
and guidelines were accepted for their use. Also, a one-year moratorium on publication of the Directories was granted to introduce a new system of production and to provide time to change over. The question of listing special interest groups (i.e., gay groups) in the Directories was raised, and it was suggested that the whole subject of special interest groups in general be an agenda item for 1974.
And so it was - and turned out to be the most time-consuming and possibly the most significant policy decision by the 1974 Conference (the Twenty-Fourth), held April.22-27. The discussion and sometimes heated debate regarding special interest groups not only consumed all the allotted agenda time, but extended to fill all Tuesday afternoon. Still unresolved, it was carried over to a special session Wednesday evening - which lasted late into the night. In the end, the Conference affirmed that all A.A. groups should be listed in the A.A. Directory, in accordance with the description of "An A.A. Group" long carried in the Directory. "The Conference members further agreed that any A.A. member ideally should be welcome at any A.A. meeting. This would apply even to meetings held by members sharing special interests who choose (in line with Tradition Four on group autonomy) group names which may sound somewhat restrictive (such as groups for men only, women only, physicians, study, ethnic groups, those speaking certain languages, young people, priests, gay groups, policemen, beginners, lawyers and other professions, vocations, etc.) especially when no other meeting is available for an alcoholic who needs a meeting."
The Conference recommended a change in the electoral procedures for Regional Trustees, changing the number of voters from the region involved compared with those from Trustees' and Conference Committees. A go-ahead was given on completion of the booklet, Living Sober. Appropriately, the theme of the Conference was "Understanding and Cooperation -lnside and Outside A.A."
David H., Panel 23 Delegate from Southern California, tells of his experience. "When I became Delegate, the first thing, I got bounced on by old past Delegates telling me how things were crooked back at G. S.O., that they controlled the agenda and that they would work it so that you would think what they were saying was the group conscience of A.A. as a whole. From my own study of the Concepts and the Traditions, I plain didn't believe them. When I went back there, I watched everything, and if I had questions, I found they were always answered. No question I ever asked was swept under the rug. As for the people who worked at G.S.0., I thought we were very fortunate as a society to have such dedicated people." David's area was incensed over the Board's choosing people with media experience to serve as non-Trustee members of the P.I. Committee. Although this was not on the agenda, David "went up and saw Bob H. [who was presiding] and told him I was concerned about it and wanted to exercise the right of appeal. He said, 'Certainly, David we'll make time for you.' So I made my presentation. . . I tell people all the time, when the group conscience is given the information and given the right to express itself, I have never seen it wrong. Whenever an individual or a group feels strongly about a subject and wants to bring it to the Conference, avenues are open to us, providing we go through the channels that are there."
The 1975 meeting (April 20-26) marked the Silver Anniversary of the General Service Conference. Implementing the theme, "Unity - Through Love and Service," special emphasis was placed on the Traditions and concepts. A "Concepts Illustrated" pamphlet was suggested for the first time - only to be brought to reality eleven years later! (See Chap. 12) With the public press giving much attention to teen-age alcohol abuse, the Conference recommended that two teen-age stories be added to the "Young People and A.A." pamphlet, and that a separate comic-book style pamphlet directed at teen-agers be developed. It also directed that a presentation on the feasibility of a paperback edition of the Big Book be made to the 1976 Conference.
The Conference approved, for the first time, the use of members' full names and addresses throughout the final report, since it is confidential. It learned that the number of A.A. groups that year exceeded 25,000 worldwide for the first time, with a reported membership of over 500,000 (800,000 estimated). Dr. Jack Norris presented a proposal for regional mini-conferences which the Conference accepted with the recommendation the concept be "further explored and eloped." (For the full story of Regional Forums, see Chap. XX on GSB and Chap. XX on Forums). In four pages of very detailed financial reports, the Delegates learned that in 1960, there had been one G.S.O. employee for every 278 groups; in 1975, there was one for every 330 groups. And, although the C.S.O. budget increased during the same period from $243,000 to $834,000, the cost of living also increased 80%. So, adjusting for this change in dollar value, be "further explored and developed." In four pages of very detailed financial. reports, during the same period from $243,000 to $834,000, the cost of living also increased 80%. So, adjusting for this change in dollar value, the cost of services per group actually showed a decrease from $28.25 to $18.65.
By 1976, the size of the Conference had grown to 133 members, broken down as follows: 91 Delegates, making up 68.4%; 27 Trustees and Directors, 20.3%; 15 G.S.0. and GV Staff, 11.3%. The Conference marked several impressive milestones, as Dr. Jack Norris, Chairman of the General Service Board reported, "Bill. W. used to dream of the day when a hundred thousand drunks might flock to A.A. in a single year. Well, that day has come. The Fellowship is growing by more than 100,000 members per year. This year, for the first time, we conservatively estimate membership at over a million." A.A. groups worldwide totaled almost 28,000. It was also reported that sales of A.A. literature spurted more than 50% in a single year - the largest such increase in history. Just five years before, in 1970, 54,700 copies of the Big Book were distributed; in 1975, 176,300 copies!
The Conference accepted epoch-marking recommendations of the Finance Committee, which literally changed the way A.A. handled its finances. George D., Delegate from the Northern Coastal area of California, a member of the Finance Committee in 1975 and its Chairman in 1976, explains, "I talked long, one on one, with Art Miles, the Treasurer of the Board, about the increasing dependence on literature profits and the fact it might cause problems of A.A. unity—that is, the Board and the office might become less responsive - to the groups. I went home - that year and really studied the financial reports and two things were- apparent: first, that with the increase in volume, we were making a lot of money—too much—from literature; second, the way we were dealing with the question of prudent reserve was absolutely ridiculous. That is, the Reserve Fund had a limit of $500,000, so there was all kinds of money laying around in the corporate accounts [AAWS and GV.] -surpluses in the corporate accounts far beyond any operating needs. When I returned in '76, I think I became a point man for a couple of people - Art Miles and Bud Flanagan [A.A.'s outside auditor and financial consultant] - to do what they felt needed to be done. - At the Conference Finance Committee meeting in '75, I think one Trustee had showed up; in '76, there were ten of them, acting very wary. There were also a couple of firebrands among the Delegate members who wanted to go much farther than I wanted to go, to a point I felt would violate the Concepts. Anyway, we had our two meetings, and Bob H. said afterward that in all the years he had attended the Conferences, he'd never seen a committee go through what we went through."
The result was a recommendation that the General Service Board and AAWS consider reducing net income from the sale of literature "by appropriate means, such as" a substantial reduction in. the price of the Big Book; liberalizing the discount structure; and distributing more gratis or low-cost literature. Also, a recommendation that the Board examine and restate the meaning of prudent reserve. Final action on these recommendations carried over to 1977, when the limit on the Reserve Fund was redefined as an amount equal to the previous year's combined operating expense of AAWS and the Grapevine. And as a part of this move, the Boards of these two entities agreed to transfer annually to the General Fund (and from there to the Reserve Fund) any surpluses beyond reasonable operating funds. The result was that all surplus money came under the direct control of the Board of Trustees.
After hearing the feasibility report on a possible paperback Big Book, the 1976 Conference voted to "keep the Big Book as it is at this time." But it recommended going forward with Regional Forums.
As the Hotel Roosevelt turned up with insufficient space for the period from the 18th to the 23rd of April, 1977, the Twenty-Seventh Conference took place at the Statler Hilton Hotel, on Seventh Ave. at 33rd St. A roll was called of all 133 members, for the first time, to launch the opening session. Also, 61 nonalcoholic employees of G.S.O. were introduced by Bob P., general manager of G.S.O. and vice—chairman of the Conference, to prolonged applause as the Delegates expressed appreciation for their service.
Dr. Jack Norris gave the highlights of the first 26 Conferences as he saw them (Dr. Jack had attended every one!). He began his talk by saying: "The goal of everyone attending every Conference was and is the good of A.A. Personal and local special interests have fallen into place, with emphasis on the group conscience as shown to us by our Higher Power; with the insistence that every minority, no matter how small, be heard; with agreement that action on any subject of importance be postponed unless there is substantial unanimity. There was not always complete agreement; lines at the microphones were often long. But solutions were worked out to almost everyone's satisfaction, and those who weren't entirely satisfied knew they had been given a fair hearing.
"I have come away from every Conference wishing governments would function as we do in A.A."
The Conference heard a presentation on A.A. Directories and made a number of pertinent recommendations including listing states and provinces alphabetically rather than by regions, for the convenience of the travelling A. A.; full names and phone numbers should be published, for use in Twelfth Step work; and group contributions should continue to be listed. A report was made on a study of the feasibility of moving the General Service Office out of New York City, and the Conference agreed, as recommended by the General Service Board, that it would not be in the best interest of the Fellowship to relocate at this time.
Dr. Norris opened the 1978 Conference (the Twenty-Eighth, held April 16-22 back at the Hotel Roosevelt) by welcoming the members to his last, session as chairperson of the General Service Board (though he continued to attend as Chairperson Emeritus.) Mac C., Trustee-at-large, Canada, in his keynote on the theme, "The Member of the Group - Recovery Through Service," quoted the Big Book, "Our real purpose is to fit ourselves to be of maximum service to God and the people about us.' Service to God and my fellows is the reason I am given sobriety, and there is no other reason. If I fail to serve, my purpose in life will be unfulfilled."
Because one of the Delegates felt that insufficient consideration had been given to the action taken the year before, a presentation was made on the possible relocation of the General Service Office. However, the conference then reaffirmed the previous recommendation that it would not be in the best interest of the Fellowship to relocate G.S.O. at this time. Similarly, an attempt was made to reintroduce the question of listing special-interest groups in the A.A. Directories, but it was decided not to include the subject on the agenda. This was the first Conference to view footage of a possible A.A. film for the outside world. After satisfying themselves that anonymity was protected, they gave a go-ahead to expand the footage into a documentary film, and the scope of the Conference Literature committee was officially expanded to include audio-visual materials, henceforth.
At the closing brunch, when Dr. Jack was presented with a specially commissioned bronze sculptured portrait in appreciation, he responded with, "I'm the one who should be thanking you. What little I've been able to do as board chairman, I didn't do. As Dr. Bob said, I was just a channel."
The Twenty-Ninth Conference, held April -22-28, 1979, was the first chaired by Dr. Milton Maxwell as Chairman of the General Service Board (though his association with A.A. went back to 1947. For more on this remarkable man, see Chap XX on GSB). Although he was to serve only four years (see below), he became much loved and respected. In his first report to the Conference, he stated, "The number of A.A. groups [U.S./Canada] grew by 1,654 in 1978. Sales of Conference-approved literature are going off the charts! After reaching an all-time high in. 1978, sales in January 1979 jumped 30% over January 1978. Big Book distribution passed the 2,000,000 mark last October and could reach 3,000,000 by late 1981. We don't play the "numbers game," but these figures indicate the health and vigor of the Fellowship."
The Conference responded to some confusion and uneasiness on the part of some Delegates regarding the status of non-trustee members of Trustees' Committees. An integral and essential part of every Conference was the joint meeting of Conference Committees with the corresponding Trustees' Committees before the former began their separate meetings. Non-trustee members were therefore present during part of the opening day and were customarily included in the luncheon following the joint meetings. Otherwise they were limbo. This conference reaffirmed a previous action that two non-trustee members of each Trustee's Committee may attend as observers for one-half of one day with no voice and no vote.
At the closing brunch of the Thirtieth Conference (April 20-26, 1980) Bob P., vice-chairman, characterized it as "outstanding" because of the feeling of unity that prevailed and the number of important decisions that emerged. Among these were: The documentary film, "Alcoholics Anonymous - An Inside View", after a year of restricted and carefully controlled showings, was released for general distribution. The Conference also recommended that the pictures of Bill W. and Dr. Bob remain in the-film. Conference-approval was given to the biography, Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers: also, to the pamphlet, "A Newcomer Asks," adapted from Great Britain. The archives filmstrip, "Markings on a Journey," was approved. After hearing exciting reports about the upcoming 45th Anniversary International Convention in New Orleans, the Conference recommended that simultaneous translations in French, Spanish and German be provided at no charge at the Big Meetings (even though it was not budgeted.) After the Delegates had visited G.S.O. as part of conference week, they made a spontaneous and exuberant recommendation that "when G.S.O. and Grapevine offices are expanded, the offices be modernized and the appearance of the reception area and office as a whole be vastly improved."
The entire Conference sharing session centered on three specific topics concerned with "How well is our Conference structure working?" (1) "Reconsider having 75% of the votes in the hands of the Delegates." (The sense of the meeting overwhelmingly was to retain the present ratio.) (2) "The role of the general service trustees and how they are elected." (After illuminating discussion about their duties, satisfaction was expressed with current procedures.) (3) "The delegate term should be extended from two to three years." (Once again, rotation every two years was favored throughout the whole Conference structure. )
Bob B., Delegate from Southern Minnesota and Delegate Chairperson, was an articulate spokesman, saying he had come to his first Conference the previous year "overprepared and anxious." He continued, "I viewed the staff and trustees as being superior. But (I discovered) they are first and foremost, drunks. They earned their stripes the same way you and I did. I had a tremendous fear of making a mistake. Now I think the greatest ability the Fellowship as a whole has is the ability to withstand mistakes...Our safety doesn't come from making perfect decisions; our safety comes from being a group conscience. If something gets done less than perfectly, there will be another committee, another Conference who will change it if it has to be changed."
And Cec C., rotating Western Canada Regional Trustee, ended his closing talk with, "To the delegates: don't take yourself too seriously, learn to participate and do your homework, as it is difficult to lead people if you don't know where you are leading them. To the staff: please keep dedication and your love. To the board: as we participate, let's always remember we do not represent areas or regions, but A.A. worldwide."
A detailed income and expense statement for the New Orleans International Convention was given to the Thirty-First Conference (April 26—May 2, 1981). It showed a deficit of $202,950 (See Chap. 21) and as a result, the Conference recommended that future Conventions "not be planned to operate on a deficit basis, and...be self-supporting." Also Montreal was approved as the site of the 1985 Convention (subject to General Service Board inspection.)
Dr. Maxwell reported that almost 3,400 new groups in the U.S./Canada listed themselves with G.S.O. in 1980, but expressed concern over the large number not listed. Distribution of the Big Book reached 1,000 copies per day! But the percentage of A.A. groups contributing to the support of G.S.O. continued slowly to decline. However, from literature income, AAWS was able to transfer about $703,500 to the General Fund.
Of note, John B. was approved for election as a General Service Trustee from the AAWS Board. He was to become general manager of G.S.O. four years later.
In addition to normal committee business, the attention of the Thirty-Second Conference was focused on A.A. finances, the publishing operation, G.S.O. and related operating matters. The 18 months prior to Conference time (April 18-24, 1982) was occupied with the construction and refurbishing project at G.S.O. and the Grapevine (see 1980 action, above), during which the staff and employees kept functioning at full capacity despite the demolition and construction going on around them. The Delegates were duly impressed during their Conference tour.
Several presentations were made on "How we run a big (and spiritual) business, "embracing astonishing facts and figures on publishing and finance from Dennis Manders, 0.5.0 controller and chief administrative officer. This was followed by a report by Frank Smeal, Treasurer of the Board; and a look into the Fellowship's financial future by John B., Trustee and Chairman of AA.
At the conclusion of the Conference, Dr. Milton Maxwell stepped down as Chairman, for health reasons. During his term, he had attended all Regional Forums and now expressed his view that they were "one of the Board's most worthwhile endeavors. And from his World Service Meeting experience, he remarked on the "dramatic strengthening of the A.A. service structure" in many countries around the world. Viewing Alcoholics Anonymous as a sociologist, he concluded his farewell talk with these remarks, "What Bill and Dr. Bob and other key persons helped design is different, and I believe A.A.'s survival and effectiveness lie in these very differences. In a general society characterized by competitive striving for status, recognition, power, and their material symbols, A.A. has a recovery program based upon opposite values -upon learning and an un-self-centered way of life...Furthermore, A.A. has a collective life—Traditions, Concepts, minimum structure—that is remarkably in harmony with the basic recovery program. There's no confusion of ends and means. There's an internal harmony of program and principles and practices that stands in striking contrast to the operations of most organizations. While it is true that no human organization lasts forever or is immune from drift or foundering, it appears to me that A.A. is provided with unusual assets for keeping itself on course. My faith in this survival was renewed and strengthened during this wonderful week."
Dr. Maxwell was replaced by Gordon Patrick. (See Chap XX on GSB)
In his report to the Thirty-Third Conference the following year (April 17-23, 1983), Gordon Patrick said, "When I am asked what I feel is A.A.'s biggest current problem, I have to reply, 'Drug addicts attending closed meetings.' At Regional Forums and other service conferences, I hear substantial agreement that A.A. is for alcoholics, not for those with other problems; and I have heard much useful sharing on ways that groups handle the problem. Dr. Jack Norris, in his report at the 1978 Conference, said almost exactly the same thing!"
The Conference recommended that the next membership survey, in 1983, be conducted on a random basis by area (instead of having Delegates distribute the forms). It was also noted that in connection with the previous survey, other A.A. membership surveys had been made by overseas countries: Great Britain, France, Belgium, Finland, Brazil and New Zealand. Their data had been analyzed by John B., who reported that most findings correlated closely with U.S./Canada figures (although significant national differences emerged regarding proportion of women and young people.)
A publishing milestone, the shipping of the three millionth copy of the Big Book, was passed without fanfare as sales continued to grow. Indeed, in January 1983, as many Big Books were sold as in the entire year of 1970.
A highlight of the Thirty-Fourth Conference (April 15-21, 1984) was the report of the A.A. Grapevine on its 40th Anniversary (for a complete history of the Grapevine, see Chap. XX). After running a deficit for several years, which had elicited the concern of previous Conferences, the magazine reported revenues exceeding $1,000,000 for the first time in its history and an operating profit of $14,000. The report attributed this to "an increase in subscriptions, proper pricing for the magazine and special items, and a sharp eye on production costs. Also, the first cassette tapes of stories issued in 1983 were -enthusiastically received, and the 1984 Conference recommended that more tapes be produced.
The Board announced that John B. had been selected to succeed Bob P. as general manager of G.S.O.; and that he would resign his positions as Trustee and a Director of AAWS effective May 1, when he would join the office.
The biography of co-founder Bill W. was approved with the title Pass It On. After more than three years of debate and postponements, the Conference recommended that a pamphlet for the homosexual alcoholic not be developed and that the draft of such a proposed pamphlet which had been developed, be dropped. (For a more complete account, see Chap. XX on Lit.) The Conference rejected the draft of a proposed popularly-written history of A.A.'s "First 50 Years" as being too superficial; however, it was the sense of the meeting that, in keeping with precedent, a souvenir book for the 50th Anniversary International Convention be prepared under the auspices of the Board which would not be intended as lasting A.A. literature and so would not require Conference approval.
The Conference took note of the increase in Hispanic groups in U.S./Canada and made a number of recommendations to encourage their participation in the general service structure, including encouragement of areas to provide for Hispanic districts with a bilingual D.C.M. or other liaison, and to provide G.S.R. schools, seminars and assembly workshops in the Spanish language. In response to a question raised by a Delegate as to what constitutes a quorum at the Conference for voting purposes, it was decided that it was adequately defined and should not be changed. (Nevertheless, this question was brought up again and wrestled with by the two following Conferences.)
Appropriately, "Golden Moments of Reflection" was the theme of the Thirty-Fifth General Service Conference (April 14-20, 1985) marking A.A.'s 50th Anniversary year. (A summary of the state of Alcoholics Anonymous at fifty years is given in the final chapter, Chap. xx. Also, for reaction of the outside world, see Chap. Xx on A.A. in the Media.) In his report, Gordon Patrick, Chairperson of the Board, remarked, "There's no doubt that our rate of growth has been greater during the past five years than previously, much of it through increased participation of young people and dually addicted alcoholics. Court and hospital referrals have created problems, and we have found some solutions that work. We are talking freely about these problems, with less anger, more humor, and more hope. The unity of our Fellowship no longer seems to be threatened, even though difficult problems are yet to be solved. Our resolve to preserve our singleness of purpose seems undiminished."
He also noted that John B. had replaced Bob P. as general manager, would replace Bob on the AAWS Board after the Conference, and would assume full managerial responsibility after the Montreal convention. "After 35 years of service to the Fellowship," Gordon continued, "Dennis Manders will retire in November 1985 at age 60. Dennis...has directed G.S.O.'s administrative affairs during much of that time. The stability of the office and the success of our publishing operations are largely due to his wise and temperate stewardship."
One significant action of the Conference was sparked by staff member Betty L., through whom officials of the Bureau of - Indian Affairs in Washington had asked A.A, for help. When Betty relate the need to the Delegates, they immediately caught fire and authorized G.S.O. "to coordinate and pull together all available information about spreading the A.A. message to the Native American population, including translation of their languages and dialects and the experience of A.A. groups in their contact with these populations."
Preliminary work was authorized on two new audio-visual projects: one an adaptation of the pamphlet, "It Sure Beats Sitting in a Cell," directed toward inmates; the other targeting young people. Another action looked forward to "development of 'The Twelve Concepts Illustrated.'" - (See Chap. 12)
Anticipation of the 50th Anniversary Convention stirred excitement among the conferees. It was reported that advance registrations had already nearly reached the budgeted attendance of 28,000, and it looked as if as many as 50,000 might show up. (See final chapter, Chap. 22).