AA founder's St. Johnsbury birthplace turning into addiction recovery center

May 23, 2005

ST. JOHNSBURY – The birthplace of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Robert Smith is branching out to become a center for addiction recovery.

Born at home in 1879 to strict, religious parents, the man known to recovering alcoholics as "Dr. Bob" grew up to establish A.A. following decades of uncontrolled drinking. Smith started the volunteer recovery group in 1935 while living in the Midwest when a conversation with fellow alcoholic and Vermonter Bill Wilson ended a long string of booze-induced stupors.

The organization spawned from that conversation has blossomed into A.A. chapters throughout the country, including one in Smith's boyhood home on the corner of Center and Summer streets behind the North Congregational Church.

Today, his former home also plays host to new substance abuse treatment programs, including the state's first soon-to-be established mobile methadone program.

As Smith's story tells, addiction is not a new problem.

Smith's problems started when he was growing up in St. Johnsbury, according to "Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers," a book published in 1980 by Alcoholics Anonymous.

"Young Bob had his first drink one summer day when he was just turning nine years old," the book reads. "He was at a neighbor's farm helping the men bale hay. Wandering off, he found a jug of hard cider hidden by one of the farmhands."

It apparently went downhill from there. An 1898 St. Johnsbury Academy graduate, Smith drank his way through Dartmouth College, pre-medicine at the University of Michigan, and much of his career as a doctor. Even a law passed in 1918 prohibiting use and sale of alcohol did not stop Smith's addiction, according to the book, which went on to describe the birth of A.A. The coming of Prohibition led Smith to stash a supply of liquor "for medicinal purposes," which lead to a 17-year drinking binge.

Smith unwittingly helped found Alcoholic Anonymous in 1935 when Wilson, a self-proclaimed "rum hound," visited Smith to keep himself from drinking and both somehow stayed sober after that meeting. Smith died in 1950 and Wilson in 1971, but A.A. continues.

Drug addiction and recovery are still big issues in St. Johnsbury, a town targeted to host the state's first mobile methadone clinic hub site because Caledonia County has the most addicts seeking recovery per capita.

Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital purchased the home in April 1991. The property now hosts regular Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and also houses Tri-County Substance Abuse Services. Most recently, the home has become an information hub for members of DART, a name that stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Team. DART is a grass-roots drug prevention group made up of volunteer counselors and community outreach workers dedicated to helping drug and alcohol addicts clean up.

DART recently held its annual retreat at Dr. Bob's boyhood home to "take stock of where we were and where we are headed," said Sam Silverman, a longtime addiction counselor and founding member of DART. Since forming about four years ago as part of an effort to publicize heroin addiction among area youth, Silverman and others have implemented several programs to help curb addiction.

"Our central premise is 'a caring community'," Silverman said. "The hostility in the community makes it difficult for people to get in recovery and stay in recovery," he added, saying communication is the key.

DART's first big accomplishment was to produce "Here Today" – a documentary about heroin use in St. Johnsbury. Silverman credits the documentary with helping to change some opinions about addicts. DART members showed "Here Today" all over the state, including in the Statehouse, Silverman said," to discuss the country's approach using the criminal justice system as a way to respond to a health problem."

There has been a change in the community's attitude toward addiction recovery since "Here Today" was first screened, he said, especially among the business community, the selectboard and St. Johnsbury Academy.

DART also started the Kingdom Recovery Center at Dr. Bob's House in June 2004. The St. Johnsbury selectboard recently approved a $90,000 grant application for the Recovery Center to help offenders re-entering the community after serving jail sentences.

During DART's retreat at Dr. Bob's house, members agreed to keep substance abuse issues in the public eye, including programs aimed at drug prevention among area youth. Preventing drug use starts as early as fourth grade, according to DART member Steve Kline. Mentoring and increasing family activities in town might also help prevent drug abuse, Kline said.

"We will concentrate in all aspects of our efforts, to bring a powerful, positive and beautiful message of strong community and familial ties as the best prevention method," Kline said

Smith might have approved of the recovery activities going on at his former home.

"When Dr. Bob was getting ready to die, he wanted to do three things. He wanted to go to St. Johnsbury once more; he wanted to go to Texas for Christmas; and he wanted to make that appearance at A.A.'s first International Convention in Cleveland," states "Dr. Bob and the Good Old-timers." Some of his final words of advice to fellow recovering alcoholics urged simplicity and kindness.

When Smith addressed hundreds of attendees at the 1950 convention, he said, "Let us guard against that erring member the tongue, and if we must use it, lets use it with kindness and consideration and tolerance."

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