AA Members Old and New Bask in Dr. Bob's Shadow

Here is a copy of the Cleveland Plain Dealer article about Founders Day weekend in Akron for the 67th Anniversary 06/10/02

 

Brian E. Albrecht, Plain Dealer Reporter, Akron- A thousand or more choppers rumbled through a scotch-colored sunrise; hot pipes burning morning mists white as beer foam to a blue-smoke crisp.

The bellow of bikes, trikes, crotch-rockets and cross-country cruisers pounded the air, echoing through downtown streets yesterday, shadowing the motorcade to Mount Peace Cemetery.

Bikers of the Sober Survivors, Sober Riders and other road roamers raised tattooed arms in a clenched-fist salute as this river of black leather and chrome flowed past tombstones and cheering spectators.

They were bound for hope, strength and, in essence, the biggest sobriety checkpoint in the nation this past weekend - the place where Dr. Bob, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was laid to rest, stone-cold sober after 15 years of recovery.

More than 10,000 members from across the country and places as far-flung as India and Russia, came to the city where the group was born, as they do each year to mark Founders' Day, the self-help organization's birthday. Here, they both honor the past and ensure the future by celebrating their present days, weeks or years of sobriety.

They know each other only by first name and addiction. It's enough, even if they vary in every conceivable way. "Different folks, same pain," as Theresa of Dayton says.

There's "Dog," of the Sober Survivors, who says the non-drinking motorcycle group passes up bars on road trips anymore, "but we know where to find every Dairy Queen."

And Dan, a 61-year-old Wayne County Amish man who nearly drank himself to death, coughing up blood after binges on booze, including home-brewed hard cider. Kevin, 54, of London, England, got his call to sobriety 19 years ago - "That's rock bottom, when your own mum throws you out of the house." Marty, 72, of New Brighton, Pa., echoed many who said they simply quit when they "got sick of being sick."

They wear their emotions on their sleeves, backs and chests, in AA slogans and sayings. "Ride sober, live free." "Insist on enjoying life." They're always ready with a hug, handshake or cheer after the standard, "My name is . . . and I'm an alcoholic" introduction. They're the Serenity-Prayer, one-day-at-a-time people; only an arm's length away from the next drink. Survivors of the same shipwreck, as they say.

They came to see where it all began 67 years ago when two men created a group that now numbers about 2 million members worldwide.

Fate, or divine intervention as many AA members believe, led to a fortuitous meeting between local surgeon Dr. Robert Smith and New York stockbroker William Wilson, both alcoholics who struggled to overcome their addiction for years.

Wilson - born, coincidentally, in a small room behind a Vermont bar - was hospitalized several times after drinking binges. He had achieved some sobriety success through the Oxford Group, a nonalcoholic fellowship stressing universal spiritual values in daily life.

But during a discouraging business trip to Akron in 1935, Wilson was seized by an intense desire to tie one on.

He desperately paced between a church directory posted at one end of the hotel lobby and the Parisian Cocktail lounge at the other end.

He finally called an Akron clergyman, and was connected with a local Oxford Group member who brought Wilson together with Smith.

The two spent a sobering Mother's Day, forging a friendship and later a treatment philosophy and 12-step recovery program that became the foundation for Alcoholics Anonymous. Their approach was to treat alcoholism as a disease, not a mental or character flaw, that could be overcome through the support of fellow alcoholics and a greater, spiritual power.

In keeping with AA's tradition of anonymity, the group's co-creators become known among members as simply Bill and Dr. Bob.

Founders' Day grew out of a series of yearly member meetings (formalized in 1945), and is held as close as possible to June 10, the day Dr. Bob took his last drink - a bottle of beer to steady his hands, shaking from alcohol withdrawal, so he could operate. Dr. Bob never drank again, and died in 1950. Bill died in 1971.

Their legacy endures beyond the group they created, in historic sites treated as virtual shrines by AA members - and rightly so, according to Founders' Day committee member Bob, of Akron.

"Akron is really the Mecca of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Founders' Day is a pilgrimage for people who want to see where it was all born," he said. Touching his heart, he said, "To walk into Dr. Bob's house, what you feel right here is such an overwhelming feeling of peace and serenity, you can't describe it."

The white clapboard house, restored to reflect Dr. Bob's tenure, is open for tours from noon to 3 p.m. every day, year-round. But the place is mobbed by the faithful, passing under a "Welcome Home" banner, on Founders' Day weekend. Ardmore Avenue residents have learned that the event is a great time to hold a yard sale, and the street takes on a festive, block-party air.

It didn't spoil the effect of the house on Patty of Toronto, making her first Founders' Day visit. "The feeling I get, being touched by somebody who saved so many lives, is just so moving it brings tears to my eyes," she said.

The house was included on bus tours Saturday of such historic local AA sites as the former Kistler's Donuts (now a print shop), where the group's first members gathered to enjoy a little coffee and deep-fried fellowship - giving rise to the now-traditional java-and-doughnuts meeting fare.

Bus riders saw the old Mayflower Hotel (now public housing), where Bill had his crisis of thirst; archives and artifacts (including Dr. Bob's golf clubs and correspondence) of the Akron Intergroup Council of Alcoholics Anonymous; and St. Thomas Hospital, where the founders and Sister Mary Ignatia first put the 12-step method to practical use.

As the bus passed a private club where Dr. Bob once hung out, Marilyn, the tour guide, noted that ladies had a separate bar in the club. "Back then, men didn't think we could drink like them," she said.

"Boy, we showed them!" a woman shouted back, to laughter.

As the Akron police headquarters came into view, Marilyn noted, "By the grace of God, none of us will be there tonight." A chorus of "Amens" rippled through the bus, joined by shouts of "Serenity!" and "Acceptance!"

"Gee, ain't it great to be sober?" Marilyn asked; perhaps the most oft-heard question of the weekend.

She would get no argument from AA members attending workshops and meetings at the University of Akron, which provided use of its dorms and facilities for the Friday-through-Sunday Founders' Day events. A visitor to a "Recovery Art Show" stared silently at a painting, "Last Call for Alcohol," depicting a skeletal Angel of Death hovering over a crumpled victim of booze. The man finally softly whispered, "I was nearly there. I truly was."

As was the white-whiskered and suspendered Dan, from Ohio Amish country, outside napping under a shade tree. He still remembers the "lost" weeks of binge drinking, and the time he came so close to death that his family was planning his funeral.

Remembering helps recovery, Dan said. So does gratitude for a second chance. "You very seldom see a grateful person getting drunk," he said with a wink.

He has come to Founders' Day nearly every one of the 24 years he has been sober, to renew old friendships and meet new friends. They're people who talk the same language, he said.  Folks who know what only other drunks know.

But some of the weekend's guests who aren't AA members have a pretty good idea of those matters of the bottle. Rich, 47, of Dayton, never has had a drink. He swears he never will after seeing the results of alcohol on an older brother and sister, who he supports by joining them at Founders' Day. "I'm one of the lucky ones," he said while waiting for Saturday night's "Big Meeting" to begin.

The meeting was the weekend's hottest-ticket event, with all the foot-stomping, song-singing fervor of an old-fashioned tent revival, and musical motivation ranging from "Amazing Grace" to "We Will Rock You."

The affair's traditional countdown of sobriety duration among the crowd produced one person who hadn't had a drink in 54 years, when martinis were in vogue the first time around.

Featured speaker David, a prominent New York lawyer with five college degrees, told of a former lifetime of drinking stretching from rural North Carolina to the White House during the Kennedy administration. He joked that as co-author of early civil-rights legislation, "If you don't have adequate civil rights, blame me. I wrote the bill in a blackout."

On a serious note, he stressed a theme of responsibility. "I am not responsible for my drinking," he said. "I am responsible, with the help of God, for my sobriety." He closed his remarks by thanking AA for helping him to be free; "free at last, thank God almighty," borrowing the famous quotation from the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

A sense of dead men talking resumed early Sunday morning with the motorcycle motorcade and gravesite memorial service when a tape of Dr. Bob's last public appearance in 1950 was played for the crowd.

Few seemed to find it eerie when Dr. Bob's deep voice boomed over the loudspeaker, saying, "I get a big thrill out of looking over this vast sea of faces like this with a feeling that possibly some small thing that I did a number of years ago played an infinitely small part in making this meeting possible."

This was, after all, Dr. Bob. One of the men who bring them here, year after year. They gather shortly after sunrise and slowly - almost instinctively as the crowd grows - surround his grave in tightly packed circles of gratitude and joy.

"Look around you," said Dog of the Sober Survivors, who credits his first Founders' Day three years ago with putting him on the road to sobriety. "Every one of these people is a miracle that 'normal' people have written off. And Dr. Bob was one of those two men who showed us the way." Dr. Bob's grandson, Mick Galbraith, 58, came from Knoxville, Tenn., to attend his first Founders' Day. "It's a proud day for everybody, though this is probably more hoopla than Dr. Bob would've liked to see," said Galbraith, who is not an AA member.

"It's just an unbelievable thing to see people who are so grateful," he added. "I don't think this [gravesite] should ever be a shrine or anything, but it's a nice connection to keep people strong and help them realize that mere mortals can do great things."

After a speaker's remarks regarding the life of Dr. Bob and his wife, Anne, three bagpiped verses of "Amazing Grace" were played. Silence and tears accompanied the first verse.

Then slowly, a soft hum rose from the crowd, echoing the second verse, growing louder and stronger. For the finale, a chorus of voices rose to the clear blue skies.

"I once was lost but now I'm found. Was blind but now I see."

They joined hands and recited the Lord's Prayer with one extra line; a promise, an invitation . . .

"Keep coming back."

Cleveland Plain Dealer


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