By John B.
The Big Book Study Group of South Orange, New Jersey
“The spark that was to flare into the first A.A. group was struck at Akron, Ohio in June 1935, during a talk between a New York stockbroker and an Akron physician.”
(AABB 2nd Edition, p.xv)
A second small group promptly took shape at New York… (AABB 2nd Edition, p.xvii)
In August of 1935, Bill Wilson left Akron and returned to New York. Not long after, Bill found his first New York prospect at Town’s Hospital. Most historians date it as September when Bill first began working with Henry G. Parkhurst. Henry (Hank) had been an executive with the Standard Oil Co. and was fired for his drinking. Hank was to become Bill’s first New York “sponsee” and was from Teaneck, New Jersey. New Jersey A.A. can trace its roots to this event.
In the fall of 1935, a little band of recovering drunks had formed and began attending “Oxford Group” meetings in Brooklyn at Bill & Lois’s house at 182 Clinton Street. These meetings included Bill and his wife Lois, Hank and his wife Kathleen, and John Fitzhugh Mayo. Hank (The Unbeliever), and Fitz (Our Southern Friend) had their stories included in the first edition of the Big Book. The A.A. history book, “Pass It On” indicates that there were other attendees at these Tuesday night meetings including Ebby Thacher who had moved in with the Wilson’s, Shep Cornell, Freddie B (The Chemistry Professor) Brooke B. (from Calvary House) and Alec the Finn who had also moved in with the Wilson’s. In later years, Jerseyites Bill Ruddell and his wife Kathleen from Hackettstown, Herb Debevoise and his wife Margaret from South Orange and Ernest McKenzie from Westwood would also attend the Tuesday night meetings.
At the close of 1935, there were two growing bands of sober alcoholics within the Oxford Groups. The Akron contingent consisting of Dr. Bob, Bill Dotson, Ernie Galbraith, Walter Bray and Phil Smith. The New York contingent consisted of Bill Wilson, Hank Parkhurst, Fitz Mayo and Silas Bent. Other members in both contingents had not yet achieved sobriety or were continuously slipping.
1936 was a slow year for the New York contingent of the newly recovering drunks. The group added just one new member, Myron Williams (Hindsight). The Akron Group added seven more members during this same period. Both groups continued to maintain their sobriety through their affiliation with the Oxford Groups; and in New York, the Tuesday Night meetings at the Wilson’s home on Clinton Street.
Moving forward to 1937, on February 13th the “Alcoholic Squadron” of the New York Oxford Group held a meeting in New Jersey at Hank Parkhurst’s Teaneck home. It was the first time the group of drunks met here in New Jersey to conduct an “alcoholic style” Oxford Group meeting. The purpose of this meeting was to introduce William Ruddell
(A Business Man’s Recovery) of Hackettstown to the fledgling fellowship.
In 1937, New Jersey added additional members to its ranks. Douglas Delanoy from Plainfield joined in early 37. In July of 37, Paul Kellogg of Roselle achieved sobriety. . In September of 37 Florence Rankin joined the growing band of recovering drunks and was the second woman (first from the eastern branch) to achieve any sobriety time. Florence hailed from Westfield, New Jersey. Florence’s story also appeared in the first edition of the “big book” (A Feminine Victory).
In August of 1937, the New York contingent split off from the Oxford Group. Bill and Lois had been criticized by certain Oxford Group members for their work with “drunks only.” Bill also felt that some of the drunks were having trouble adhering to the Oxford Group’s “Four Absolutes”, the requirement that members adhere to guidance received and their rigorous evangelism. The Akron contingent would remain with the Oxford Group for another two years.
In October of 1937, Bill returned to Akron on a business trip. Visiting with Dr Bob one afternoon they “counted noses” of the alcoholics staying sober in both New York and Akron. They realized that some forty, formerly medically hopeless alcoholics were recovering as the result of the life-changing program undertaken. More than half of these cases had more than one year of continuous sobriety. Bill and Bob realized they need to make this program of recovery available to as many alcoholics as possible. They convince the Akron contingent to support the idea of building hospitals to rehabilitate alcoholics, hiring paid missionaries to carry on the life-changing work in conjunction with the hospitals, and to write a book outlining the life-changing program.
Bill returns to New York and receives an enthusiastic response to the ideas he had proposed in Akron. Bill and Hank begin trying to raise funds for the book project. They have little success over the next two months and Bill is quite dejected.
Hank Parkhurst had opened an office in Newark New Jersey located at 9-11 Hill Street. Hank later moved the office to the 6th floor of 17 William Street. The office was “the headquarters for a rapidly failing business,” according to Bill. The “rapidly failing business” was Honor Dealers, which Hank had conceived, according to one source, as a way of getting back at Standard Oil, which had fired him. His plan was to provide selected gasoline stations with the opportunity to buy gasoline, oil, and automobile parts on a cooperative basis. Hank hired a secretary, Ruth Hock and Bill Wilson was hired to be a salesman for the company. Ruth remembered very little gasoline business being conducted there.
A lot of people dropped in to discuss their drinking problems, and on more than one occasion she observed Bill and Hank kneeling in prayer by the side of Hank’s desk with one of these visitors, an Oxford Group custom when seeking God’s guidance. It was here in the offices of Honor Dealers that the book Alcoholics Anonymous was to be written.
March of 1938 marked the beginning of the writing of the Big Book at Hank’s office. Bill W wrote, edited and rewrote manuscripts at home on legal pads then dictated chapters to Ruth Hock (nicknamed “Dutch” – short for “Duchess” who was then the Honor Dealers Secretary). In the spring of 1938 Bill wrote to Dr Bob that he had dictated two chapters of the proposed book (There Is a Solution and Bill’s Story). He also suggested at that time the name of “Alcoholics Anonymous” for the book as well as the idea of establishing a foundation using the same name.
By spring of 1938, Bill was being pressured to write promotional material for the book project. Also at this time it became evident that the group needed a foundation, so a young attorney named John Wood, a friend of Frank Amos, was hired. The name “The Alcoholic Foundation” was chosen to leave open all sorts of possibilities for future endeavors. Members of the first board of trustees were Dick Richardson, Frank Amos, John Wood, Bill Ruddell, and Dr. Bob. Ruddell of Hackettstown got drunk within a few months and was replaced by another New Jersey member, Harry Brick. Harry, from Montclair, New Jersey was “Fred”, partner in the well-known accounting firm in chapter three of the big book. Harry’s story (A Different Slant) also appeared in the first edition of the big book. Harry too, later got drunk and had to be removed from the board. It seems like the early pioneers from New Jersey would have their troubles in maintaining sobriety.
Although Bill was the primary author of the book, Hank is credited with writing Chapter 10, To Employers. Without Hank and his hard-driving, raising money, promoting and keeping Bill on task, the book may never have been written.
In December of 1938, the first draft of the Big Book was complete. Four hundred Multilith copies were produced and distributed to the shareholders and interested parties for review. One of those to review the book was reportedly the “Chief Psychiatrist of NJ” “Dr. James Wainwright Howard” from Montclair, New Jersey who suggested softening the tone of the book to make it appear more suggestive.
In April of 1939, the Big Book is published with the name “Alcoholics Anonymous” Bill had credited New York member, Joe Worden with the name.
On April 25, 1939, New Jersey member Morgan Ryan of Glen Ridge (former advertising man, asylum patient and friend of Gabriel Heatter) appeared on Heatter’s 9:00 PM radio program “We the People.” He told his story and made a pitch for the newly published Big Book. Morgan had been sequestered at the Downtown Athletic Club for a number of days to ensure his sobriety remained intact for the program.
On April 26, 1939, Bill and Lois were evicted from their home at 182 Clinton Street in Brooklyn. They moved in with Hank and Kathleen Parkhurst who were now living in Montclair, New Jersey. A few days later Bill and Lois left to stay at the Bungalow owned by Horace Chrystal (a New York member) in Green Pond, New Jersey. Green Pond was in the remote wilderness and Lois loved it. Her diary entries from that time, many of which are in Lois Remembers, are the longest and happiest of that first five-year period.
On May 14, 1939, a Sunday afternoon, the very first meeting of what was to become the New Jersey Group of Alcoholics Anonymous took place in the home of Hank and Kathleen in Montclair. Meetings that had been formerly held in Brooklyn were held in New Jersey for the next 5 or 6 weeks. The meetings began at 4:00 PM and went most of the night. They rotated speakers for the first portion according to Jim Burwell who was living at Hank and Kathleen’s home at that time. These were dinner meetings with Herb Debevoise. paying for a “big spread”. The wives always attended these along with their spouses. At May 14th, meeting they voted in the “Bill and Lois Home Replacement Fund” and each pledged different amounts of which none of them paid more than a few months. They wrote up a document with this information which is in the GSO archives. (Bill and Lois were doing an errand when they voted this Home Replacement Fund in, they arrived shortly thereafter and Lois wrote in her diary that they were thrilled.) Marty Mann was still a Blythewood Sanitarium patient and took the train from Connecticut to this historic meeting in New Jersey.
In the early summer of 1939, there was a falling out between Bill and Hank. Hank wanted to leave his wife and marry Ruth Hock, the secretary from Honor Dealers. She refused his proposal and Hank felt that Bill had interfered. In late June Hank and Kathleen would split up. Hank moved to East Orange, and by mid-June, the New Jersey Group of Alcoholics Anonymous began meeting at the South Orange home of Herb Debevoise on Hartford Road. At this time, the group was beginning to grow and had about 15 members.
In early September, Hank Parkhurst had returned to drinking. Bill’s first sponsee, the great promoter of the Big Book and the founder of A.A. in New Jersey would never again enjoy long term sobriety. Hank would nurse resentment against Bill for the rest of his life and cause division within the A.A. ranks in the months to come.
At the end of the summer of 1939, Bill and Lois moved in with Bob and Mag Volentine. Their farmhouse, named “Bog Hollow”, was located near Monsey, NY. Bob was a member of the New Jersey Group with six months’ sobriety at the time.
On October 22, 1939, the first-ever public meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in New Jersey was held at the South Orange Community Center. A newcomer with just five months of sobriety, Gordon MacDougall, along with Herb Debevoise had arranged the public meeting space to accommodate the growing New Jersey Group who now had between twenty-five and thirty members attending its meetings. This meeting was held on Sunday evening at 5:30 PM and marked the start of regular Sunday night meetings held at the Community Center. It was this group, then known as the New Jersey Group, that would become the “mother group” for all of New Jersey. Later this group would be known as the South Orange Sunday Night Group.
On January 1, 1940, the group produced a membership roster that is housed in the GSO archives. The survey was conducted in preparation for the Rockefeller dinner in February. The member list shows forty-one names but indicates seven are no longer group members. Of the active members, there are several pioneers of A.A. and five people with between one and three years of continuous sobriety. Another nineteen members have between three months and one year and six are working on ninety days.
The group claims an overall success rate of 73% with 46% getting and staying sober on the first try. These were consistent with the fellowship’s report to the Rockefellers and the press. A.A. would continue to use the 50-25-25% figures quoted in the foreword to the second edition of the Big Book for many years to come. The membership of the New Jersey Group represented more than twenty-three towns including, South Orange, East Orange, Orange, West Orange, Bogota, Jersey City, Caldwell, Newark, Montclair, Upper Montclair, Irvington, Glen Ridge, Bloomfield, Westwood, Millburn, Verona, Plainfield, Ridgewood, Hoboken, Hackettstown and Roselle and two upstate New York towns.
Three of the newcomers with less than one year, Ray Wood, Gordon MacDougall and Helen Penhale would become active in group affairs and later appeared in one of the photographs in the Jack Alexander article of the Saturday Evening Post, March 1, 1941. Ray helped start AA is San Francisco and both Gordon and Helen would hold trusted servant positions in the early years of the group. Lois’s diary indicates that she and Bill attended the South Orange meeting on February 18, 1940 and then spent the night at the MacDougall’s East Orange home.
As the membership in New Jersey grew many changes occurred. The New Jersey Group actually became a legal business entity with its incorporation in 1941. It was then legally known as A.A of New Jersey, Inc. This is of course prior to the traditions being written and the incorporation of the NJ Group was done to allow it to conduct real estate transactions, purchase property, sign leases and contracts, etc. Activities somewhat incompatible with today’s A.A. traditions
In 1941, the New Jersey Group began to give birth to its children. The second group in Northern New Jersey was the Morristown Group started by Dr. Malcolm Taylor. Morristown was followed by groups in Englewood and Fairlawn. The South Orange group also began holding a Tuesday Luncheon meeting at the Howard Johnson’s in East Orange.
The New Jersey Group held an anniversary dinner on March 14, 1942, at the Hotel Suburban, 141 South Harrison Street in East Orange, NJ. The featured speaker was none other than Bill Wilson and the cost was $2.50.
By 1943, there were growing groups in Newark, Bloomfield and Montclair, and in 1944 the Newark/Roseville group in association with dozens of A.A. members from local groups formed a corporation called the Alanon Association and purchased a building owned by the Roseville Athletic Association (Roseville A.A.) There was no need to change the name on the building! This is the historic Alanon Club that we have today on 7th Avenue in Newark.
Growing A.A. in New Jersey led to the formation of New Jersey Intergroup which had its first offices at the Alanon Club. The Intergroup Committee of A.A. of New Jersey, Inc became official at a meeting held in May 1945 when the Articles of Association were adopted by the delegates representing sixteen A.A. groups in New Jersey. The first Intergroup office was some space set aside on the 2nd floor of the club. It was a small office provided rent free by the club. The only furnishings were a small desk, a few chairs and a telephone. The secretary of Intergroup became a full time employee receiving $35.00 per week. Keeping with the tradition that groups should be self-supporting, Intergroup requested a monthly contribution of $.50 per member per month. Even though many groups numbered over thirty members, Intergroup received only $5 – $10 monthly from the groups.
Intergroup originally held meetings twice a month then switched to a monthly meeting being held on the first Monday of each month. New Groups in New Jersey would be asked to join and participate in the monthly meeting. Intergroup was responsible for booking the speaker commitments for the various institutions such as Lyons, Greystone and the Essex County Penal Institute. Intergroup published a booklet listing the different meetings available in New Jersey. The meeting book today still looks very much like the original except of course in the number of meetings.
In April of 1948, the Intergroup office was moved to bigger quarters at 944 Broad Street in Newark. Future moves of the office included Clinton Street and Maplewood, New Jersey.
In October of 1948, a pamphlet entitled “Facts about Intergroup” was written which described the formation of an Intergroup Committee and sold for $.10. The draft for this pamphlet was sent to the Alcoholic Foundation and the response was favorable that this type of system within A.A. was workable. The pamphlet was circulated by the Alcoholic Foundation to different parts of the world and served as a guide for the formation of other Central Offices and Intergroups.
In June of 1953, the book “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions” was published. Bill described the work as: “This small volume is strictly a textbook which explains AA’s 24 basic principles and their application, in detail and with great care.” Betty Love and New Jersey member Tom Powers helped Bill in its writing. Jack Alexander also helped with editing.
On September 14, 1957, New Jersey held its first State Convention of Alcoholics Anonymous at Seton Hall University in South Orange. The program was a one day event lasting from 12 Noon until 8:45 PM. The featured speaker at the final meeting was New Jersey’s Tom Powers, who edited and helped write the Twelve and Twelve for Bill Wilson.
God willing, more will be revealed!
The following sources are gratefully acknowledged:
1. A Narrative Timeline of AA History 2007 – Arthur S.
2. Alcoholics Anonymous 2nd Edition – AAWS
3. Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age – AAWS
4. Pass It On – AAWS
5. Not God – Ernest Kurtz
6. Merton Minter – Author of, “Black Sheep” – New Jersey A.A.
7. Nancy Olsen
8. Dr. Bob and the Good Old Timers – AAWS
9. Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions – AAWS
10. History of the Big Book – Don B.
11. Lois Remembers – Al Anon
12. Various Postings on AA History Lovers Group – Yahoo
13. Various writings of Bill W. AA Grapevine.
14. NNJ Area 44 Archives Fall – 2008