CATHOLIC DIGEST, Vol. 35: 47-50, June, 1971
BILL W. LIVES ON
by John W. Stevens
William Griffith Wilson died Jan. 24 at the age of 75. The announcement of his death revealed that he was the Bill W. who was co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.
At his bedside was his wife, Lois, who had remained loyal during his years as a “falling down” drunk. Later she had worked at his side to aid other alcoholics. She is a founder of the Al-Anon and Alateen groups, which deal with the fears and insecurity suffered by spouses and children of problem drinkers.
Mr Wilson gave permission to break his A.A. anonymity upon his death in a signed statement in 1966. The role of Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith, Dr. Bob, the other A.A. founder, was disclosed when the Akron, Ohio, surgeon died of cancer in 1950.
In fathering the doctrine that members should not publicize their A.A. affiliation, Bill W. had explained that “anonymity isn’t just something to save us from alcoholic shame and stigma; its deeper purpose is to keep those fool egos of ours from running hog wild after money and fame at A.A.’s expense.”
As Bill W., Mr. Wilson shared his experience in hundreds of talks, but mindful that he himself was “just another guy named Bill who can’t handle booze,” declined a salary for his work in behalf of the fellowship. He supported himself on the royalties from his four A.A. books: Alcoholics Anonymous, The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, and The A.A. Way of Life. In the program’s early years, Mrs. Wilson worked in a department store to augment the family income.
Over the years, the gaunt, six-footers hair turned wispy white, and his step slowed. In 1962 he retired from active administration of A.A. affairs, but continued to speak at occasional dinners. Last Oct. 10, he was under hospital care for acute emphysema and was unable for the first time to attend the A.A. banquet at which his “last-drink anniversary” has been celebrated annually. His greetings were delivered by his wife to the 2,200 A.A. members and guests at the New York Hilton.
Mr. Wilson shunned oratory and impressed listeners with the simplicity and frankness of his story. In his native East Dorset, Vt., where he was born Nov. 26, 1895, he recalled, “I was tall and gawky and I felt pretty bad about it because the smaller kids could push me around. I remember being very depressed for a year or more, then I developed a fierce resolve to win.” Bill was goaded by a deep sense of inferiority, yet became captain of his high-school baseball team. He learned to play the violin well enough to lead the school orchestra. He majored in engineering at Norwich (Vt.) university for three years, then enrolled in Officers Training school when the U.S. entered the 1st World War.
In the Army, 2nd Lt. Wilson and fellow officers were entertained by patriotic hostesses, and Bill W. was handed his first drink, a Bronx cocktail. Gone, soon, was his sense of inferiority.
Back from active service in France, with a hangover, Mr. Wilson broke into Wall Street as an investigator for a surety company. On a motorcycle, his wife riding astern, he toured the Northeast. His confidential reports on the potential of little-known industrial organizations later produced quick stock profits for his clients and himself.
“In those Roaring Twenties,” he remembered, “I was drinking to dream great dreams of greater power.” His wife became increasing concerned, but he assured her that “men of genius conceive their best projects when drunk.”
In the crash of 1929, Mr. Wilson’s funds melted away, but his confidence failed to melt with it. “When men were leaping to their deaths from the towers of high finance,” he noted, “I went back to the bar. I said, and I believed, that ‘I can build this up once more.’ But I didn’t. My alcoholic obsession had already condemned me. I became a hanger-on in Wall Street.” Numbing doses of bathtub gin, bootleg whiskey, and New Jersey applejack became Bill W.’s answer to all his problems.
Late in 1934, he was visited by an old barroom companion, Ebby T., who disclosed that he had been freed from the drinking compulsion with help from the First Century Christian Fellowship (now known as Moral Re-Armament), a movement founded in England by the late Dr. Frank N.D. Buchman, and often called the Oxford Group.
Bill W. was deeply impressed and was desperate, but he felt he had one more prolonged drunk left in him.
Sick and clutching a bottle of beer, Bill W. staggered a month later into Towns hospital, an upper Manhattan institution for the treatment of alcoholism and drug addictions. Dr. William Duncan Silkworth, his friend, put him to bed.
Mr. Wilson recalled then what Ebby T. had told him, “You admit you are licked; you get honest with yourself. You pray to whatever God you think there is, even as an experiment.” Bill W. found himself crying out, “If there is a God, let Him show Himself. I am ready to do anything.”
“Suddenly,” he remembers, “the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man.”
He feared that he had been hallucinating and described his experience to Dr. Silkworth. “No, Bill, you aren’t insane,” the doctor said. “Something has happened to you that I don’t understand. But you had better hang on to it. Anything is better than the way you were.”
Recovering slowly, and fired with enthusiasm, Mr. Wilson envisioned a chain reaction among drunks, one carrying the message of recovery to the next. Emphasizing at first his spiritual regeneration, he struggled for months to “sober up the world.” but got almost nowhere.
“Look, Bill,” Dr. Silkworth cautioned, “you are preaching at those alkies. You are talking about the Oxford Group precepts of absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love. Give him the medical business, and give it to ’em hard, about the obsession that condemns them to drink. That coming from one alcoholic to another, may crack those tough egos.”
Mr. Wilson thereafter concentrated on the basic philosophy that alcoholism is a physical allergy coupled with a mental obsession, an incurable through arrestable illness of body, mind, and spirit. Much later, the disease concept of alcoholism was accepted by a committee of the American Medical Association and by the World Health Organization.
Still dry six months after emerging from the hospital, Mr. Wilson went to Akron to participate in a stock proxy fight. He lost, and was about to lose another bout as he paced outside a bar. Panicky, he remembered that he had thus far stayed sober by trying to help other alcoholics.
Through Oxford Group channels that night, he gained an introduction to Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith, a surgeon who had vainly sought medical cures and religious help for his compulsive drinking. Bill W. discussed with the doctor his release from compulsion.
“Bill was the first living human with whom I had ever talked who intelligently discussed my problem from actual experience,” Dr. Bob said later. “He talked my language.”
The new friends agreed to share with fellow alcoholics their experience, strength, and hope. The society of Alcoholics Anonymous was born on June 10, 1935, the day on which Dr. Bob downed his last drink and embraced the new program.
Gradually the movement spread, but the early members, and especially the founders, were very poor. When the program was two years old, Bill W. characteristically became impatient, wanting to promote the movement on a grandiose scale.
“We had a vision of comfortable and well-paying jobs, chains of A.A. hospitals and tons of free literature for suffering alkies. Dr. Bob and I met with John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in the fall of 1937. We were awfully broke, and hoped for millions.
“But Mr. Rockefeller said, ‘I think money will spoil this,’ and A.A. stayed poor. We had earlier been impressed by St. Francis of Assisi. His movement had practiced corporate poverty in the belief that the less money and property to quarrel about, the less would be the diversion from their primary purpose. John D., Jr., wisely forced us to live up to that philosophy.”
As a legacy Bill W. leaves a program of recovery to 475,000 acknowledged alcoholics in 15,000 A.A. groups throughout the world.