Cleveland Plain Dealer Article about
Founders Day weekend in Akron for the 67th Anniversary
Brian E. Albrecht Plain Dealer Reporter Akron- A thousand or more
choppers rumbled through a scotch-colored sunrise; hot pipes
burning morning mists white as beer foam to a blue-smoke
bellow of bikes, trikes, crotch-rockets and cross-country cruisers
pounded the air, echoing through downtown streets yesterday,
shadowing the motorcade to Mount Peace Cemetery.
of the Sober Survivors, Sober Riders and other road roamers raised
tattooed arms in a clenched-fist salute as this river of black
leather and chrome flowed past tombstones and cheering
were bound for hope, strength and, in essence, the biggest
sobriety checkpoint in the nation this past weekend - the place
where Dr. Bob, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was laid to
rest, stone-cold sober after 15 years of recovery.
than 10,000 members from across the country and places as
far-flung as India and Russia, came to the city where the group
was born, as they do each year to mark Founders' Day, the
self-help organization's birthday. Here, they both honor the past
and ensure the future by celebrating their present days, weeks or
years of sobriety.
each other only by first name and addiction. It's enough, even if
they vary in every conceivable way. "Different folks, same
pain," as Theresa of Dayton says.
There's "Dog," of the Sober Survivors, who says the
nondrinking motorcycle group passes up bars on road trips anymore,
"but we know where to find every Dairy Queen."
Dan, a 61-year-old Wayne County Amish man who nearly drank himself
to death, coughing up blood after binges on booze, including
home-brewed hard cider. Kevin, 54, of London, England, got his
call to sobriety 19 years ago - "That's rock bottom, when
your own mum throws you out of the house." Marty, 72, of New
Brighton, Pa., echoed many who said they simply quit when they
"got sick of being sick."
wear their emotions on their sleeves, backs and chests, in AA
slogans and sayings. "Ride sober, live free."
"Insist on enjoying life." They're always ready with a
hug, handshake or cheer after the standard, "My name is . . .
and I'm an alcoholic" introduction. They're the
Serenity-Prayer, one-day-at-a-time people; only an arm's length
away from the next drink. Survivors of the same shipwreck, as they
came to see where it all began 67 years ago when two men created a
group that now numbers about 2 million members worldwide.
or divine intervention as many AA members believe, led to a
fortuitous meeting between local surgeon Dr. Robert Smith and New
York stockbroker William Wilson, both alcoholics who struggled to
overcome their addiction for years.
- born, coincidentally, in a small room behind a Vermont bar - was
hospitalized several times after drinking binges. He had achieved
some sobriety success through the Oxford Group, a nonalcoholic
fellowship stressing universal spiritual values in daily
during a discouraging business trip to Akron in 1935, Wilson was
seized by an intense desire to tie one on.
desperately paced between a church directory posted at one end of
the hotel lobby and the Parisian Cocktail lounge at the other
finally called an Akron clergyman, and was connected with a local
Oxford Group member who brought Wilson together with Smith.
two spent a sobering Mother's Day, forging a friendship and later
a treatment philosophy and 12-step recovery program that became
the foundation for Alcoholics Anonymous. Their approach was to
treat alcoholism as a disease, not a mental or character flaw,
that could be overcome through the support of
fellow alcoholics and a greater, spiritual power.
keeping with AA's tradition of anonymity, the group's co-creators
become known among members as simply Bill and Dr. Bob.
Founders' Day grew out of a series of yearly member meetings
(formalized in 1945), and is held as close as possible to June 10,
the day Dr. Bob took his last drink - a bottle of beer to steady
his hands, shaking from alcohol withdrawal, so he could operate.
Dr. Bob never drank again, and died in 1950. Bill died in 1971.
legacy endures beyond the group they created, in historic sites
treated as virtual shrines by AA members - and rightly so,
according to Founders' Day committee member Bob, of Akron.
"Akron is really the Mecca of Alcoholics Anonymous, and
Founders' Day is a pilgrimage for people who want to see where it
was all born," he said. Touching his heart, he said, "To
walk into Dr. Bob's house, what you feel right here is such an
overwhelming feeling of peace and serenity, you can't describe
white clapboard house, restored to reflect Dr. Bob's tenure, is
open for tours from noon to 3 p.m. every day, year-round. But the
place is mobbed by the faithful, passing under a "Welcome
Home" banner, on Founders' Day weekend. Ardmore Avenue
residents have learned that the event is a great time to hold a
yard sale, and the street takes on a festive, block-party
didn't spoil the effect of the house on Patty of Toronto, making
her first Founders' Day visit. "The feeling I get, being
touched by somebody who saved so many lives, is just so moving it
brings tears to my eyes," she said.
was included on bus tours Saturday of such historic local AA sites
as the former Kistler's Donuts (now a print shop), where the
group's first members gathered to enjoy a little coffee and
deep-fried fellowship - giving rise to the now-traditional
java-and-doughnuts meeting fare.
riders saw the old Mayflower Hotel (now public housing), where
Bill had his crisis of thirst; archives and artifacts (including
Dr. Bob's golf clubs and correspondence) of the Akron Intergroup
Council of Alcoholics Anonymous; and St. Thomas Hospital, where
the founders and Sister Mary Ignatia first put the 12-step method
to practical use.
bus passed a private club where Dr. Bob once hung out, Marilyn,
the tour guide, noted that ladies had a separate bar in the club.
"Back then, men didn't think we could drink like them,"
"Boy, we showed them!" a woman shouted back, to
Akron police headquarters came into view, Marilyn noted, "By
the grace of God, none of us will be there tonight." A chorus
of "Amens" rippled through the bus, joined by shouts of
"Serenity!" and "Acceptance!"
"Gee, ain't it great to be sober?" Marilyn asked;
perhaps the most oft-heard question of the weekend.
would get no argument from AA members attending workshops and
meetings at the University of Akron, which provided use of its
dorms and facilities for the Friday-through-Sunday Founders' Day
events. A visitor to a "Recovery Art Show" stared
silently at a painting, "Last Call for Alcohol,"
depicting a skeletal Angel of Death hovering over a crumpled
victim of booze. The man finally softly whispered, "I was
nearly there. I truly was."
the white-whiskered and suspendered Dan, from Ohio Amish country,
outside napping under a shade tree. He still remembers the
"lost" weeks of binge drinking, and the time he came so
close to death that his family was planning his funeral.
Remembering helps recovery, Dan said. So does gratitude for a
second chance. "You very seldom see a grateful person getting
drunk," he said with a wink.
come to Founders' Day nearly every one of the 24 years he has been
sober, to renew old friendships and meet new friends. They're
people who talk the same language, he said. Folks who know what
only other drunks know.
some of the weekend's guests who aren't AA members have a pretty
good idea of those matters of the bottle. Rich, 47, of Dayton,
never has had a drink. He swears he never will after seeing the
results of alcohol on an older brother and sister, who he supports
by joining them at Founders' Day. "I'm one of the lucky
ones," he said while waiting for Saturday night's "Big
Meeting" to begin.
meeting was the weekend's hottest-ticket event, with all the
foot-stomping, song-singing fervor of an old-fashioned tent
revival, and musical motivation ranging from "Amazing
Grace" to "We Will Rock You."
affair's traditional countdown of sobriety duration among the
crowd produced one person who hadn't had a drink in 54 years, when
martinis were in vogue the first time around.
Featured speaker David, a prominent New York lawyer with five
college degrees, told of a former lifetime of drinking stretching
from rural North Carolina to the White House during the Kennedy
administration. He joked that as co-author of early civil-rights
legislation, "If you don't have adequate civil rights, blame
me. I wrote the bill in a blackout."
serious note, he stressed a theme of responsibility. "I am
not responsible for my drinking," he said. "I am
responsible, with the help of God, for my sobriety." He
closed his remarks by thanking AA for helping him to be free;
"free at last, thank God almighty," borrowing the famous
quotation from the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
sense of dead men talking resumed early Sunday morning with the
motorcycle motorcade and gravesite memorial service when a tape of
Dr. Bob's last public appearance in 1950 was played for the
seemed to find it eerie when Dr. Bob's deep voice boomed over the
loudspeaker, saying, "I get a big thrill out of looking over
this vast sea of faces like this with a feeling that possibly some
small thing that I did a number of years ago played an infinitely
small part in making this meeting possible."
was, after all, Dr. Bob. One of the men who bring them here, year
after year. They gather shortly after sunrise and slowly - almost
instinctively as the crowd grows - surround his grave in tightly
packed circles of gratitude and joy.
"Look around you," said Dog of the Sober Survivors, who
credits his first Founders' Day three years ago with putting him
on the road to sobriety. "Every one of these people is a
miracle that 'normal' people have written off. And Dr. Bob was one
of those two men who showed us the way." Dr. Bob's grandson,
Galbraith, 58, came from Knoxville, Tenn., to attend his first
Founders' Day. "It's a proud day for everybody, though this
is probably more hoopla than Dr. Bob would've liked to see,"
said Galbraith, who is not an AA member.
"It's just an unbelievable thing to see people who are so
grateful," he added. "I don't think this [gravesite]
should ever be a shrine or anything, but it's a nice connection to
keep people strong and help them realize that mere mortals can do
a speaker's remarks regarding the life of Dr. Bob and his wife,
Anne, three bagpiped verses of "Amazing Grace" were
played. Silence and tears accompanied the first verse.
slowly, a soft hum rose from the crowd, echoing the second verse,
growing louder and stronger. For the finale, a chorus of voices
rose to the clear blue skies.
"I once was lost but now I'm found. Was blind but now I
joined hands and recited the Lord's Prayer with one extra line; a
promise, an invitation . . . "Keep coming
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