A.A.’s Dr. Bob
The Truth I Wanted to Learn
The Challenging Search For The Real Dr. Bob
When I first arrived in A.A. in the spring of 1986, if anyone had mentioned the name “Dr. Bob,” the remark would either have passed me by. Or I would have asked, “Who is he?” I didn’t know, and I hadn’t heard—and not for quite some time thereafter.
Then the young man, now dead of alcoholism, asked me if I knew A.A. had come from the Bible. When I answered, “No.” He suggested I read DR. BOB and the Good Old Timers and also remarked that the A.A. pioneers had been so interested in studying the Bible that they wanted to call A.A. “The James Club.” And I won’t repeat what I’ve since written about The Akron Genesis of A.A., The Good Book and The Big Book, Dr. Bob and His Library, The James Club, the AA of Akron pamphlets, and all the rest. But there was still a gaping hole in my knowledge of what Dr. Bob himself had meant when he said he had “refreshed” his memory of the Bible and had received “excellent training” in that as a youngster. He had also spoken of his four-times-a-week attendance at church, and also of his participation in Christian Endeavor.
This left me with many unanswered questions: What memory of the Bible did Dr. Bob bring with him to early A.A.? What training had he received in the Good Book as a youngster? Why did he call it “excellent training?” What had he really absorbed from all his church, Sunday school, prayer meeting, and Bible study attendance as a youngster? What did they do in Christian Endeavor? Where could I find all the facts about his youth? How much of his learning was translated to Akron A.A.’s pioneer Christian Fellowship? And—the bottom line—what could such information do for the alcoholic who still suffers?
Important Answers Were In St. Johnsbury, Vermont
I had been invited to conduct, and for eight different times did conduct, A.A. spiritual history seminars at the Wilson House in East Dorset, Vermont. I had contributed many historical books, tapes, pamphlets, and manuscripts to the Griffith Library at the Wilson House. I had been there at its Grand Opening, when Ozzie Lepper was still alive. And I had recently researched and found a good deal of information about Bill Wilson’s religious training as a youngster, about his grandfather Willie’s conversion cure, and about the involvement of both the Griffith and the Wilson families in the little East Congregational Church that lies between the Griffith Library and the Wilson House.
But heart surgery complications in 2001, and economics, had prevented my visit to Dr. Bob’s birthplace and boyhood home in St. Johnsbury. Being unable to go there myself, I asked three different groups of dedicated A.A. history seekers to go to St. Johnsbury and see what they could find and report. Each of these three groups came away empty handed. Part of this was due to their lack of knowledge about what to look for and where to find it. Part of this was due to the fact that there simply was and is nothing of significance at Dr. Bob’s actual home that would inform people about Dr. Bob and his family. That had been the case for years and years.
So, a month or so ago, my son Ken and I went to St. Johnsbury, Vermont. We met with the people managing the boyhood home. We scoped out the places of Dr. Bob’s youth; and we were able to interview the minister of North Congregational Church and obtain some records. We sought out his birth certificate. We were helped immeasurably with our research by the archivist at St. Johnsbury Academy. We acquired some books and literature. And we went to the Town Library—called the Athenaeum. We were helped there. As we looked at records and pictures, we realized we had lots and lots of research work to do on our return to Maui.
My son Ken has since been applying his extraordinary talents in the internet research field. And from these efforts, we have obtained all kinds of records about North Congregational Church, its Sunday School, its Christian Endeavor Society, the Fairbanks family who were deeply involved in its founding and service through the years, and the activities of Dr. Bob and his family in that church. We have also obtained some well researched and written books about the church, its members, its revivals, and the service of the Smiths as superintendents of Sunday school, Sunday school teachers, historians, missionary workers, music participation, and women’s events.
There’s more at the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium across the street. There’s still more at the Town Hall and Court House where Judge Walter P. Smith (Bob’s father) served. There are biographies, bibliographies, and histories galore at the Athenaeum which the Fairbanks people donated to the Town. There is information about the YMCA and YMCA building (now destroyed by fire), its Christian outreach with revivals, conversions, and Gospel meetings. Also about offices held in the “Y” by Judge Smith and many a Fairbanks.
The St. Johnsbury Academy is a treasure trove. Records show pictures of Dr. Bob and of him in his graduating class; notices about him and the Glee Club which he managed and in which he sang; class notes about him; mention of his membership in the Adelphian Literary Society; mention of debates in which he held forth; and his graduation program—where he was Orator. Moreover the Judge conducted exams for the school. And Bob’s mother had attended there, graduated there, taught there, been on the alumni executive committee, delivered a history address, and wrote two chapters of the official Academy history. There are lots more details about the Fairbanks influence, required Daily chapel, required church attendance and Bible study, and Christian textbooks.
The lid has barely been opened. We are still researching and receiving information from the state historical society, the state Congregational (UCC) headquarters, the YMCA, the archivists, the books and histories, and the writings of those involved in the revivals, evangelistic events, Gospel meetings, and conversions.
What’s the Point?
It’s worth a comment that, until we recently published The Conversion of Bill W., there was a general misreporting to the effect that there was nothing to report about Bill’s youth. Of course, we discovered Bill’s grandfather had been converted and cured. Bill’s grandparents on both sides had attended the East Dorset Congregational Church and participated in it. Bill himself had attended and been enrolled in its Sunday school. Bill and his grandfather Fayette had read the Bible. Bill had studied the Bible with his friend Mark. Bill had attended temperance and revival meetings. And, as a student at Burr and Burton Academy, Bill had—like Dr. Bob—attended Daily Chapel.
It’s hardly relevant to A.A. work that some of us have read about Bill’s boomerang, about his deceased childhood girlfriend Bertha, about his violin, about his depressions, about family split-ups, and about his encounter with Swedenborgians. But Bill’s conversion at the Mission and his conversion story have been distorted or omitted or ignored. Yet the latter points went to the heart of Bill’s early A.A. convictions about the solution and cure of alcoholism.
The facts pertaining to Dr. Bob are far more relevant to the cure of alcoholism. For it was what Dr. Bob learned in St. Johnsbury as a youngster that had everything to do with the form and shape and content of the early A.A. program in Akron and its astonishing documented 75% to 93% success rate among seemingly hopeless, medically incurable, real alcoholics who thoroughly followed the Akron path to a relationship with God – and cure!
You’ll learn what’s next as we go along. But here’s a preview. We are assembling and have about completed a 20 volume “core library” of information about the whole Dr. Bob boyhood, training, and activities in St. Johnsbury. As with all the materials we placed in the Wilson House, these will constitute the research base which documents our articles, talks, and books. We have also just about completed the first of two books about Dr. Bob. Excerpts from draft chapters of the first book are being distributed to history fellowship members and others and also posted on our new Dr. Bob website (http://www.DrBob.info). The first book—a resource book--will focus on the St. Johnsbury facts and Dr. Bob’s youth. The second book in the works will be the long-awaited accurate biography of Dr. Bob. It will supplement what has already been done in my own titles like Dr. Bob and His Library, The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous, The Good Book and The Big Book, Anne Smith’s Journal, 1933-1939, Henrietta Seiberling, When Early AAs Were Cured and Why, Real Twelve-Step Fellowship History, and The James Club. It will also flesh out the blank spots in DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers and RHS.
You will also begin seeing additional parts of this article; pictures of the whole St. Johnsbury scene and of Dr. Bob and his family; additional book excerpts; and audio talks covering the subject. Stay tuned!