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DIGEST, Vol. 35: 47-50, June, 1971
W. LIVES ON
by John W. Stevens
Griffith Wilson died Jan. 24 at the age of 75. The
announcement of his death revealed that he was the Bill
W. who was
co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.
his bedside was his wife, Lois, who had remained loyal
during his years as a "falling down" drunk. Later
she had worked
at his side to aid other alcoholics. She is a founder of
Al-Anon and Alateen groups, which deal with the fears and
insecurity suffered by spouses and children of problem drinkers.
Wilson gave permission to break his A.A. anonymity upon
his death in a signed statement in 1966. The role of Dr.
Holbrook Smith, Dr. Bob, the other A.A. founder, was disclosed
when the Akron, Ohio, surgeon died of cancer in 1950.
fathering the doctrine that members should not publicize
their A.A. affiliation, Bill W. had explained that "anonymity
isn't just something to save us from alcoholic shame and
its deeper purpose is to keep those fool egos of ours from
hog wild after money and fame at A.A.'s expense."
Bill W., Mr. Wilson shared his experience in hundreds of
talks, but mindful that he himself was "just another
Bill who can't handle booze," declined a salary for
his work in
behalf of the fellowship. He supported himself on the royalties
from his four A.A. books: Alcoholics Anonymous, The Twelve
and Twelve Traditions, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age,
A.A. Way of Life. In the program's early years, Mrs. Wilson
in a department store to augment the family income.
the years, the gaunt, six-footers hair turned wispy
white, and his step slowed. In 1962 he retired from active
administration of A.A. affairs, but continued to speak at
occasional dinners. Last Oct. 10, he was under hospital
acute emphysema and was unable for the first time to attend
A.A. banquet at which his "last-drink anniversary"
celebrated annually. His greetings were delivered by his
the 2,200 A.A. members and guests at the New York Hilton.
Wilson shunned oratory and impressed listeners with the
simplicity and frankness of his story. In his native East
Vt., where he was born Nov. 26, 1895, he recalled, "I
was tall and
gawky and I felt pretty bad about it because the smaller
could push me around. I remember being very depressed for
or more, then I developed a fierce resolve to win."
goaded by a deep sense of inferiority, yet became captain
high-school baseball team. He learned to play the violin
enough to lead the school orchestra. He majored in engineering
Norwich (Vt.) university for three years, then enrolled
Officers Training school when the U.S. entered the 1st World
the Army, 2nd Lt. Wilson and fellow officers were
entertained by patriotic hostesses, and Bill W. was handed
first drink, a Bronx cocktail. Gone, soon, was his sense
from active service in France, with a hangover, Mr.
Wilson broke into Wall Street as an investigator for a surety
company. On a motorcycle, his wife riding astern, he toured
Northeast. His confidential reports on the potential of
little-known industrial organizations later produced quick
profits for his clients and himself.
those Roaring Twenties," he remembered, "I was
to dream great dreams of greater power." His wife became
increasing concerned, but he assured her that "men
conceive their best projects when drunk."
the crash of 1929, Mr. Wilson's funds melted away, but his
confidence failed to melt with it. "When men were leaping
deaths from the towers of high finance," he noted,
"I went back to
the bar. I said, and I believed, that 'I can build this
more.' But I didn't. My alcoholic obsession had already
me. I became a hanger-on in Wall Street." Numbing doses
gin, bootleg whiskey, and New Jersey applejack became Bill
answer to all his problems.
in 1934, he was visited by an old barroom companion,
Ebby T., who disclosed that he had been freed from the drinking
compulsion with help from the First Century Christian Fellowship
(now known as Moral Re-Armament), a movement founded in
the late Dr. Frank N.D. Buchman, and often called the Oxford
W. was deeply impressed and was desperate, but he felt
he had one more prolonged drunk left in him.
and clutching a bottle of beer, Bill W. staggered a
month later into Towns hospital, an upper Manhattan institution
for the treatment of alcoholism and drug addictions. Dr.
Duncan Silkworth, his friend, put him to bed.
Wilson recalled then what Ebby T. had told him, "You
admit you are licked; you get honest with yourself. You
whatever God you think there is, even as an experiment."
found himself crying out, "If there is a God, let Him
Himself. I am ready to do anything."
he remembers, "the room lit up with a great white
light. I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no
describe. It seemed that a wind not of air but of spirit
blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man."
feared that he had been hallucinating and described his
experience to Dr. Silkworth. "No, Bill, you aren't
doctor said. "Something has happened to you that I
understand. But you had better hang on to it. Anything is
than the way you were."
slowly, and fired with enthusiasm, Mr. Wilson
envisioned a chain reaction among drunks, one carrying the
of recovery to the next. Emphasizing at first his spiritual
regeneration, he struggled for months to "sober up
the world." but
got almost nowhere.
Bill," Dr. Silkworth cautioned, "you are preaching
those alkies. You are talking about the Oxford Group precepts
absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love. Give
medical business, and give it to 'em hard, about the obsession
that condemns them to drink. That coming from one alcoholic
another, may crack those tough egos."
Wilson thereafter concentrated on the basic philosophy
that alcoholism is a physical allergy coupled with a mental
obsession, an incurable through arrestable illness of body,
and spirit. Much later, the disease concept of alcoholism
accepted by a committee of the American Medical Association
the World Health Organization.
dry six months after emerging from the hospital, Mr.
Wilson went to Akron to participate in a stock proxy fight.
lost, and was about to lose another bout as he paced outside
bar. Panicky, he remembered that he had thus far stayed
trying to help other alcoholics.
Oxford Group channels that night, he gained an
introduction to Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith, a surgeon who
vainly sought medical cures and religious help for his compulsive
drinking. Bill W. discussed with the doctor his release
was the first living human with whom I had ever talked
who intelligently discussed my problem from actual experience,"
Dr. Bob said later. "He talked my language."
new friends agreed to share with fellow alcoholics their
experience, strength, and hope. The society of Alcoholics
Anonymous was born on June 10, 1935, the day on which Dr.
downed his last drink and embraced the new program.
the movement spread, but the early members, and
especially the founders, were very poor. When the program
years old, Bill W. characteristically became impatient,
promote the movement on a grandiose scale.
had a vision of comfortable and well-paying jobs, chains
of A.A. hospitals and tons of free literature for suffering
alkies. Dr. Bob and I met with John D. Rockefeller, Jr.,
fall of 1937. We were awfully broke, and hoped for millions.
Mr. Rockefeller said, 'I think money will spoil this,'
and A.A. stayed poor. We had earlier been impressed by St.
of Assisi. His movement had practiced corporate poverty
belief that the less money and property to quarrel about,
would be the diversion from their primary purpose. John
wisely forced us to live up to that philosophy."
a legacy Bill W. leaves a program of recovery to 475,000
acknowledged alcoholics in 15,000 A.A. groups throughout