Elder Statesman

Bill W. in Akron, June 15, 1958

Mel B. (Toledo, Ohio)

Bill Wilson in Akron, June 15, 1958

Bill W. in Akron, June 15, 1958

  I have always been grateful. that I had an opportunity to photograph A.A. co-Founder Bill W. at a symbolic time and place. It was June 15, 1958, Founders' Day for A.A. in Akron, Ohio. Bill was at the gravesite of Dr. Bob and Anne Smith, where in a few moments he would deliver a brief memorial message. I thought it rather appropriate that it was also Father's Day, and on this golden bright Sunday morning all of the 30 or 40 people gathered for the simple memorial service must have had strong feelings about the two men who had been the human fathers of A.A.

We had met Bill quite by chance an hour earlier in the coffee shop of the Mayflower Hotel, where he recognized us as A.A. members and came over to our table for breakfast. He told us a great deal about his hopes for A.A. and his belief that the Fellowship must now look out for itself, with no special help from him other than occasional advice and the services that he might be able to give as a result of his experience. His principal concern, he said, was to help the Grapevine became a more effective medium of communications in the Fellowship (an objective that certainly was met long before Bill died in 1971).

It occurs to me, 20 years later, that Bill had, by 1958, moved gracefully into a role of A.A. elder statesman. He was deliberately taking steps to guard against becoming a bleeding deacon, the type of older member who attempts to dominate the Fellowship and to block any change not of his own making. Bill always admitted that he had many of the character traits of the bleeding deacon, so he made a conscious effort to avoid becoming such a person. At the second International Conference in 1955, for example, he had gone so far as to make a formal and symbolic statement that effectively assigned responsibility for A.A. to the members and their delegates. He wanted A.A. to be a Fellowship that could easily get along without him.

We also knew that Bill was finally making progress in overcoming severe mental depression that had plagued him since the early 1940s. He still had problems, of course, and at breakfast he had told us of strenuous walking that sometimes seemed to improve his moods. But he was not always serene and energetic, and that afternoon he would be in a state of extreme fatigue following his talk before 1,500 A.A. members and other friends at the University of Akron field house.

I cannot remember just what Bill said at this memorial service, other than that he walked over to the grave stone and simply began talking to Dr. Bob and Anne as if they were present. I think he talked about the accomplishments of our Fellowship and our efforts to meet the high standards they had set for us years ago. There was great sincerity in Bill's words and manner, and I now think that he did feel we were in communication with these dear people, wherever they were. Bill believed in everlasting life without defining it or attempting to explain just how it works. I am sure he believed that Bob and Anne were living somewhere in the Eternal Goodness.

When Bill had finished by placing a large wreath at the headstone, he asked all of us to join him in silence. As we bowed in silence, a church bell nearby began sounding, so perfectly timed with our service that one lady gave a short gasp of wonder. Then we said the Lord's Prayer together, reminding us that the program had really been another A.A. meeting.

20 years later, I went back to Akron and attended another Founders' Day service for Dr. Bob and Anne. Bill has joined them in the Eternal Goodness, and his burial place is in Vermont. The message was delivered by an East Indian, a Canadian A.A. member who had originally come from Ceylon. Both Bill and Bob would have liked that, because they wanted A.A. as an international society. The crowd at the gravesite was large; people even came out in a motorcade led by a motorcycle patrolman. Dr. Bob would have had misgivings about that because he was a modest man who did not want to be the subject of special memorials. Bill would have had some misgivings too, but he would have accepted our desire for such a service as a part of the group conscience. Bill and Bob both were good examples of what A.A. elder statesmen should be.

                    Mel B. (Toledo, Ohio)
                    August 7, 1978
 




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