Fifty Years With Gratitude
At 8:00 p.m. Friday night, July 5, 1985, Montreal’s huge Olympic Stadium was jammed to the roof with 50,000 shouting, screaming, unbelievably exuberant members of Alcoholics Anonymous and their families. For two hours, sleek, clean subways had disgorged trainload after trainload of smiling, excited people who had surged up the wide ramp to the stadium lobby and on up the stairs and into the stands, scrambling for the best remaining seats. Now, with music blaring from the loudspeakers, they were expending their energy by rhythmically standing and raising their arms in waves that swept round and round the stadium. The 36 participants in the evening’s program had assembled in the atrium and now wafted in an entranceway for their cue. As they stepped out onto the grass and began the long walk to the mammoth stage erected at “second base,” a sustained, ear-splitting roar arose. A new Trustee in the walking group turned to his companion and shouted in order to be heard above the noise, “I’ve never heard anything like this in all my life!”
As soon as the dais group was seated, the flag ceremony began. As an offstage announcer boomed out the names of the countries, the flags of 53 nations represented at the Convention were paraded proudly forth as a full band played their national tunes. The 50,000 throats cheered madly as each country was named, with the loudest and longest ovations going to Canada, the U.S., Ireland (always!) and loudest of all for Poland, the newest newcomer. When all the flags were massed on the field, they represented nearly half the 114 countries around the world where Alcoholics Anonymous was to be found in 1985.
As the tumult subsided in expectancy, Bob P., Chairman of the Convention, stepped to the podium, gazed out at the assemblage, and uttered the familiar words, “Welcome to the regular Friday night Montreal meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.” The crowd roared back its appreciation. The 50th Anniversary International Convention of A.A. was officially opened.
Actually, the timing of the Convention rendered it the denouement of a celebration which had begun months before and peaked up on June 10, the day that marked the Golden Anniversary of A.A.’s founding. A.A. groups across the U.S. and Canada and in many foreign lands held birthday celebrations of their own—or would do so later in the year. The U.S. Congress and many state legislatures marked the event with speeches or resolutions. (Vermont took special pride in claiming both co-founders as native sons.) Almost every newspaper and magazine, every radio and television station had carried some favorable article, editorial or program about the Fellowship, and in Montreal a large company of press representatives had gathered to cover the Convention.
Preparations for this moment had begun over four years before, of course, when Montreal, Quebec, Canada, was selected over San Diego and Minneapolis from among about eight bidding cities to be the site of this historic Convention. Denis L., Quebec Delegate who made the presentation, was persuasive in describing Montreal’s many attractions: its architectural and natural beauty, its picturesque and historic Old Town, its many hotels and fine restaurants, and its state-of-the-art Palais des Congres (i.e., Convention Center) under construction. Denis was initially appointed Chairman of the Host Committee, but eventually proved unable to understand his function vis-a-vis the Trustees’ Committee and G.S.O. In August 1984 he was replaced by Pierre P., a bi-lingual past Delegate. It seemed to the G.S.O., disadvantaged as they were by the language barrier, that the Quebecois Host Committee was hopelessly undermanned and disorganized as late as the spring of 1985, but when the time came, over 1,300 spirited, helpful and enthusiastic volunteers turned out, identifiable by sailor-straws with tricolor bands, and were unquestionably one of the hits of the celebration.
The Quebecois insistence on using the French language, together with their volatility and unreliability, led to a plethora of frustrating problems in planning and logistics. Dennis Manders explains, “When a local official gave his word on something, it didn’t seem to mean a thing. Promises were easily made but then forgotten. The head of the Olympic Stadium was a political appointment, as it is in many places, and the person seemed to change every year, so we were always starting over in trying to negotiate a legal lease. The deal was further complicated by a $75,000 subsidy fund offered by the Provincial government which A.A. could not accept, of course; but it was channeled to the Montreal Convention Bureau, who used it to reduce the otherwise exorbitant rental of the stadium. Only they could never get a line on the money till very late in the game. We went back and forth for four years before we had a signed lease.
“Even worse, the Convention Bureau, who handled all our housing and who was supposed to help in many other ways, was also political and went through a number of reorganizations. Sometimes we couldn’t find anyone to call to complain about having no one to call! We had hired a local French-speaking convention consultant to be our liaison, but he turned out to be slippery at best, or dishonest at worst, and got in a snarl with the Host Committee Chairman and caused us a lot of headaches.”
On the positive side, Dennis and Ed Gordon were able to engage and outside firm to computerize the handling of registration and housing requests and the production of name tags, so that operation went more smoothly than ever before.
In 1984, it was learned that Montreal’s hoteliers, restaurateurs and, indeed, everyone connected with tourism, had grave misgivings and negative expectations regarding the upcoming invasion of A.A.’s. Associating gaiety with wine, they couldn’t picture an A.A. convention as anything but somber, sad and dull. A meeting was hurriedly organized of all the parties involved, including the press, for the specific purpose of correcting these misapprehensions and giving them a pep talk. The effort was apparently successful, because Montreal gave A.A. a rousing, warm and friendly welcome and seemed to enjoy the whole exuberant scene.
Besides Bob P. and Dennis Manders, the persons most involved with the Convention were Sarah P., Convention Secretary, at the center of the activity, coordinating everyone’s efforts, with a hand on every detail, who came perilously close to a nervous breakdown from the strain in the final months; and Ken D., from New Brunswick, Canada, Chairman of the Trustees’ International Convention Committee, a responsible, spiritual and ever-helpful man.
From the beginning, Montrealers were talking about “50,000 on our 50th birthday,” but no one took them seriously. After the New Orleans experience, and following the Conference direction to make all future Conventions self-supporting, it seemed prudent to budget on the basis of 28,000 registrations, with the fee set at $30. Even before registration opened in September 1984, there were rumors of large-scale plans for tour groups to come to Montreal by plane, bus, train and cruise ship. Apparently A.A.’s in unprecedented numbers were planning to help celebrate “50 Years with Gratitude” (the Convention theme.) By January, the. 28,000 estimate was passed. And still the flood of registrations swelled, with additional thousands of on-site registrations a certainty. Downtown hotel space disappeared and previously untapped motels at the airports and in surrounding towns were pressed into service. People were housed in university dormitories and Laurentian resorts, and finally as- far away as Sherbrooke (90 miles) and Burlington, Vermont (75 miles). The final count was 45,000 registrations (35,000 A.A. and 10,000 Al-Anon) plus family members and other guests. The immense block-square area of the ground floor of the Palais des Congres was devoted to the registration process, which went amazingly quickly and smoothly, and to booths offering souvenir books. The 16,000 copies of the souvenir book produced by A.A.W.S. were gone by Friday afternoon; plus, by Sunday, 1,000 copies of the new edition of the Big Book in French, 2,200 of La Vigne’s souvenir booklet in French, and 3,600 of “The Best of the Grapevine.”
The opening receptions cum dances on Thursday night occupied the most spacious rooms in the city, on the second floor of the Palais des Congres and the grand ballroom of the Palladium Hotel. But they were totally inadequate for 50,000 people. After 6,000 had been admitted to the Palais, the concrete structure began literally to shudder with the rhythm of the band. The escalators were quickly shut down and further admittance denied until people began to leave, make room for those still waiting. At LeGrand Hotel, the Marathon Meetings in English and French began at midnight in rooms holding several hundred and ran continuously day and night until 8:00 a.m. Sunday. It became a common sight to see young people sleeping in the corridors and lobbies—and even on the lawn outside—at the LeGrand, as they moved in and out of the Marathon at all hours. And the hotel management was amazingly tolerant.
Beginning Friday morning, the Palais lived up to its advance billing, handling an endless flow of people in and out of workshops and panel meetings—plus multiple alkathons and special meetings at five nearby hotels—on every conceivable subject and for every conceivable A.A. interest, over 90 sessions in all: Meetings for doctors in A.A., lawyers in A.A., “Birds of a Feather,” loners and internationalists, native people, deaf, handicapped, young people and homosexuals. Workshops on Steps, Traditions, the Grapevine. anonymity. A marathon Big Book seminar. Panels and workshops on A.A. in prisons, treatment centers, industry; A.A. and the medical profession, the clergy, outside agencies, the courts, the media. A single Saturday afternoon workshop on sponsorship, with Clancy I. from California as the principal speaker, drew an S.R.O. audience of about 4,000! The Archives workshop, with Mike R. of Oklahoma, Dr. Jack Norris, and Ruth Hock (Crecelius), was “the thrill of a lifetime,” according to one attendee.
Facing the Palais des Congres about a block away was a Seagram distillery. During the entire A.A. Convention, its flag flew at half-mast!
Sunday morning several hundred members, old and young, male and female, expressed their gratitude for sobriety by taking part in a five-kilometer “Fun Run” through Old Montreal. As the throng bobbed along through the picturesque streets along the river, they whooped and waved and joked about how different this was from the bad old days.
One aspect that distinguished the Montreal Convention program from others was the consistent emphasis on A.A.’s origins, history and early days. Panels related how A.A. began in the U.S., in Canada, in Europe, in Latin America and elsewhere. There were meetings called “Pioneers” and “Golden Oldies.” “You really had the grand oldtimers there! And that’s what ‘made it’ for me!” exclaimed one conventioneer admiringly. He was speaking of Capt. Jack S., who started the loners and internationalists in the 1940’s and helped plant the A.A. seed on many foreign shores; Roy Y., who had the amazing record of helping A.A. take root in Texas, Southern California and Florida; Eve M., the early G.S.O. staff member; Paul G., one of the first members in San Francisco; Clarence R. from Atlanta, Elmer H. from Saskatchewan, Gerry D. from New Jersey and others.
Among the 21 nonalcoholic guest authorities were Dr. Robert Niven, Director of the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA) in Washington, D.C.; Maude Fairbanks, of the University of Utah School on Alcoholism; Betsy Anderson from Public Broadcasting station WGBH in Boston; Mary Bernstein, Manager of Employee Assistance for G.T.E. in Stamford, Conn.; Lee Belford, PhD., formerly of the New York University School of Theology; Amos Reed of the Department of Corrections for the state of Washington; Jim O’Sullivan, Warden of the Saskatchewan Penitentiary; Dr. George Valliant of the Dartmouth University School of Medicine; etc., etc.
The multitude that filled Olympic Stadium Friday night, already had a day of these meetings behind them as they settled down to enjoy the opening ceremonies and the Big Meeting to follow. Bob P. set the tone by reminding them, as Bill W. had done, that—although we celebrate June 10 as the founding of A.A.—its roots go back to Dr. Carl Jung, who told Rowland H. that his recovery depended on “a transforming experience of the spirit. This is the “A.A. message” that was carried by Rowland, after his own recovery in the Oxford Groups, to Ebby T., who carried it to Bill W., who carried it to Dr. Bob – and it is that light in the darkness that we bring to newcomers today.
The Chairman then introduced the honored guests on the great stage: The 21 Trustees of the General Service Board. Trustees Emeritus Dr. Jack Norris and Milton Maxwell, both of them so important in A.A.’s history. Dennis Manders and Nell Wing, who had served G.S.O. and A.A. for 35 years. Ken S. from Kansas City, 44 years sober at age 89, the only person known (other than Lois W.) to have been at every A.A. International Convention, including the one in 1945.. Bob S. and Sue Windows, Dr. Bob’s children.
Because of the Convention’s locale, it was hoped that Dave B., founder of A.A. in Quebec, could be honored, but he had died only weeks before. So he was honored in memory and his family was introduced. Also, Dr. Travis Dancey, first nonalcoholic Trustee from Canada and the physician who first tried to carry the message to Dave B., was introduced and spoke briefly. Ruth Hock, Bill W.’s first nonalcoholic secretary, was introduced to tremendous applause and was presented, by Trustee Chairman Gordon Patrick, with the 5,000,000th copy of the Big Book, the manuscript of which she had typed 47 years before! Finally, Lois W., Bill’s widow and First Lady of Al-Anon, was escorted to the podium. The entire stadium stood as one, and the roar and ovation were deafening. A diminutive white-haired figure at age 93, Lois’ speaking voice was strong and she completely charmed the huge audience. Accidentally turning two pages of her manuscript at once, she alertly turned back and made a joke of it!
With the crowd already drained from emotion, it was time for the opening A.A. meeting. As a bow to the host province, a bi¬lingual Quebecois, Guy G., spoke first. Next, Sybil C., the longest-sober woman A.A. member (44 years), told of the colorful beginnings of the Fellowship in Los Angeles. The meeting closed with past Trustee Dave C. of North Carolina delivering a powerful message.
All the words of the Big Meetings were translated simultaneously from English into French, Spanish and German, and were signed for the hearing impaired seated in a special section.
As mighty as the multitude in the stadium was that night, there were probably 50′ A.A.’s in meetings back home for every one in Montreal. For in 1985 there were over 67,000 A.A. groups registered at G.S.O. in New York, or at other G.S.O.’s elsewhere in the world (and probably tens of thousands not registered). The total reported and estimated current membership was 1,446,000—not including the countless members, perhaps long’ sober but not reported by any group, who exist anonymously in the fabric of society. About 33,840 of the known groups were in the U.S.; 4,445 in Canada.
At the moving “A.A. Around the World” meeting on Friday in Montreal, members called up to speak were from (among other places) Italy, Australia, Sri Lanka, Japan, Finland, Korea, Turkey, India, Poland and Trinidad. But this only symbolized the more than 644,000 reported and estimated members currently active in over 27,000 groups recorded at 34 overseas service offices.
The meeting at the Palais on A.A. in prisons took note of the fact that there were 1,680 groups behind the walls in the U.S. and Canada alone, with at least 50,400 members. And the meeting of lone members and internationalists represented more than 1,300 others with whom G.S.O./New York is in touch.
Besides the 11 G.S.O. staff members and 10 other administrative,, managerial, financial and stenographic people from the office who helped man the Convention in Montreal, there were 71 left New York to carry on with their regular duties. All 99 employees of the General Service Office had a hand in some way in putting on the great event. Similarly, four A.A. members of the Grapevine staff chaired workshops, manned the booth and otherwise were available in Montreal, while another 13 kept the office going at 468 Park Ave., So.
Probably not one in 500 conventioneers, intent as they were on fellowship and enjoyment, were aware of the size of the services necessary to carry the message and assure A.A.’s future. It took $5,626,000 to run the General Service Office in 1985. Of this, A.A. groups and members contributed $2,378,828 – but this generous amount came from only a little over half the groups recorded at G.S.O. The remainder came from the income from the sale of A.A. literature. The quantity of literature distributed in 1985 was in itself an astonishing measure of how far the Fellowship had come since those struggling days when Ruth Hock typed the manuscript of the Big Book: 696,300 copies of Alcoholics Anonymous (2,700 every working day!) and over one and a half million books and booklets in all. Over 6,860,000 pamphlets and 1,255 other items. And this was only the English – language literature in U.S./Canada; it did not include books and pamphlets in 13 other languages.
The 1985 Grapevine circulation stood at 127,000 and financially it broke even.
A threatening rain held off until after the spectacular entertainment show—complete with French can-can girls and Philadelphia Mummers—was over at the stadium on Saturday night. Then, on Sunday morning, most of the 50,000 returned once more for the concluding Spiritual Meeting, surely one of the finest in anyone’s memory. Chaired by Betty L., it began with beautiful sharing from Walter S. from Guatemala. Then lovely Liz J., widow of the former Chairman of the Service Board of New Zealand gave a talk that was “pure program.” The closing speaker was Joe McQ., the first black A.A. member in Arkansas, with a soaring, spiritual message. As the multitude stood, hands linked, and recited the Lord’s Prayer in mighty unison, eyes glistened and throats choked. Then smiles burst forth everywhere and people hugged each other as they said “I don’t want it to end!” and bade good-bye. There was even dancing in the aisles. Back in the city, the regular meetings were wall-to-wall with visitors trying to keep the celebration going, and in the plaza in front of the closed and locked Palais des Congres, impromptu meetings were held.
A steady procession of cars streamed back across the border Sunday afternoon. As one of them stopped at the custom gates, a Canadian officer leaned from his booth and asked, “What’s been going on up there? I’ve never seen so many happy people!”
Not all those who celebrated the 50th Anniversary of Alcoholics Anonymous in Montreal were old-timers. One young man, a newcomer in July 1985, who had never attended any A.A. Convention much less an International, was there. Many months later, a friend who had seen him in Montreal ran into him again at a meeting back home. “What did you think of it?” he asked! The new man looked down at the floor a moment, and when he raised his head, his eyes were moist and he replied softly, “I will never be the same again. I will just never be the same again.”