Stepping Stones

By ROB RYSER

BEDFORD HILLS -- It's hard to say how Alcoholics Anonymous would have ended up if Bill and Lois Wilson had stayed homeless in 1941.

Bill Wilson's only work then was with alcoholics, and his 1939 book about the AA fellowship had not gotten the acclaim that the group's early members expected.

Lois was finding scattered jobs as a decorator, but her real work was keeping the couple off the street. The Wilsons slept at 51 places in two years.

Then 1941 brought what Bill Wilson called a godsend -- a chocolate brown cottage in Bedford Hills with French doors that Lois adored and a fieldstone fireplace that reminded Bill of the East Dorset, Vt., home where he was born.

The house belonged to actress Helen Griffith, whose husband drank himself to death and whose alcoholic friend had been "revived" by an AA group in New Jersey. She knew the Wilsons were destitute and offered them what Bill Wilson later called
"unbelievably easy terms."

The impact that the Wilsons had during the next four decades in the home they named Stepping Stones is still being lived out today. Yet the contributions they made to the understanding of alcoholism, the requirement for spiritual steps in recovery and the need for families of alcoholics to have their own support are so substantial that the National Park Service is preparing to crown the contemporary couple's home as
historic.

"The Wilsons' influence on 20th-century society is immeasurable," reads the nominating statement, prepared by Margaret Gaertner, a preservation specialist with the Dobbs Ferry architectural firm Stephen Tilly. "AA enabled, and continues to
enable, millions of people around the world to achieve and sustain permanent sobriety."

Although it may seem contradictory to call a 20th-century home historic in a region where historic properties often have 200-year pasts, the nominating form says the Wilsons are legends who make it easy to forget that as recently as 1940, alcoholism was considered one of society's great unsolved public health enigmas.

Bill Wilson proclaimed that alcoholism was a disease three decades before the American Medical Association did in 1956. The 12-step solution that Wilson and AA co-founder Dr. Bob Smith created to treat the physical, mental and spiritual
dimensions of alcoholism has become the standard for U.S. hospitals and clinics.

Remarkably, AA was proved not in hospitals but in church basements, where recovering alcoholics shared their experiences, strength and hope to help others find the inspiration and power to stop drinking.

"Wilson realized that only another alcoholic could truly understand the tangled emotions evoked by his debilitating ordeal," reads the nominating form.

The Wilsons' cozy Dutch Colonial, with its barn-like gambrel roof and cement-block studio where Bill Wilson wrote, could be added to the state's Register of Historic Places in the spring. Stepping Stones could then join the National Register of
Historic Places by summer.

Managed by a foundation that Lois Wilson formed in 1979, eight years after Bill's death at 71, Stepping Stones is a sacred site for Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon, the 12-step program co-founded by Lois Wilson for the spouses and children of alcoholics.

Yet, Stepping Stones is not mobbed with pilgrims. A mere 1,000 visitors stop by each year -- and up to half of those come for the annual picnic in June.

"We could increase our visitors by 100 percent, and we could handle it," said Eileen Giuliani, Stepping Stones' executive director.

Of course, she means that theoretically. For one thing, Stepping Stones is surrounded by single-family homes and wants to keep the peace. The other matter is that not all recovering alcoholics and Al-Anons know that Stepping Stones is the Wilson home, much less that it is in Bedford Hills.

The historical designation is sure to raise awareness among AA's 2.2 million members in 100,000 groups worldwide, and among the 29,000 Al-Anon groups with some 387,000 members in 115 countries, according to the organizations' estimates.

Giuliani said federal recognition will advance Stepping Stones' mission to protect the Wilson museum and archives, and promote the tenets of the AA experience.

Neighbors -- for once in Westchester -- seem ready to yield to the prospect of more cars in the neighborhood.

"It's fine with me, and I've been here seven years," said Kim Cassone, a mother of two who lives near Stepping Stones on Oak Street. "They were out there to help people who had problems, and that is a good thing."

Once at Stepping Stones, visitors often feel an unmistakable presence: The air seems sweet, as though bread has been baking, but no one has lived here since Lois died at age 97 in 1988.

The house is as Lois Wilson left it -- wall lengths of books stacked five shelves high, scores of grandmotherly collections, a gallery's worth of photos and framed proclamations by dignitaries ranging from Pope Paul VI to President Eisenhower.

Susan Cheever, a Manhattan resident, will publish a biography, "My Name is Bill: Bill Wilson -- His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous," this month. Cheever, who grew up in Ossining, is the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning short-story writer John Cheever, whose own battle with alcohol she documented in her 1984 memoir, "Home Before Dark."

"It is a very powerful place," Cheever said of Stepping Stones. "The ghosts are still there."

It is a rite for visitors to sit at the 1920s porcelain-topped kitchen table where Bill Wilson had a spiritual breakthrough with his childhood friend Ebby Thatcher, one month before Bill got sober in December 1934. Ignoble as the little white table
seems, it is venerated at Stepping Stones, sometimes drawing tears from those in recovery.

"I was overwhelmed," said Mark W., 51, of Topeka, Kan., a businessman who has been sober 10 years and is obliged under AA's 12 Traditions to be anonymous when speaking to the media.

He has made three pilgrimages to Stepping Stones in the past three years. It was his second visit with his wife when he dropped his composure and cried.

"I already knew how much I lost drinking," he said. "But sitting there made me realize how much I gained by staying sober."

Other relics nearly as special to visitors are the desk in Bill's backyard studio and the desk in the home's upstairs library, where in 1951 Lois Wilson organized the first Al-Anon groups.

It was on Bill Wilson's desk, which he brought to Stepping Stones from New Jersey, that he wrote the important opening 11 chapters to "Alcoholics Anonymous" -- the 575-page AA textbook that has sold 20 million copies.

"I don't want to call Stepping Stones a shrine, but it is pretty close," said Mark. W. "If it hadn't been for those people, I wouldn't be sane."

THE JOURNAL NEWS of Westchester County NY
(Original publication: January 20, 2004)


Some additional items of interest:

Historic Place
Stepping Stones has been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places because Bill and Lois Wilson are national figures who co-founded significant social movements, not because the homestead itself has important architecture.  Yet, the nomination notes that the six buildings on the 8-acre Stepping Stones homestead are intact and unified.
Designed in matching brown shingle siding, white casings and trim, and with bright blue doors, the buildings retain a high level of historic integrity."

Among the highlights:
-A three-bedroom Dutch Colonial main house, built in 1920 as a summer cottage.
-A large living room dominated by a stone fireplace and wall-length French doors.
-The kitchen includes a porcelain-topped table where Wilson first discussed with a newly sober friend the importance of trusting the God of one's own understanding.
-A winding stair leading to a second-floor library preserved as Lois Wilson left when she died in 1988.
-A collection of antiques, glassware, china, photographs, printed materials and musical instruments of the Wilson's, including Bill Wilson's cello and Lois Wilson's piano, which visitors are encouraged to play.
-Bill Wilson's homemade backyard studio, named Wit's End, has a large picture window and the desk where he wrote four books about the AA experience.

Information
Alcoholics Anonymous: Call 212-647-1680, visit the Web site www.aa.org, look up local listings under Alcoholics Anonymous in either the telephone directory's white pages or Yellow Pages, or write Alcoholics Anonymous, Grand Central Station, P.O. Box 459, New York, N.Y. 10163.
Al-Anon Family Groups: Call Al-Anon Information Services at 914-946-1748, visit the Web site www.al-anon.alateen.org or write to the World Service Office for Al-Anon and Alateen, 1600 Corporate Landing Parkway, Virginia Beach, VA 23454-5617.
Stepping Stones: Call 914-232-4822, visit the Web site www.steppingstones.org, or write Stepping Stones Foundation, Box 452, Bedford Hills, N.Y. 10507.

Excerpts from Bill Wilson's letters
In the Spring 1941, after 23 years of marriage and a stretch of homelessness that had lasted two years, Bill and Lois Wilson moved to their first and only true home in Bedford Hills.  Originally they called the home "Bi-Lo's Break,"  because a friend had offered it to them for one-fourth of what it cost to build.  In the next four decades, as the AA and Al-Anon movements that the Wilsons co-founded grew, they added land and buildings to their beloved homestead, which they renamed Stepping Stones.  Here are excerpts from three letters Bill Wilson wrote about Stepping Stones.  The letters are the property of the Stepping Stones Foundation.

>From a Jan. 11, 1941 letter to his mother, Emily Wilson: "It is a rather large house perched on a hill with a magnificent view extending for miles....This house was a dream of Mrs. Griffith, an artist and well-known actress.  Her husband died of alcoholism so she feels quite partial to Lois and me.  "[Griffith] spent about $25,000 on it before getting tired of the project.  I think it can be bought for five or six thousand dollars and hope the Alcoholic Foundation will undertake to make the purchase on a small monthly payment plan over a period of years so that my earnings, if they materialize, can go into
improvements."

>From an April 23, 1941 letter to AA co-founder Dr. Bob Smith in Ohio:  "This place is going to be a godsend for Lois and me...  We can't get over the peace and quiet....  "From anyplace in this living room, you may look out over the treetops on a
swell view of rolling wooded country."

>From an undated letter many years after the Wilsons moved to Stepping Stones:

"The idea of Westchester real estate seemed out of the question....  "One day we visited a new A.A. member in Chappaqua....We remembered the Bedford Hills house Mrs. Griffith had described....Lois and I drove over with [them] to see the house....We broke in at the back window and looked around.... "At the very next meeting Mrs. Griffith approached Lois and me....She told us we might have the Bedford Hills place for $40 a month....It was a great year, 1941."


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