International Conventions: 1945-1980
When World War II was over, gasoline rationing ended and travel restrictions were raised. There were now an estimated 600 A.A. groups in the country, and their 15,000 members began to get together in larger meetings—at first locally with one-day programs, then among several towns in an area, and soon even regionally with week-end conferences. (The first regional meeting was the Southeast, in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1945.)
And 1945 saw the first national meeting as well, hosted by the 44 Cleveland groups on June 9-10. Actually, it was the first International Convention of Alcoholics Anonymous, as people attended from 36 states, two Canadian provinces and Mexico. However, it was not billed as such, partly because it was strictly an activity of the Cleveland A.A.’s and partly for reasons that are hard to realize today. But in the world of 1945, “alcoholism” was still a hush-hush word, not to be mentioned in polite company, taboo to most people and unknown to even more. A.A. had been struggling to become established in many parts of the country, and cooperation of the medical profession and even of the families and friends of alcoholics was still just beginning. So to hold a Convention of alcoholics was a presumptuous and fearsome thing to do!
An announcement was mailed to all A.A. groups, reading in part:
“The Cleveland Fellowships of Alcoholics Anonymous are privileged to be hosts to what will undoubtedly be the most significant meeting in the 10-year history. . . June 10th marks the inception of A.A. when Bill W. and Doc S. fused their separate ideologies into the principles of what has become our great nation-wide activity…And so that milestone is to be appropriately commemorated in Cleveland, Ohio, at the lath Anniversary Meeting at which Bill and Doc will be our speakers…”
Ken S. recalls that when the notice was read in Kansas City, he immediately decided to go. “We didn’t really have the money to do it, but we did it anyway. And I’ve always been glad I did. You went on a train in those days. I ran around with Grace C. [the nonalcoholic secretary of the Chicago central office] and Bobbie B. There was also a man named Stanley W. that we dug out of the dirt here in Kansas City. He was an engineer and had gone to Cleveland and was making good, so Stanley hauled all of us around and showed us the A .A. places there in Cleveland. . . I heard a man speak who was running a laundry out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for the Navy, and he was staying sober. He said he had three members in his group out there – the Big Book, God and himself. I’ve never forgotten that.
“That’s where I met Dr. Bob. He came over to the table where we were having breakfast, because there was an empty chair. So he sat down and talked to us. He wanted to know if we’d met Anne, his wife, and took me over to another table and introduced me to her…That was the first time Bill and Dr. Bob were on a platform together. They both told how they met…”
The events began with a Ladies’ Tea “for women members and wives of members” at the Carter Hotel on Saturday afternoon. About a thousand people showed up for the “Get-Acquainted Dinner” that followed, and they then divided up to attend A.A. meetings hosted by the Glenville group and the Carnegie Hall group, or open houses—complete with orchestra, dancing, entertainment and refreshments—at the Doan Men’s group or the West Side Social group.
But all this was preliminary to the Tenth Anniversary meeting at 2:30 Sunday afternoon at the Music Hall in downtown Cleveland. A near-capacity crowd of over 2,500 were present, “the largest crowd of A.A.’s ever assembled in one place.” Bill W. related his story, stressing how he had-discovered from Ebby that he was suffering from an illness not only of the mind and body, but of the soul, and that to recover, he would have to stop “demanding” from life, and would now have to become honest with himself, make peace with his fellow man, and live a new kind of life, a life of giving. He told of the circumstances that led to his meeting with Dr.Bob and then traced the exciting developments since. He voiced a final tribute to his co-founder and declared emotionally, “Although we have had many differences, we have never had an angry word.”
Dr. Bob, after telling his own experience in meeting Bill, said his 10 years of sobriety provided the best reason for not taking a drink. He spoke of “blindly groping for the truth” in the early days in Akron, mostly by trial and error. “We had no precedent whatsoever, gleaning a fact here and there as time went on. Eventually a general procedure was discovered…” He quoted the advice of the Oxford Groups “to bury the past and not visit the grave too often.” He said that although he wanted to avoid religious discussion, he himself had spent at least an hour a day for the past 10 years in spiritual reading.
Finally, Dr. Bob expressed his gratitude for the divine source of strength “on which we all may call and receive”.. . for the meeting with Bill in Akron “made under divine guidance”. . . for all the people before A.A. and in the early days “who were a source of help and inspiration in my trouble”…for his pastor and his wife, Anne, “without whom I would not have maintained my sobriety”. . . for those A.A.’s of Cleveland who came to Akron while the Fellowship was still young…for the members of the Alcoholic Foundation who have met “for roughly eight years without compensation”…for having acquired a wealth of friends…including those present at the Music Hall.
The Cleveland newspapers gave the 10th Anniversary Meeting prominent and enthusiastic coverage. After reporting on the program and speakers, the Plain Dealer said, “The real story was in the people who filled the seats at the Music Hall. Here were sparkling eyed, well-dressed men and women—doctors, lawyers, brokers, teachers, war plant workers, nurses, businessmen—who months or years ago were outcasts of society, hopeless drunks. . . Now, whether pioneers in the movement or newcomers dry only a few months, all are filled with hope and good cheer and are well on the way to taking a responsible place in society.”
Five years later, in 1950—with the success of their earlier experience to draw on—the Cleveland A.A.’s decided to celebrate the 15th Anniversary of Alcoholics Anonymous with another International Conference. The Fellowship had grown from about 15,000 to an estimated 96,400 members, and it was thought that as many as 10,000 might show up. The actual registration was nearer 3,000 (with a few hundred more attendees who did not register) –still an impressive crowd for that day.
Interestingly, Bill W. in a letter to Dick S., Chairman of the committee in Cleveland, indicated he was a bit skeptical of setting a precedent for large international gatherings—unless they were for a good reason. He went on to specify two “good reasons” for the 1950 event: (1) honoring Dr. Bob – obviously the last opportunity; and (2) acceptance of the Twelve Traditions. The Trustees of the Alcoholic Foundation thought well enough of the idea that they agreed to contribute $3,000 to an underwriting fund (to which the Cleveland/Akron groups also contributed a lesser amount.) By 1955, the 20th Anniversary International Convention in St.Louis was an activity of the Board itself and was seized upon by Bill as the occasion to turn over the leadership of A.A. to the groups, to end the trial period of the General Service Conference and make it permanent, and to introduce the second edition of the Big Book. As far as is known, he had no further doubts about the value of large international gatherings.
At the 1950 convention, which took place from Friday morning through Sunday afternoon, July 28-30, the program was far more ambitious and substantive than the earlier celebration. It was the first to have workshops and panel meetings on subjects that set the pattern for future conventions. There was a session on Hospitalization of Alcoholics, at which Bill W. entered wearing beautiful lei over his right shoulder. He explained that it was sent in gratitude by a group of people who would never be able to attend the Conference or any other A.A. meeting than their own. It was from the A.A. group in the leper colony in the Solomon Islands. There was a workshop on A.A. in Correctional Institutions with Warden Clinton Duffy of San Quentin as the principal speaker. There was a panel meeting on A.A. in Industry in which personnel directors of large companies described their alcoholism programs and how A.A. cooperated with them.
There was a special session for Women members on Friday and another for Young People in A.A. on Saturday! The editors, writers and managers of A.A. publications had a symposium of their own. A banquet, followed by entertainment and dancing took place Saturday night. And on Sunday morning, a meeting on “The Spiritual Significance of A.A.” set the pattern for Sunday morning “spiritual meetings” at countless get-togethers ever since. Bill reported later, “Several thousand of us crowded into the Cleveland Music Hall for the Tradition meeting, which was thought by most A.A.’s to the high point of our Conference. Six old-time stalwarts, coming from places as far flung as Boston and San Diego, beautifully reviewed the years of A.A. experience which had let to the writing of our Traditions.” Bill was then asked to sum up the Traditions, which he did in the words of the long form. “So summing up, I then inquired if those present had any objections to the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous as they stood. Hearing none, I offered the A.A. Traditions for adoption. Impressively unanimous, the crowd stood up. So ended that fine hour in which we of Alcoholics Anonymous took our Destiny by the hand.”
Ken S. was in that crowd in 1950, and in the even larger crowd that filled the ballroom at the Hotel Cleveland the next afternoon for the Big Meeting to hear the co-founders speak. “I remember Dr. Bob clinging on to the podium with both hands,” Ken recalls. “He didn’t talk over ten minutes, and I always like to remember especially his advice near the end, ‘Let us also remember to guard that erring member, the tongue…'”
Bill wrote afterward, “Earlier [in the Conference) we thought he’d never make it, his illness was so severe. Seeing him once again was an experience we thousands shall always treasure. He left us a great heritage by which A.A. can surely grow…The legacy of one who saw our first Group to success, and one who, in the 15 years since, had given both medical help and vital A.A. to 4,000 of our afflicted…Simplicity, devotion, steadfastness and loyalty. . . these were [his] hallmarks.”
Ken S. remembers two men coming out to help Dr. Bob off the platform, and Al S., the Trustee who drove him back to Akron immediately afterward, recalls he slept most of the way. He died three and a half months later.
After Dr. Bob’s last talk on Sunday, Bill W. concluded the Conference with an hour-long talk summing up A.A.’s development and growth. Back only a week from several-months trip with Lois, visiting A.A. in Europe, he was full of optimism and gratitude to God – closing, appropriately, with “A Vision for You” from the end of Chapter 11 in the Big Book.
The epochal 20th Anniversary International Convention which took place in St.Louis in 1955 was the first undertaken by the General Service Board in behalf of A.A. as a whole and therefore was planned and executed by a Trustees’ committee and the staff of the General Service Office. Dennis Manders and Nell Wing attest that an enormous amount of work was entailed in managing the registration and ticketing, finances, housing, transportation, dinner, speakers, sale of books and literature, tapes, etc., etc. One result, however, was an information-filled, inspirational program which became the model for all the international conventions that followed. A mix of workshops, panel meetings, alkathons, talks by A.A. pioneers, Big Meetings and entertainment provided vehicles for hearing from and honoring nonalcoholics in medicine, religion, and other fields who had helped A.A.; and for focusing on G.S.O., the Grapevine, institutions and’ hospital work, A.A. in industry, and other topics.
Although the “official” estimate of attendance was 5,000, the true number of paid registrations was just over 3,800, and the Convention ended up with an operating deficit of about $25,000—a huge sum in 1955. The entire annual budget for the office and the Board was less than $250,000, so the Convention lost about 10% of the budget. Greatly concerned, Hank C., Dennis Manders and the Trustees agreed that this should be A.A.’s last convention, as the Fellowship could not afford to continue to go in hole financially. But when this recommendation was taken to the 1956 Conference, the Delegates would have none of it. (See below.)
The full account of the International Convention in St.Louis is told in Chapter 1 of this book, and, of course, in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age.
When the Conference overruled the Board and decided to go ahead with an International Convention on the 25th Anniversary of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1960, Long Beach and San Francisco both wanted the event. The Fellowship was very strong in California. To decide which city got the Convention, the two Delegates from Southern and Northern California flipped a coin, and Long Beach won. The Trustees conceded, on the condition that the groups in the area would raise enough money to guarantee that there would be no loss. This position was later modified to the extent that the Board agreed to match whatever guarantee fund the local area raised. (The requirement for a local guarantee fund continued until the 1975 Convention, when it was dropped.) At the Long Beach Convention, the local groups put on the entertainment and the dance, for which separate tickets were sold, not included in the registration fee. When all the bills were paid and the proceeds from the show and the dance turned in, the Convention wound up about $600 in the black.
The planning of the 1960 Convention was mostly in the hands of Hank G., general manager of G.S.O. and Hazel R., Convention secretary. Herb H., who was scheduled to replace Hank later in the year, was also kept briefed. “We didn’t have much money to spend running back and forth to California in those days,” recalls Dennis Manders, “so a lot of the preliminary work was done by mail and phone. Hank made two or three solo trips to meet with the local people, and he and Hazel made one trip. Hank carried a lot of the details, including names of contacts, etc., in his head.”
Just prior to the Convention, a series of disasters struck. Herb M. had a massive heart attack, which put him out of commission in New York. Hank C., on his way out to set up the Convention, suffered a ruptured appendix and ended up in intensive care and unreachable in a Nevada hospital. Allen B., the General Service Trustee, was rushed into the breach as acting Convention Chairman, but without any of Hank’s background. Al S. assisted him. Dennis Manders and Hazel R. hurried out to Long Beach, and Bill W. departed several days ahead of schedule, joined later by Lois and Nell Wing. Meanwhile, the local chairman of arrangements for the Convention disappeared and could not be found during the whole event. Dennis remembers ad hoc meetings going on until 2:00, 3:00 or even 4:00 a.m. as they tried to put the pieces together. But, he says, it all worked out okay. According to Nell, Bill was near exhaustion. Although she tried to protect him from the crush of people wanting to talk to him, he was greeting everybody, talking with old friends late into the night, drinking Cokes all day for energy.
The Convention, which ran July 1-3, drew an attendance estimated at 10,000, though the paid registrations were nearer 8,700. It was distinguished by the presence of more giants in A.A. history than had ever been assembled in one place, before or since. Besides Bill and Lois, of course, there were Sister Ignatia, Col. Edward Towns of Towns Hospital, Ebby T., Rev. Sam Shoemaker, Dr. Harry Tiebout, Warden Clinton Duffy, Archie Roosevelt, Leonard Harrison, and Dr. Jack Norris, along with Marty M. and many other A.A. pioneers. These figures, most of whom Bill introduced on Friday night, were captured in a documentary film of the Convention, a priceless record for Archival purposes but not for general showing (by Conference action) because of the many A.A. members shown full face.
The entertainment produced by the California members was an all-star show, with Jack B., a member and a well-known comedian, as master of ceremonies. It featured a famous orchestra and some of Hollywood’s brightest stars including Buster Keaton, Jayne Mansfield, Dennis Day and Peggy Lee – all of whom donated their talent without charge. The A.A. Grapevine published a large sized, hard-cover souvenir book of the Silver Jubilee Convention entitled “A.A. Today,” which proved such a collector’s item that it was later reprinted in soft cover and is still sold today.
Everyone who attended the Convention remembers Bill’s “Deep Freeze” talk, if they remember nothing else. It took place on Friday night in an open-air stadium on the water. Climaxing a program, which ran long anyway, Bill talked on the Traditions for nearly two hours. A bitterly cold wind came up early in the evening, and the audience, dressed for the most part in summer clothes, nearly froze. Yet not many people left. Some of the Trustees seated on the stage were huddled in blankets, which led Al S., who chaired the meeting, to preface his introductions with, “In case you’re wondering who these people are in back of me and think they’re the Los Angeles Rams, they’re your Trustees.” The acoustics of the public address system were such that the Trustees couldn’t hear a word from the microphone. Halfway through the ordeal, Dr. Tiebout leaned over to Leonard Harrison next to him and said, “If someone told me that I’d be sitting in this cold weather for this long, I’d tell him to go to a psychiatrist!” Bob H. agreed with Nell that Bill was on the point of exhaustion and seemed “hyper” throughout the week-end, going on nervous energy alone. “I wish the Long Beach crowd could have seen Bill as I knew him at home,” said Bob, “calm and full of humility instead of frenzy.” On the other hand, Ken S., who froze along with the thousands of others in the stadium, calls Bill’s talk “one of the greatest he ever made in his life. I heard a lot of them, but that was one of the best.”
The other memorable feature of the Convention: Long Beach ran out of coffee!
The next Convention, held July 2-4, 1965, was truly “International”, as it was held in Canada. It was also the first to attract plane – loads of A.A. members from Europe; 30 foreign countries were represented. Over 10,000 people gathered in Toronto, at the Royal York Hotel and the vast Maple Leaf Gardens arena to celebrate A.A.’s 30th year.
The guarantee fund was raised through a structure set up for the purpose in five Canadian provinces where the groups contributed to a local account. The moneys, totaling $6,500 (American) were then transferred to a single Toronto account, under a Canadian A.A. treasurer. Problems developed when this preliminary committee refused to disband and got into a dispute with the host committee of the Convention. They kept wrangling until Herb H., general manager of G.S.O., and Dennis Manders met with all the parties in Toronto and told them bluntly that if they couldn’t get together and straighten out their organization in one week, he would pull out the Convention! “It may have been partly bluff,” says Dennis, “but Herb was pretty hard-nosed and he might have done it. At any rate, his tough talk did the job.” Dennis has nothing but praise for the Canadians with whom he dealt in connection with the Convention. He characterized them as “honest, ethical and dependable. They helped enormously in making the Convention run unusually smoothly.”
One of them, the manager of the Maple Leaf Gardens, was indirectly responsible for a change in handling the charge for convention entertainment. The Board had decided to provide the entertainment, selling separate tickets for it as the Californians had done in 1960. But the Gardens manager let Herb and Dennis know in a tactful and roundabout way that if they sold tickets, the Gardens would have to get a percentage of the proceeds; but if the cost of the entertainment were included in the registration fee, then the Gardens wouldn’t be entitled to any kind of rebate. “He was just a hell of a nice guy,” says Dennis. “So that is how we started to incorporate the price of entertainment in the registration. In Toronto, we had two classes of badges, a basic registration for $5.00 or one for $8.00 which included entertainment. We found that 95% of the people bought the full package, so from then on we eliminated the two classes of badges.”
With Conventioneers overflowing the “headquarters” hotel and housed elsewhere around the city, it was necessary for the first time to provide free bussing. This was made possible through the Hotel/Motel Association, who received a $1-per-night-per-room rebate from the hotels and, at A. A’s request, used it for this purpose.
A cloth cover, handsomely produced 30th Anniversary souvenir book was produced—largely by Herb M., with some direction from Bill W. – which captured in words and pictures the growth of A.A. in Canada and the U.S. and its state in 1965. Emphasizing its international nature, the book contained the Steps and Traditions in 11 languages. It was not only a success at the Convention, but its format was closely followed twenty years later in the 50th Anniversary souvenir book.
The Convention weekend began with two huge dances Thursday night and continued next day with the first of 69 sessions that comprised the program, all jam-packed, with 150 A.A. speakers and 24 noted nonalcoholic authorities. New names among the latter were Selden Bacon, Director of the Center for Alcohol Studies at Rutgers University; Dr. Marvin Block, of the American Medical Association; Rev. Howard Clinebell; and Dr. Luther Cloud, former President, Medical Society on Alcoholism. The program also included 100 Al-Anon and Alateen speakers, as the Convention included both Fellowships. Dr. Jack Norris was everywhere: chairing, speaking, meeting with the press, providing visible leadership.
The crowd filled the Gardens arena Friday night to hear from Bill’s own lips A.A.’s colorful and fantastic history, and to hear Lois tell her Al-Anon story. The third speaker was one of the most popular of the time, Marty M., A.A.’s first woman member. The crowd (“the largest assemblage of A.A. members in history”) returned Saturday night for a program built around the Convention theme, “I Am Responsible.” They heard Bill and Bernard Smith, nonalcoholic Trustee who had been associated with A.A. for 21 years, speak of “one of the most glorious fruits of A.A. recovery from alcoholism; namely, individual freedom to accept responsibility for ourselves and for our share in A.A. as a whole.”
“Newcomers are approaching A.A. at the rate of tens of thousands yearly,” Bill declared. “Let us not pressure anyone with our individual or collective views. Let us, instead, accord each other with respect and love…” And Bern Smith declared eloquently, “You have something great and awesome going for you. Treat it tenderly, respect what it has done for you and what it can do for others…
“As long as one man dwells in the darkness you once knew, you cannot rest; you must try to find him and help him become one of you…By the grace of God, may A.A. last for all time!”
No one present will ever forget the brief but impressive ceremony that followed. From behind an immense banner at the rear of the stage, depicting the A.A. triangle within a circle representing the globe, came 90 Delegates and members from all over the world to join the Trustees already seated there. The 10,000 in the audience rose, clasped hands, and led by Bill and Lois, accepted the Responsibility Declaration in unison, thunderously:
I am responsible. When anyone, anywhere reaches out for help, I want the hand of A.A. always to be there. And for that: I am responsible.
The Declaration was written for the occasion by Al S. Printed on wallet cards and in many A.A. pamphlets ever since, it has been quoted and recited innumerable times. Attempts have been made at least twice at General Service Conferences to change the wording of the Declaration to make it more specific to alcoholics and less inclusive, but the attempts have failed—largely because of the illogicality of trying to alter, retroactively, the historical event which transpired in Toronto at 10:25 p.m. on July 3, 1965.
The Toronto Convention is remembered for its enthusiasm and spirit. The American A.A.’s loved mingling with those from Canada and overseas – and vice versa. It was Mike R.’s first International Convention, and he wouldn’t have gone had he not been the Delegate from Oklahoma. “I was higher than a kite the whole time just meeting the Canadians and the others from all over the world – I met a lady from Ecuador, can you imagine that?—and we’d stay up late, talking. To see how this program had grown from where it had been, for me when I came in, 19 years before, was just overwhelming. When I walked out on the stage and Bill led us in reciting “I am responsible,” I was emotionally overcome.”
Toronto got into the spirit, too. Harrison Trice, nonalcoholic Trustee, walked into the bar at the Royal York Hotel and ordered a drink. Noticing his customer’s A.A. badge, the bartender refused him. “No slips in here,” he said.
The pocket-sized gift edition of Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions was introduced at the Convention. The film, “Bill’s Own Story” was shown for the first time to overflow audiences throughout the weekend. And an historic precedent of another kind occurred when Bill suggested, for the first time, that the crowd join hands as they said the Lord’s Prayer to close the Big Meeting.
The 1966 General Service Conference adopted “Procedures Affecting A.A.’s International Conventions”, establishing a Site Selection Committee to review bids and recommend three possible cities to the Conference. A Delegate from the Committee recalls that out of four or five bids, Seattle was the most popular choice until Herb M. pointed out the difficulty and expense of bringing all the people from the East at that time. Chicago was a logical location until the Delegate, when asked if all the groups would participate, had to acknowledge that there were perhaps 200 groups at the time which were not part of the service structure and were not even known to G.S.O. So Miami was selected as the first choice, with Seattle second, and Chicago third. The new procedure also provided that a Conference International Convention Committee would be appointed in 1969 (with additional members to be added the next year) to participate in the final planning.
Again, the Miami Convention, held July 3-5, 1970, had “the largest assemblage of sober alcoholics the world has ever seen” – about 11,000 registrants, in all. They came from every state and province and, in ever-larger numbers, from 28 foreign countries with conspicuously more from Latin America. It was Bill W.’s last Convention. Though he tried desperately to stem his fatal emphysema in order to appear, he fell ill the first night and was unable to be present until a final, surprise appearance on stage on Sunday morning. (For a full account, see Chap. 2 on GSB)
Although the planning was started by Herb M., Bob H. took over as general manager in 1968 and bore the brunt of the final arrangements and the trauma of coping simultaneously with the huge Convention and with a very ill co-founder who was unable to make his commitments. Cora Louise B., Convention Secretary, assisted ably on the former front, and Dr. Jack Norris helped with the latter. An earlier Host Committee Chairman moved away and had been replaced by Wesley P., a past Delegate full of energy and innovations. He organized no less than 1,300 Florida A.A.’s to help with greeting, hospitality, transportation, translation of foreign languages, registration and myriad other duties. They were identified by a “spot of orange” and many of the key hosts wore bright orange blazers, slacks or hats. The Convention again spilled out of “headquarters” hotels (in this case, the Fontainebleau and the Eden Roc) and virtually took over the town. The Big Meetings took place at Convention Hall, and convention goers were housed at many other hotels and motels on Miami Beach, again requiring free bussing. This time, the Hotel Association misappropriated the funds collected from the $1-a-night rebate from the hotels, and, after it took the threat of legal action to straighten out the mess, the decision was made not to accept room rebates, even indirectly, in the future.
The by – now customary two dances – one for the young and one for the oldsters – started the festivities on Thursday night. But by 8:00 a.m. crowds were thronging into seven large A.A. workshop and panel meeting rooms (and five Al-Anon) for simultaneous programs. Over the next two-and-a-half days, there were 75 sessions (8:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m.) including a Spanish-language alkathon. Among the 29 distinguished nonalcoholic figures who participated were Dr. Max Weisman; Archer Tongue of the World Health Organization of the United Nations; famous alcoholism authority Dr. Stanley Gitlow; and Dr. Vincent Dole. Bernard Smith, filling in for Bill W. at the last moment, made his last talk, for he died three weeks later. The film, “Bill Discusses the Twelve Traditions” was introduced and shown continuously. At a Delegates Luncheon (a feature of every Convention since), every Panel from #1 through #20 was represented. The luncheon was arranged by Jim H., Trustee-at- large, U.S.; and chaired by Tom B., past Trustee.
In an effort to emulate the Toronto experience, the Big Meeting in Convention Hall on Saturday night concluded with unison Declaration of Unity:
This we owe to A.A.’s future:
To place our common welfare first;
To keep our fellowship united.
For on A.A. unity depend our lives,
And the lives of those to come.
It was an emotional and moving moment, but without Bill to lead the ceremony, this pledge had neither the impact nor the enduring quality of the “I Am Responsible” Declaration. To those who attended the Miami Convention, all other memories pale beside the overwhelming emotional moment when Bill appeared on Sunday morning and made what proved to be his last brief talk.
Preparations for the next International Convention began with a mailing of bid questionnaires to all Delegates in late 1970 in accordance with the new procedures adopted by the Conference. In 1971., the Delegates selected, in order of preference, Denver, Seattle and Detroit as their choices for the 1975 Convention. After a task force from the Trustees International Convention Committee and the G.S.O. Planning Committee visited each of the cities to confirm the accuracy of their presentations, Denver was confirmed as the site. Waneta N. began her work as Conference Secretary.
Based on the pattern of growth in attendance at past International Conventions, G.S.O. estimated that 12,000 people might show up. Space was allotted to the Big Meetings and other sessions based on this figure, and the same assumption was used in drawing up a Convention budget with the registration fee set at $15—including free bussing. Denver’s hotels and motels were spread over the whole city, so a system of loops was set up for the bus routes, requiring many more chartered buses than ever before.
But the planners underestimated growth of A.A., enthusiasm for International Conventions, popularity of Denver as a destination for vacations and recreation along with attending the Convention, and perhaps the mood of the times. Mailings of flyers and advance programs employed a graphic of mountain peaks and the slogan “Reach New Heights of Sobriety!” and members responded eagerly as soon as registration opened in September 1974. Within a few months, it was evident that attendance would exceed the original estimate; and shortly thereafter, that it would also exceed the capacity of Currigan Hall, the largest space in the convention center where Big Meetings were to be held. Hurriedly and in the nick of time, a sports arena just across the street was also rented and closed circuit TV was arranged to carry the festivities to the overflow crowd. It turned out that the sports arena crowd could see and hear better than most of the throng in Currigan Hall, where the acoustics were bad. In the end, 19,300 people registered. As the result of these unbudgeted extra registrations, after all bills and extraordinary expenses were paid, the Convention unexpectedly cleared $83,000 which was transferred to the General Fund.
This mass of people—pouring in by plane, car, train and bus—seemed to take over the city as never before, producing exhilaration and a spirit that has become a phenomenon of all succeeding International Conventions of Alcoholics Anonymous. Said one attendee, “Suddenly the world is topsy-turvy because everyone you meet—on the streets, in the hotels and restaurants, on the buses—is wearing a badge that identifies him or her as A.A. or Al-Anon; and the “civilians” are in the minority. To people accustomed to being anonymous outcasts, this is exciting. And the only language spoken on all sides is the language of the heart – in many accents and tongues.” Those Denver service people who were left in the city on a July 4th holiday weekend got caught up in the spirit. Cabbies and bus drivers, waiters and waitresses loved the friendliness and good nature of the mobs. One cab driver asked, “Is it true that you know each other?” And the story was told once again (it may be apocryphal) of a policeman at the back of jam-packed Currigan Hall asking his superior officer in amazement, “Do you suppose A.A. really works for all these people?” To which the police commander replied fervently, “I surely hope so!”
The Denver experience, July 4-6, 1975, was significant in still another way. It was the first Convention without either of the co-founders present, nor other giants of early A.A. history—except, of course, Lois W. and Dr. Jack Norris. Nevertheless, Archivist Nell wing was there to tape oral histories from the many old-timers present. A reminder of the origins was provided by the sale of Bill W., the biography by Robert Thomsen, published by Harper & Row. It was sold out by Friday noon. (Further distribution by G.S.O. was subsequently forbidden by Conference action.
The Colorado Host Committee assembled 800 volunteers to work at the airport and the hotel lobbies, driving cars to meet invited guests and manning the tables in the vast registration area at Currigan Hall – where 10,000 arrivals were handled in a single day. The volunteers got so caught up in the spirit that some insisted on working on beyond their designated shifts, to get the job done. Less than a year before, the original Chairman of the Host Committee had suffered a heart attack and had been replaced by Jack D. who performed the task brilliantly. Also, in January 1975, Bob H., general manager of C. S. 0. and Chairman of the Convention, realized that it was ridiculous for G.S.O. to attempt to run one of the world’s largest conventions without professional help – while at the same time performing its taxing day-to-day duties. He therefore sought, and received, Board approval to hire an outside convention consultant, Ted Driscoll, one of the best known in the business. Driscoll took the lead in advance meetings and negotiations with the Denver Convention Bureau, hotels, the Convention Center, the sports arena, and the bus company – more than paying for his services with savings realized through his experience. He and his staff were everywhere during the weekend, helping things run more smoothly.
Thursday night, the conventioneers moved from mobbed hotel lobbies to even more mobbed dances, milling around, clasping hands, hugging and kissing one another. (Betsy P., attempting later to explain the incredible experience to a dubious “civilian” friend, said, “You’ve got to understand that they’d all be dead if it weren’t for each other.”) It was immediately obvious the shuttle bus service would have to be beefed up (at a final cost of $36,000!) Friday and Saturday were full of workshops, luncheon gatherings and panel sessions – plus alkathons which were held at hotels, beginning at 8:00 a.m. and resuming at midnight after the Big Meetings. Because of the unexpected numbers, the Convention Center rooms were packed so tightly that sessions were repeatedly halted by fire department and police officials until aisles could be partially cleared of standees. Spanish – speaking A.A.’s were delighted with workshops in that language. At a Native American Indian meeting, a war dance was staged in full regalia. At a huge standing-room-only “A.A. Around the World” meeting, tears of joy were shed.
Among the nonalcoholic authorities invited to participate as guests were: Dr. Max Schneider; Dr. William Rader; Dr. Nicholas Pace, Medical Director of General Motors; Dr. Joseph Pursch, in his Captain’s uniform as Chief of the Long Beach Alcoholism Rehabilitation Center of the U.S. Navy; and George Dimas, Executive Director of the National Council on Alcoholism. Two of the distinguished guests who spoke at Denver later became nonalcoholic Trustees of the General Service Board: Dr. Ken Williams; and Jim Estelle, Director of the Texas Department of Corrections. Many wrote G.S.O. afterward to say the Convention was a high point of their lives.
An entrepreneur who had heard of the prodigious amount of coffee consumed at A.A. Conventions, rigged the world’s largest coffee maker on a balcony at the convention Hall, with a capacity of half a million cups a day. The coffee was brewed in huge tanks or vats and piped to a bank of dozens of spigots where the customers helped themselves after paying a quarter-a-cup to enter the area. It worked fine and was the talk of the Convention, but the coffee itself was judged pretty bad. Better coffee was available free at innumerable hospitality rooms.
The emotional high of the Convention was the flag ceremony which preceded the formal opening Friday night. As spotlights played and names of countries were called over the public address system, the flags of 29 nations present were carried proudly down the aisles and to the stage. Thousands of A.A.’s rose in standing ovations and cheers, hands sore from clapping, eyes streaming tears. The flag bearers then stepped to the microphone and repeated the Conference theme, “Let It Begin With Me,” in his or her native tongue. The spectacle—which had been conceived by Kleina Jones of G.S.O. and executed by Ted Driscoll and volunteers – was such a resounding success that it became a fixture of future International Conventions.
The auditorium was a thrilling sight, as well. The dais was draped in blue and white, and centered over it was the biggest Big Book ever (28 feet high). Revolving panels on either side showed giant photos of Bill and Dr. Bob and the Steps, Traditions, Serenity Prayer and Responsibility Declaration.
More than 320 speakers took part in the weekend. Among those on Friday night were Bill C. of Boston, a past Trustee; and Cec C., of Saskatchewan, a future Trustee. The Spiritual Meeting Sunday morning, chaired by Al S., heard Rev. Yev C. of Long Island; Chuck C. of Laguna Beach, California; and a marvelous talk by Lois W., who may have received the most tumultuous reception of her ovation-filled lifetime. By the time of the Denver ConventIon, certain policies with regard to the A.A. speakers were firmly established. They are selected from among those who register in advance. Opinions of Delegates and Trustees are solicited, but the final decisions are made by the G.S.O. planning committee, subject to the Trustee Committee’s approval, as the G.S.O staff has the largest over-all acquaintance with A.A. speakers. Also, in keeping with A.A.’s custom of rotation, no speaker is invited to make a major talk a second time.
New Orleans was chosen as the site of the 45th Anniversary International Convention, July 3-6, 1980. The memory of the thousands in Denver who had paid their registration fee only to be-unable to attend sessions because of the crowds weighed heavily on the G. S. 0. planning committee—Bob P., Convention Chairman; Betty L., Convention Secretary; and Dennis Manders, among others. So they thought big. Budgeting was based on an anticipated attendance of 25,000—which seemed reasonable in light of experience. And a record 180 sessions were planned to be held in large “quadrant” rooms at the New Orleans Superdome, the Rivergate Convention Center and most major hotels. An ambitious schedule of regional, state and provincial alkathons was mounted as well. So there were as many as 10 events occurring simultaneously at any one time—plenty of places to go and chairs to sit on this time! The gigantic Superdome was the quintessential locale for the Big Meetings: seating 70,000 in total, half blocked off for the A.A. meetings; air conditioned; tiered so everyone had a clear view of the stage and with 16-foot TV screens to bring the speakers close up; and a perfect acoustical system, in contrast to the Denver disaster.
New Orleans was blessed with many large hotels clustered in the downtown area within minutes of the Superdome or the Rivergate Center. However, the workshops, panel meetings, luncheons and alkathons were also spread all over downtown, and conventioneers still had to be housed in outlying areas, so bussing was again provided—at a high cost. Airfares were raised after the budgeting had been done, increasing transportation costs for staff, WSM Delegates and invited guests. And the 1979 Conference mandated that simultaneous translation services be provided free of charge at the Big Meetings.
On the other side of the ledger, the registration fee was held at $15, the same as Denver – largely at the insistence of the Chairman, who wanted to avoid another surplus. So a deficit budget was projected, going in. Then two things happened that cut attendance drastically and produced a record number of “no-shows.” The first was that the economy—particularly in the midsection of the U.S.—took a downturn. . Money for trips was tight. And just before Convention time, a record heat—wave swept Texas and Louisiana, causing widespread discomfort and some deaths.
As a result, registrations in New Orleans totaled 22,500—another all-time record, but still significantly below the 25,000 projected. The sum total of all these factors was that the Convention lost $208,000. (See also Chap. 2 on CSB)
This, of course, in no way deterred the convention-goers from all over the world from celebrating their “Joy of Living” (the Convention theme) in an unforgettable weekend of Fellowship, love and inspiration. The large contingents of A.A.’s from other countries were more noticeable than ever – many from Mexico, Central and South America because of the location, but including on this occasion all the delegates from the just-completed Sixth World Service Meeting. Thirty-three countries took part in the flag ceremony on Friday evening in the Superdome. The backdrop for the stage was a 30-foot high world map outlined on a blue background. And as the flag-bearers spoke the theme in their varied languages, lights began to twinkle on the map wherever A.A. existed around the world. The assembled thousands burst into prolonged applause. Simultaneous translation of the Big Meetings was provided in Spanish, French and German.
Festivities had started the previous evening with a genuine Mardi Gras parade staged for A.A. by a New Orleans “krewe” complete with masked dancers, elaborate costumes and spectacular floats. The parade wound its way with difficulty through the crowds packed into the Rivergate Center. And a surprise appearance on the final float of Cec C., Chairman of the Trustees’ International Convention Committee, clad in a leopard-skin loincloth, brought forth cheers, jeers and guffaws. After the parade was cleared away, dancing began at Rivergate and a nearby hotel.
As the throngs streamed into the Superdome on Friday and Saturday evening, they were greeted with New Orleans jazz by live bands. Famed Bourbon Street turned into “ice cream and coffee” street as mobs of A.A.’s overran it—with signs in the windows of the jazz spots and strip joints proclaiming the change! The hotels also set up ice cream bars in their lobbies.
The New Orleans Convention was the first to have a genuine “Marathon Meeting,” held at one of the hotels, which started at midnight on Thursday with the lighting of a candIe which burned continuously—as the meeting also continued without stopping—until Sunday morning. And the room was-usually filled and overflowing, no matter what the hour. New Orleans was also the first Convention to have a workshop and hospitality center for gay and lesbian members. An Archives workshop was inaugurated and drew great interest. The film “A.A.—an Inside View” was introduced at continuous showings, along with other A.A. films. At the Big Meetings, sections were set aside for the physically handicapped and the hearing impaired, the latter provided with sign-language interpreters. As it is usually difficult for the huge crowds to find eating places in time to arrive early at Big Meetings, catered meals featuring native New Orleans dishes were offered at the Superdome – but the experiment was not a great success.
The record number of sessions involved a record number of speakers – about 600. Perhaps the most notable was Marty M., the longest-sober woman in A.A. Now advanced in years and in ill health, she had not planned to attend. But Betty L. entreated her to come, promising she would receive special care every moment. So at the last minute, Marty accepted; and Don A., past Trustee from Texas, provided the constant solicitude. Marty was her old self as she delivered a rousing and moving talk to a large women’s meeting. Throughout the weekend, she enjoyed accolades and love from thousands, and a few weeks after returning home to Connecticut, she died.
Among the 21 nonalcoholic guests were Dan Anderson, Director of Hazelden (See Chap. 15) and Don Luftig, a network television producer. At the opening meeting Friday night, a politician invited to make “a few welcoming remarks” almost lost the audience when she harangued on and on for 20 minutes. But the A.A. meeting which followed featured three outstanding speakers: Shadrack K., a Zulu from South Africa (See Chap. 8); Margaret C., the beautiful past Trustee from Massachusetts; and Sandy B. from Washington, D.C. Sunday morning, the audience heard Johnny H. from California, who found A.A. in prison; Joyce C, from England; and Mac C. from Winnepeg, Manitoba, who, fatally ill with cancer, gave what many people called “the finest A.A. talk I ever heard.”
But other surprises at the Big Meeting Sunday were even more memorable. Lois W. made an appearance, to the crowd’s delight. Roberto C., from Italy, presented her with the first copy of the Big Book in the Italian language. Kieth C., Chairman of the Marathon Meeting, bore the marathon candle to the stage, where it was blown out by “Pete,” sober just two days. A drunk off the street, Pete had stopped a conventioneer and inquired what the badge meant. He was Twelfth Stepped on the spot and was led to the Marathon Meeting, where he sobered up. The Superdome crowd gave him a deafening hand. And a speaker not on the program at all stepped to the microphone and said, “My name is Bob S., and I’m in Al-Anon.” The audience looked at each other, frowning, curious. The speaker continued, “I am probably the only person here today who was present when Bill met Dr. Bob.” A gasp went through the crowd. “I am Dr.Bob’s only son!” The crowd burst into sudden tears and wild applause.
International Conventions, besides providing spiritual experiences to large numbers of Alcoholics Anonymous members along with inspiration and great enjoyment, also have been a vehicle for “attraction” through tremendous coverage in the press. Stories on wire services, in newspapers and magazines, on radio and television, make the country—and even the world—aware of A.A. every five years. They demonstrate vividly and convincingly that A.A. works. And they show that life after sobriety—i.e., recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous – is not grim and bleak but can be enormous fun. In St.Louis, Long Beach and Toronto, the press room was handled by the ubiquitous Ralph B. (See also Chaps. 2 on GEB and 9 on GSO); in Miami, Denver and New Orleans, by Walter M. Both were public relations professionals as well as A.A. members, and fat scrapbooks in the Archives attest to the contribution they made.
Prompted by the roller-coaster finances of International Conventions over the years, Dennis Manders evaluates them from his viewpoint. “By 1960, the concept of having a big Convention every five years was pretty thoroughly locked in because their benefits were obvious. In fact, they are beyond estimate. If you chart the five-year cycles, as I have, you’ll see a tremendous spurt of growth in the Fellowship in the year following the Convention. Contributions shoot up and sales shoot up, and then they gradually drop down to the point where another Convention comes along, and they bounce back up again. And from recent Conventions we get so much good press coverage, it’s got to have an enormous impact on the growth of A.A. So even if a Convention suffers a loss, as it did in. 1980, you should balance that against what it would cost to accomplish the same results by some other means. I think it would cost a lot more, to do it through promotion – only we don’t promote. The Conventions also seem to renew the spirit of the Fellowship, too – and the value of that is inestimable.”
The 50th A.A. Anniversary International Convention of Alcoholics Anonymous, held in Montreal, Canada in 1985—and the state of the Fellowship on its Golden Anniversary—is the subject of the following, and final, chapter.