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Story of Alcoholics Anonymous in San Diego
of San Diego, California Alcoholics Anonymous History
S. of San Diego, good friend here in AA, provided the basic
electronic text of this brochure. I performed the cosmetic
changes for this effect. It is a duplication of an original
San Diego Alcoholics Anonymous brochure published over 22
years ago. In 1979 three additional paragraphs were added,
not included in this version, with the closing statement:
"Published August 1979 by permission of the Coordinating
Council of San Diego County Groups of Alcoholics Anonymous."
The Story of Alcoholics
Anonymous in San Diego
Early in November of 1940
a sober alcoholic named Hal S. went looking in San Diego
for another alcoholic who needed help. Hal had been a member
of Alcoholics Anonymous for nearly two years, and he knew
that his sobriety depended on helping other drunks to try
to stay sober. After all Alcoholics Anonymous had started
in 1935 when an alcoholic named Bill W. went looking for
another drunk in Akron, Ohio, and found Dr. Bob.
In San Diego, Hal found Tom B. --- and that was the beginning
of the AA story in San Diego County.
In the fall of 1940, Alcoholics Anonymous was barely known
on the West Coast. The book written by the founders
of AA had been published in 1939, but there had been little
national publicity about this unusual new fellowship of
alcoholics who shared their experience, strength and hope
with each other to solve their common problem and help
others to recover from alcoholism. One year after
the publication of the first edition of the "Big Book,"
the New York headquarters of AA was listing 22 cities
where AA groups were holding weekly meetings, most of
them east of the Rockies. The New York office was
keeping in touch with "loners" in 16 other cities.
The best estimate was that the original 100 members of
AA had grown to about 1,400.
Information about AA had been appearing mainly in various
newspapers. In San Diego, then a city of 200,000,
a story about AA published in The New York Times had caught
the eye of an anxious father whose son Tom was having
the kind of trouble with alcohol that Alcoholics Anonymous
might be able to help. Tom's father wrote to the
author of the Times story, Edwin C. Hill, and obtained
the address of the Alcoholic Foundation, the organization
which had been set up to handle the affairs of AA.
From the foundation he ordered a copy of the book explained
how the AA program works and containing the stories of
some of the men and women the program had helped.
The first AA "Big Book" reached San Diego in May 1940.
But a book supplied by his father did not help Tom.
Months passed, and Tom kept on drinking. It was
later in the year that Hal S., a former San Diegan who
had found sobriety in AA in Los Angeles, decided to return
to San Diego and bring the AA program with him.
He needed a contact in San Diego, and asked the New York
office for help. Form the files in New York came
the name and address of Tom's father.
That led to Hal's introduction to Tom, who agreed to give
the AA program a try as a member of the group Hal was
organizing. In his search for prospective members,
Hal also got some help from a non-alcoholic friend, Ray
Lanto, who was an assistant county assessor. Ray
put Hal in touch with two women, Marge C. and Alta M.,
who were willing to try AA as a solution to their drinking
The first AA meeting in San Diego was held on November
7, 1940, a Friday night, in an apartment at 3229 Adams
Avenue. It brought together four alcoholics -- Hal,
Tom, Marge and Alta. Actually there were 11 people
present altogether, including Tom's parents and friends
and relatives of the others.
Friday became the regular meeting night of the new San
Diego group of Alcoholics Anonymous. The meeting
was held in one member's home, rotating from week to week,
remaining open for the participation of alcoholics and
New members were scarce, but Hal had a solution.
He had been introduced to AA in Los Angeles by an understanding
judge, and knew there was a ideal source of newcomers
for the group -- the city jail. Ray Lanto, who became
an enthusiastic friend of AA in its early days, again
helped out. He persuaded Police Chief J. T. Peterson
that it would be worthwhile to let Hal and his sober friends
hold a meeting every week in the jail at the foot of Marker
Street, which was known to the drinking crowd as "Peterson's
Hotel." So beginning late in 1940, prisoners who
were interested were allowed to leave the cellblock to
meet with AA member from outside on Monday nights.
As expected, some chose to continue their association
with AA after they checked out of "Peterson's Hotel."
In its early months the San Diego group could count on
around 15 alcoholics to attend the Friday night meeting
-- some staying sober, some not. Non-alcoholics
continued to participate fully in activities of the group.
The concept of "open" and "closed" meetings had not yet
In January of 1941, Hal and four members of the group
got a chance to tell their stories on a local radio station,
KFSD, an event which produced a spurt of inquiries about
AA. By this time, a telephone number in a member's home
was being listed to receive calls for Alcoholics Anonymous,
and the group had rented a Post Office box to receive
inquires by mail. Posters were placed in streetcars
and buses giving the AA phone number and mailing address.
A breakthrough in public interest in AA came in March
1941 with the publication of a now-famous article by Jack
Alexander in The Saturday Evening Post, then one of the
most widely read magazines in America. So intense
was the response to this publicity that within a few months
the nationwide membership jumped to 8,000.
The Jack Alexander article also kept the AA phone ringing
in San Diego. Soon, attendance at the Friday night
meeting had reached the point where the crowd could not
be accommodated in the members' homes, and the meeting
was moved to a hall at the East San Diego Women's Club.
The San Diego group held its first picnic in the summer
of 1941 at Eucalyptus Park in La Mesa. By November,
on its first anniversary, the group was listing 75 members,
and was ready to make its first contribution to the New
York office -- $50.
On December 31, 1941, San Diego AA held its first New
Year's Eve dance in a ballroom in the basement of the
Maryland Hotel on F Street. The princely sum of
$35 was spent to hire a student band from San Diego State.
A New Year's party with nothing to drink stronger than
coffee was considered unique enough to merit a story about
the event in one of the San Diego newspapers.
San Diego at that time was being swept into the turmoil
of World War II. AA members were on the move --
into the service or out of town to defense jobs.
Blackouts and gas rationing disrupted the routine of San
Diego life. For a time, the Friday night meeting
was moved to the mezzanine of the California Theater Building
in downtown San Diego, and then to the San Diego Women's
Club on Third Avenue. Although the meeting place
shifted, and faces changed, the continuity of AA in San
Diego was not interrupted during the war years.
Al R., who came to the San Diego group in 1942, recalled
many years later that the secretary would "call the roll"
at the beginning of each meeting. If a name called
and there was no response, someone volunteered to telephone
or visit the missing member. Al recalled that
soon after joining the group, he missed a couple of meetings
in a row and received a postcard from the group secretary
Bill K. Printed on the card was the Serenity Prayer,
and across the bottom Bill had written: "Al, we
missed you at the meeting." Knowing he was missed,
said Al, got him back to the meetings, for good.
Hal S. had brought with him from Los Angeles the custom
of opening each meeting with a reading of a portion of
Chapter Five from the Big Book. This custom had
originated with the group which met at the Cecil Hotel
in Los Angeles; it is still associated with AA in Southern
California. The recitation of the Lord's Prayer
at the end of each meeting also came with Hal from Los
Angeles and has prevailed from the beginning in San Diego.
The Serenity Prayer, familiar to AA members, arrived a
little later. An AA member in New York had spotted
it in a newspaper and called it to the attention of Bill
W., the AA co-founder, and others in the New York office.
They saw that it had a special meaning for alcoholics,
and decided to pass it on to AA members in the newsletter
published in New York for distribution to groups around
the country. By 1942 the prayer was becoming firmly
rooted in AA.
In December of 1943, Bill W. made his first AA talk in
San Diego -- at the Friday night meeting then being held
at the San Diego Women's Club. He and Lois also
were guests at the New Year's Eve party held that year
in the same clubrooms, and Bill helped with the entertainment
by playing his violin.
Hal S. also brought from Los Angeles the unofficial rule
that a member should have been sober at least a year before
leading a meeting. The rule could not always be
followed in San Diego in the early days; often no one
was available to serve as leader who could claim a year's
sobriety. As the fellowship grew, however, the one-year
sobriety requirement endured as a policy for choosing
leaders for the Friday night meeting, even though it did
not always prevail as new, smaller groups began to be
formed after the war.
The first attempt to start a second group came in 1944,
when Jim H. organized a meeting in National City; however,
that group failed to survive. Not until 1945 did
any group make a lasting appearance. Among the earliest
of these were groups in La Mesa, Old Town, North Park,
Mission Hills, a women's group and a young men's group.
About this time, the original group which had come to
be called the Main Group, moved its meeting night to Wednesday.
It was understood that any additional groups would meet
on some other night so that all AA members in the San
Diego area could continue to attend the Wednesday night
main meeting. The first Banquet was held in November
1945 at the San Diego Club.
AA in San Diego reached a milestone in the Spring of 1946.
Attendance at the Wednesday night meeting was running
as high as 200. It was becoming difficult for a
group so large to discuss and vote on the increasing amount
of AA "business" and organizational details that had to
be dealt with. The solution was to invite each of
the seven groups then listed in the county to send representatives
to meeting at the Chamber of Commerce building in Old
Town to establish a "Central Committee" for San Diego
AA. The committee, which held its first meeting
on April 13, 1946, assumed responsibility for recommending
an "over-all general policy" to guide AA activities in
Until that time, AA members had been watching their fellowship
grow with no clear idea of where it was going or how it
would get there. There were no policies to guide
the activities of individual AA members, their groups,
or the fellowship as a whole and to manage its business
affairs. Moreover, the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics
Anonymous had only begun to be disseminated by the New
York office to help individuals and groups find the answers
to the kind of questions that were arising. The
Traditions made their first appearance in the May 6, 1946,
issue of the monthly "Grapevine" being published in New
York. During 1946 and 1947, each issue of the "Grapevine"
included an explanation of one of the traditions.
With Otto R. as chairman and John B. as vice chairman,
the new "Central Committee" in San Diego laid down an
organizational framework which eventually evolved into
the Coordinating Council, giving a voice to all groups
in the affairs of AA in the county. At first, the
work of the Central Committee was tied closely to the
activities of the Main Group. For instance a Leader
elected for a three-month term by the Central Committee
presided at the Wednesday night meeting and represented
AA in any contacts with outside organizations. An
Assistant Leader was responsible for conducting a Beginner's
Meeting preceding the Wednesday night meeting, and automatically
succeeded the Leader after three months. A Secretary
elected for a one-year term served both as secretary to
the Main Group and handled records and correspondence
for the Central Committee. A Finance Committee looked
after the Main Group's collections and dispensed its funds.
Within a year the roster of groups was approaching 20,
and some members of the Central Committee were convinced
that the time had come for AA to rent an office and employ
a secretary full-time. The committee called a general
meeting of San Diego AA members on January 29, 1947, to
decide the issue. A total of 127 members attended
to debate whether AA should assume this new financial
responsibility. The vote was 86 to 41 -- in favor.
This began a period of difficult financial struggle for
San Diego AA -- and opened a wound that was a long time
healing. The La Mesa Group voted to withdraw from
participation in the activities of the Central Committee,
declaring that the plan to open a central office was too
ambitious. The group thereafter considered itself
responsible only to the New York headquarters of AA.
It was several years before the La Mesa group returned
to the fold.
The Central Office opened in 1947 in quarters in the old
Broadway Building, with Elizabeth S., known as "Liz" to
her AA friends, as the paid secretary. The office
moved in 1948 to the California Theater Building, where
it remained until the move to the present location at
2100 Fourth Avenue in 1971.
The Central Committee became the Coordinating Committee
and finally the Coordinating Council, with the voting
system and committee structure undergoing many changes
in ensuing years.
The publication of the Twelve Traditions in the "Grapevine"
helped groups and committees arrive at decisions affecting
the future of the fellowship. In the early years,
for instance, there was no distinction between the AA
program and the social activities that AA members organized
among themselves. Pot-luck dinners, poker parties
and other entertainment were considered as much a part
of AA as the more formal group meetings. One of
the hopes of the new Central Committee was to obtain a
building that could serve as a combination central office
and "clubhouse." Timely advice came from the New
York office that owning or operating clubrooms was incompatible
with the Twelve Traditions.
This did not kill the idea of a club for AA members however.
The "Old Town Social" on Saturday nights had been a popular
AA event for years. Out of it came the inspiration
for organizing San Diego's first Alano Club, which opened
in 1948 in rented quarters at 1358 Fourth Avenue.
Although separately organized and supported in keeping
with the Traditions, it quickly became a unofficial headquarters
for AA social activities.
The Alano Club was a success as a social center but was
not always appropriate as a place where AA members could
practice the 12th step of their program -- carrying the
message to the still-suffering alcoholic. There
was a need for some kind of haven for alcoholics in search
of sobriety who needed a square meal and shelter as well
as the moral support of AA. The result was another
separate organization formed by AA members -- The Pathfinders
-- which opened in a storefront at 127 F Street in 1950
and was the forerunner of the present Pathfinders recovery
home and others like it.
AA members in ensuing years frequently took part in organizing
clubs, recovery homes and other activities inspired by
the principles of sobriety of Alcoholics Anonymous.
At times there was confusion and lively debate about the
proper relationship between the AA fellowship and these
independent activities. The Sixth Tradition of AA
regarding related facilities and outside enterprises finally
became the basis for a policy of cooperation without affiliation.
In 1948 the co-founder of AA, Bill W., visited San Diego
to speak at an unusual public meeting. Hundreds
of doctors, clergymen, lawyers, officials of welfare and
law-enforcement agencies and other interested citizens
filled the Russ Auditorium to hear Bill explain the AA
program and how it works. The audience of 900 made
this the largest meeting ever held in San Diego up to
that time at which the subject was alcoholism.
In that same year, the other AA co-founder, Dr. Bob, also
visited San Diego, and the 13th anniversary of his sobriety
fell during his stay. He received a birthday cake
at the Central Meeting -- a cake with the most candles
ever seen at an AA birthday in San Diego up to that time.
When Lois and Anne, the wives of the co-founders, accompanied
Bill and Dr. Bob to San Diego on their 1948 visits they
found that the seeds of Al-Anon were being sown.
In 1947, the first "Associates Group" for members of the
families of alcoholics had been formed. The Associates
Group became San Diego's first Al-Anon Family Group when
the Al-Anon organization came into being in the early
The custom of observing the anniversary of sobriety with
birthday cakes goes back to the beginning of AA in San
Diego. In 1950, the now-familiar 90-day token came
into use in AA groups as a symbol of early achievement
of sobriety. The token, bearing the text of the
Serenity Prayer, was created by Bill B., an engraver and
AA associate whose wife Grace had found sobriety in AA
The first issue of "The Coordinator" -- the newsletter
distributed to AA groups and members in the San Diego
area -- appeared in October 1948. The newsletter
served to keep members abreast of the AA activities, and
also to remind them of their obligation to the support
of the Central Office. Contributions from groups
and the proceeds from passing the basket at the Wednesday
night meeting was consistently falling short of covering
the office expenses. Early in 1950 the Central Committee
voted to establish the "Buck-A-Month Club" as a way for
individual AA members to contribute directly to the support
of the Central Office.
The present Hospital and Institution Committee is an outgrowth
of the Monday night jail meeting which dates from before
World War II. In the mid-1940s AA members began
carrying the message into the psychiatric ward of the
County Hospital, and then into County and State honor
camps on the outskirts of San Diego. The separate
committees responsible for these meetings finally were
merged into an H&I Committee to coordinate the entire
The General Service Conference of Alcoholics Anonymous
was established in 1951 to serve as an assembly of delegates
from throughout the world, assuming responsibility for
the future of AA services. This brought into being
the San Diego Area Assembly to elect a delegate to the
General Services Conference in New York and to carry back
to the groups the results of each conference. Tom
B., who had been one of the four alcoholics at the first
AA meeting in San Diego in 1940, was elected as San Diego's
first New York delegate in 1951.
AA grew steadily in San Diego. The Wednesday night
Central Meeting was moved from the San Diego Women's Club
to the Craftsmen's Hall on Centre Street to accommodate
the growing attendance. Finally that hall became
too small. On March 7, 1956, the meeting was moved
to the more spacious Veterans War Memorial Building in
Balboa Park, where it has been held each Wednesday night
From one meeting of four alcoholics in 1940, San Diego
AA has grown to include more than 300 groups with a combined
membership in the thousands. Meanwhile, the fellowship
of Alcoholics Anonymous has circled the world and currently
numbers more than one-million members in 30,000 groups.