The following story appeared in TIME © on July 11, 1960.
15,000 men and women who thronged California's Long Beach Memorial Stadium last
week differed from most conventioneers in one major respect, there was no danger
that any of them would get together in a hotel room to kill a bottle For this
was Alcoholics Anonymous, mustering its recovered, sworn-off drinkers, their
relatives and well-wishers to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
Uncrowned but undisputed head of A.A. is Bill W., a tall Vermonter in his early 60s who drank himself out of a lucrative career as a high-risk stock operator. "In 1934," he recalls, "My doctor told my wife that if I didn't stop I'd have to be locked up because I'd either go mad or die." Bill W. didn't stop until he drank himself into a hospital and realized that he must stop or die. He had to find another drunk in the same predicament so that by helping each other they would ensure their own survival. In Akron, in June of 1935, he found his friend, Dr. Bob (who died of cancer in 1950). Together they founded A.A. and laid out the basis for its famous twelve tenets.
NEITHER CHASE NOR CHASTISE
Last week, in his unofficial presidential
address, Co-Founder Bill W. noted that the organization today counts 300,000
members in more than 8,000 groups in about 80 countries. Yet A.A. did not
congratulate itself for any wholesale success. "In the U.S. alone there are
still at least 5,000,000 active alcoholics, and perhaps 25 million worldwide.
It is an awesome number that A.A. would be glad to help, said Bill W. We are
not going to chase them, chastise them, or campaign for them. All we can hope
is that they will come to us for help when help is what they want."
A.A.'s wait-and-accept philosophy is the key to its success to date. About 50% to 75% of all alcoholics will respond to A.A., many of the toughest cases simply never enroll.
THE THOUGHT OF POWER.
The passion for public anonymity is readily understandable at the individual level. Every alcoholic needs pals on whom he can lean for help, and whom he can help to bolster his own ego. At the organizational level the anonymity is more complex. Bill W., a forceful speaker with a cutting wit explains: "Identification leads to power drives. The thought of power is one reason we were drunks in the first place. A.A. takes no denominational, political, or economic stands. It stays out of controversy. We do not claim that anonymity is a virtue. Rather it is a protection." In proof of his own passion for anonymity, Bill W. has refused an honorary doctorate from Yale. "A degree for what?" he asks "For being the world's leading drunk?"
The third A.A. International Convention was
held in Long Beach, California, in 1960.
There were twice as many people at Long Beach as at St. Louis, but the convention seemed to be fraught with problems from the beginning. Hank G., who was then manager of the General Service Office, was handling the preparation for this convention, but while visiting Las Vegas with his wife on his way to California he was stricken with appendicitis and ended up in a hospital.
Then Herb M., the chairman of the trustees' General Services Committee, who was probably the next best person for the job, took over, but he was suddenly
stricken with a heart attack in upstate New York.
So at the very last moment another trustee, Allen B., stepped in to handle the planning. Nell Wing, Bill's secretary, said that Allen was "a good administrator, extremely capable and well-liked." He was assisted by an Al S. Bill, accompanied by Allen, someone named Dennis Manders (whom I haven't identified), and a staff secretary named Hazel R., went out to California several days early to help prepare.
Lois and Nell Wing followed on the flight on which Bill had originally been scheduled. When they landed, they were met by members of the hospitality committee. After greeting Lois the committee members continued to wait around until Lois asked if they were ready to leave. They replied, "We're waiting for Bill's Chinese secretary." Lois laughed and said, "This is Nell Wing right here," pointing to the obviously Caucasian Nell.
Nell said that "Bill planned to make a major talk on Saturday night. He wanted it to be the definitive story of the how and why of the Twelve Traditions. But because of the many distractions resulting from Hank's illness, Bill hadn't had the time to prepare for this important talk. Nell spent the whole day Saturday with him going over and over the outline and notes for the speech. "I typed and retyped them as he changed and added," she wrote. "Finally, we left for the open-air stadium on the ocean where the huge crowd had gathered."
A record cold spell hit Long Beach, which is extremely rare for July in that part of the world. Nobody had brought any warm clothes, so in contrast to St. Louis where Nell says they "almost melted," they almost froze.
Bill was very long winded that night. (It's always easier to give a shorter talk if you have adequate time to prepare.) He went on and on for more than two hours. Nell said it was the longest talk he ever made. To make matters worse, the public address system did not work well and Lois and the trustees, who were seated on the stage behind the podium, couldn't hear a word for the entire two hours.
Bill later was often teased about his "Deepfreeze Talk" -- as he himself described it. Amazingly, according to Nell, almost everyone stayed until the end, shivering and shaking.
On Sunday, in the same stadium, the people who attended the conference were treated to a spectacular show featuring a popular orchestra and some of Hollywood's brightest stars including Buster Keaton, Jane Mansfield, Dennis Day, and Peggy Lee -- all of whom donated their talent without charge.
Clancy I., sitting up front in the audience, bundled himself with newspapers inside his clothes. Looking like a wino, he attracted almost as much attention as the performers.
Bill B., an entertainer who was the Master of Ceremonies, kidded Bill lovingly about the length of the talk. Nell said that Bill laughed, too, and took it all in good humor.
I'm sure everyone fortunate enough to be able to attend this convention came away greatly edified. Nonetheless, there were problems. At least one oldtimer felt hurt that he wasn't given recognition. Jim Burwell, an early New York member (then living in California), whose story "The Vicious Cycle" appears in the Big Book, apparently had written Bill asking for some role at the convention. I assume this from a letter Bill wrote Jim on July 1, 1958. It said in part: "I note that what you say about the upcoming 1960 Conference and will suggest your name to the committee. They tell me there is still some question whether Long Beach will be big enough to accommodate the crowd. Judging, however, by the action of the Conference, I think we shall make the best of what is there. It is certainly the largest center of population and this would guarantee the gate at once."
Jim must have written again asking for recognition of "oldtimers" because Bill wrote him on May 24, 1960: "I wish we had thought of an oldtimers meeting earlier. I'm taking this up with the office, but I imagine the schedule is pretty tight, as matters now stand. I don't know how we would go about getting such a crowd together - where and how we would find them and so forth. But I'll inquire."
Jim must have complained bitterly to Bill about the convention because Bill wrote a very tactful letter to him on August 8, 1960, just a short time after the convention ended. In it he said in part:
"Very sincerely I feel not a little badly that the convention gave you and perhaps other very old timers, an unhappy experience because of the lack of recognition. When you wrote me, not too long before the Convention, about the possibility of an old timers meeting, I did check this up. The schedule was then in pretty air-tight shape, so far as the official sessions went.
Perhaps I should have followed this thing
through more fully, trying to get some sort of informal meeting together.
"As you know, Hank got awfully sick just prior to the Convention. This threw added burdens on me. I must confess to neglect and forgetfulness -- at least to some extent. As a matter of fact, the Convention ran a little bit behind several thousands, we don't know just how much yet. There was always a question of how many people we could bring long distances pre-paid, and on what ground we could fetch them. In this connection, I did [not] give you and Rosa much thought because you [live] near by. But I did think a good deal about Henrietta Seiberling and Bob Oviatt in Akron, both of whom preceded you, I think, A.A.-wise.
"Admittedly, I did not think of Clarence. Probably this is because he has always disapproved of conventions and all of the doings of the New York headquarters -- off and on he has had us under bitter attack for years. I didn't mean to let that affect me, but subconsciously maybe it did. In any case, you will surely remember that I tried to give all possible credit in 'A.A. Comes of Age' to you, Bert, Dorothy, Clarence, and a great many others.
"Considering the time at my disposal, I did not see how you people could have
been introduced in either of my talks. In the first one I could only show the bare beginnings of A.A. In the second one - which was altogether too long - I had to dwell on the development of the Traditions. I really don't see where you folks would have fitted in - at least to the satisfaction of the audience - in that respect. Naturally I had to bring in Ebby because, despite his lack of sobriety since, he was at the very beginning. Sister Ignatia was certainly due for a bow after all these years. After all, she and Smith ministered to 5,000 drunks - a number far greater than you and I ever thought of touching ourselves.
"In this connection I also felt not a little sorry that Henrietta wasn't invited. There was not only the question of cost. Though she has been extremely friendly during the last two or three years, it must be remembered that she has never cared for the convention idea and indeed, was against the whole New York headquarters operation for many years. For several reasons she wasn't invited.
"Maybe that was a mistake. I know that, for one, I was damn sorry she wasn't there. However, I wasn't the entire boss of this whole undertaking, by any means.
"I don't know whether you and Dorothy got to say anything at those Alkathon meetings. Some of them were very outstanding indeed, and apparently rated much higher in many A.A. minds than any of my efforts. If you were not invited, this [is] surprising indeed, considering how prominent you, especially, have been out on the Coast, well known to everybody. If this was an omission, it certainly gives me cause for wonder, as doubtless it does you. However, those arrangements were all made by the Coast people.
"Nevertheless I suppose if I had been thoughtful enough about it - which I wasn't - I might have taken particular pains.
"I guess the upshot of it is that life never gives quite the deal we would like. On one hand, you say that you suffer from lack of recognition, and I say with certain equal fervor that I greatly suffer from far too much."
One can feel some pain for Bill in his efforts to keep so very many alcoholics -- most of us with oversized egos -- happy and working together.
Grateful To Have Been There©, by Nell Wing Bill W. correspondence.
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