Clarence Snyder: Almost Co-Founder

Plain Dealer

By bob k

From time to time, various names are suggested as being worthy of “co-founder” status, for contributions leading AA to be what it is today.  People such as Dr. Silkworth, William James, and Carl Jung are among the “outsiders” who, directly or indirectly influenced our society.  Many Christians among us would like to see more acknowledgement of the Oxford role, Sam Shoemaker and Frank Buchman specifically.  That Lois Wilson and Anne Smith were among the chief protagonists of the early AA “drama” is undeniable.  Sylvia K. and Mrs. Marty Mann fought for the place of women in AA (now forming 35% of our membership).  Ebby Thacher was not shy in nominating himself in spite of his inconsistent sobriety.

That Jim Burwell receives mention is pleasing to many readers of this website.  His role in “widening the gateway” by pushing for the modifying phrase “as we understood him,” and the more inclusive phrase “higher power,” was HUGE.  It is undeniable that hundreds of thousands of AA members would not have stayed in AA, had it been one iota more “religious.”  For some, he is the most significant of our predecessors.

Perhaps the strongest case for “co-founder” status can be made on behalf of Clarence Snyder, under whose management Cleveland forged the template for developing and handling explosive growth in AA.  Historian Ernie Kurtz tells us that “Cleveland became the testing ground for what Alcoholics Anonymous was to be.” (Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 83)  One-on-one sponsorship, so ubiquitous today as to be “de rigeur,” was popularized by Snyder, and he got new members quickly sponsoring others, not the original modus operandi of Akron or New York AA.  Additionally, Snyder aggressively pursued getting publicity for the nascent society, the success of these efforts evident in the following:

Clarence seemed to be a visionary. But Clarence was his own worst enemy. His personality got in the was of his being recognized for these accomplishments. Many felt Clarence was arrogant and antagonistic. But he was steadfast in his ideology and principles. Principles he carried with him until his death.

Clarence was never one to be publicity shy, nor was he one to shun any offer of help. No matter what the source. No matter what the consequence. He was open to anybody if he felt it was for the betterment of A.A. and for the betterment of the quality of life that this way afforded the alcoholic and their families.”  (How It Worked, Mitchell K., Ch.5.3, Silkworth. Net)

I Was Born At A Very Early Age

(This is the title of Chapter 1 of the biography by Mitchell K., How It Worked – The Story Of Clarence H. Snyder and the Early Days of Alcoholics Anonymous in Cleveland, Ohio.)

Born on December 26th, 1902, Clarence “was the ugly duckling, the scapegoat, the black sheep of the family for the rest of his time at home.”  (How It Worked, Ch. 1)  His mother wanted a girl as she already had two sons.  At the age of two, Clarence, left unattended, unwrapped a tool box, a gift for his older brother, found a hammer, and smashed every Christmas ornament on the tree. His mother wailed on him with a hairbrush, a disciplinary technique she was to use with some frequency.

Bright, and possessing a “logical mind,” Clarence did well at school, at least until his beloved older brother, Dick, contracted a disease, and died. “His studies went downhill in a rapid, steady spiral.  He became withdrawn, extremely depressed, and lost most of his former self-image and confidence.”  (HIW, Ch. 1)

As a teenager, he discovered the magical, transformative powers of liquor, which “made him more at ease, less self-conscious, and eventually invincible.”   (HIW, Ch. 1) “Hitting on” his date’s mother somewhat flattered the woman, but her daughter and husband were not impressedThe very first drinking experience brought a “profound personality change.”  (HIW, Ch. 1)


Young Clarence met and married Dorothy in three months.  “Clarence became and remained a ‘periodic’ drunk for a number of years.”  (HIW, Ch. 2)  Problems were minimal until Dorothy became pregnant, and was affected “psychologically” by the pregnancy – her “sanity was fading rapidly.”  (HIW, Ch. 2)  The doctor prescribed “Porter Ale,” leading the caring husband to become a “Home Brewmeister.  “Somehow or other, I must have misunderstood the instructions, for I not only made beer for my wife, but I drank it for her.”  (Big Book, 3rd Edition, p.297)

In his own eyes, rapidly escalating drinking was justified by his “wife and her meddlesome family.” (HIW, Ch. 2)  Aided by talent, and a friend on the board, he was able to keep his job at the Morris Plan Bank through three and a half years during which he was constantly intoxicated.  Clarence was a “system guy,” and his debt collection practices made him “the best manager they ever had.”  (HIW, Ch. 2)  Finally fired for being a drunk, there came a series of jobs where he could scarcely last a few weeks.  Then Clarence became “between jobs” for several years, until a “last chance” truck-driving job with his brother-in-law.  In spite of virtual round the clock security, he managed to violate the “no-drinking” rule, and got dumped in New York City where his wits enabled him to survive as a street hustler.  Fifty cents a night for “guarding” trucks gave him both a place to sleep, and excellent purchasing power for the seven cent pints of swill sold at the hardware store.

Incredibly, during a year of homelessness in New York City, Clarence was able to save up some money.  He decided to go home to Ohio, and did, getting rides from truckers.  He tried to beg his way back into Dorothy’s home, but she stood her ground.  Dorothy’s sister Virginia (who had been married to Hank Parkhurst) had learned something of a new plan for “curing” alcoholics from her physician, Dr. Leonard Strong, whose brother-in-law was Bill Wilson.  Clarence was carted off to the bus depot, where a ticket to Akron was purchased, and his boarding was supervised.  Dorothy even trailed the bus for a few miles to be sure that her husband did not evacuate the bus at the first sight of a bar.

Meeting Dr. Bob

“Young feller, you must be Clarence.  You can call me Doc.”  (HIW, Ch. 3.3)  Six feet tall and one hundred and thirty pounds, the thirty-five year old was “cold, wet, sick, and most devastating of all – hopeless.” (HIW, Ch. 3.3) Suffering some form of alcoholic delirium, Clarence fled Smith’s office in terror, thinking that Dr. Bob was the “mad bomber,” and plotting to kill him.  Clarence had read a news story on the bus ride to Akron about a fugitive killer named Smith.  After talking to the good doctor several times on the telephone, Clarence finally turned up at the hospital where, once partially detoxed, he began to be visited by the fifteen sober men who were all aged 45 to 60.  This went on for a week.

Clarence was stunned that his first meeting at T. Henry Williams’ home was “holy rollerish.”  Bill V.H. gave him a card inscribed“Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; old things are passed away; behold, all things are become as new.”  He was introduced to the Four Standards – aka “Absolutes” – honesty, unselfishness, love and purity.  Although none too keen on all of this, Clarence was desperate to be sober and to keep Dorothy happy.  Back in Cleveland, ”Clarence had little to show other than himself.  There was no AA Big Book.  There were no AA pamphlets, no AA history, nor AA groups.”  (HIW, Ch. 3.9)  Our protagonist went on a vigorous recruiting mission, all to no avail.  His first success was transformational – Bill H. stayed sober two years, but his surrender was “forced,” he was not really “into it.”

Those Darned Catholics

By April, 1939, the Cleveland squad had grown to about a dozen rummies who drove down each Wednesday to what was still the “alcoholic contingent” of the Oxford Group.  The Catholics had problems generally with participation in these Protestant services, and specifically with the requirement of “open confession.”  Clarence, the Clevelanders’ leader, faced a dilemma.  His sponsor, Bob Smith, was loyal to the Oxfords, and refused to separate from them.  Under increasing pressure from their pastors, the Catholics couldn’t keep going.

Clarence Snyder

Clarence Snyder,
the almost co-founder of AA,
December 26, 1902 – March 22, 1984

On May 10, 1939, Clarence announced that the Cleveland folks would no longer be coming down to Akron for the gathering at the Williams.  Abby G., a patent attorney who was still in the hospital, and his wife Grace offered their very large house to host the new Cleveland meeting.

On May 11, this Cleveland group met for the first time, calling itself AA, after the book.

According to a letter to Hank P. in New York, there was “not too much emphasis on the ‘spiritual business’ at meetings.”  (HIW, Ch. 3.10)  Clarence believed that prayer and bible reading were better left to be done at home.  Overt spirituality was a private issue, between “baby” and sponsor.

Although far from a non-believer himself, Clarence Snyder played a crucial role in moving AA away from its religious roots, ironically on behalf of a religious “minority,” the Catholics.

The Era Of Publicity

Historian Ernie Kurtz refers to the period from October, 1939 to March, 1941, as “the era of publicity.”  (Not-God, p. 83)  “The Clevelanders were missionary-minded.”  (Not-God, p. 84)  A series of articles by Elrick B. Davis, in October and November, 1939, led to a growth explosion in Cleveland.  These reports were hugely favorable to AA, but several members were furious that Clarence had snuck the reporter into meetings, by representing him as an alcoholic.  (The strong evidence is that he was NOT.)  Members’ fears of seeing their names in the newspaper went unrealized, but fury over Snyder’s willfulness led to a schism.

Another complaint was that Clarence was suspected of having been compensated for the Plain Dealer articles, and of having kept the money rather than putting it “in the basket.”  Those with anonymity concerns were further disturbed by the Jack Alexander article in the Saturday Evening Post in March of 1941.  this piece took Alcoholics Anonymous “national,” and sparked a period of exponential growth not seen before or since.  AA was “on the move,” and especially in Cleveland.

Six new Cleveland groups were added in April and May, fourteen for the year.  Sponsors could not handle the flood of new recruits.

AA Theatre School

A twelve step call led Clarence to Walter B., an eccentric tippler had turned his house into a theater – “a couple of hundred seats, a stage, and props.”  (HIW, Ch. 6.2)  The drunken thespian was known for putting on free performances for the neighbors, but attendance had dwindled as his drinking had become more out-of-control.  The Post article on AA caught his attention.

A resourceful Clarence Snyder instantly saw the possibilities.  They would teach AA to classes full of “pigeons” roosting in the seats.  “All these men, who were just wandering around with no place to go anyway, were told to go to this place. They came to be taught this program. By the end of the first year, the Crawford Road Men’s Group had one hundred and thirty-five members. This was from a core group of only ten.”  (HIW, Ch. 6.2)  The meeting moved a short time later to a new venue with better parking, but Clarence had created another innovative way of growing AA.

AA “Founder” Flounders

Clarence came up with the idea of rotation, a Cleveland Central Committee, and an AA bulletin.  He travelled around the country speaking at AA gatherings.  “He occasionally stated that he was the one who had started AA.”  In his defence, his Cleveland home group was the first to call itself Alcoholics Anonymous, after the name of the book.

His abrasiveness was also evident in his criticism of “New York-style” AA, which he regarded as a diluted, “Don’t Drink & Go To Meetings” bastardization the more stringent Ohio system learned from Bob Smith.  In the sixties, Clarence moved to Florida, where he continued to push “hard-line” AA.  He continued to work, mostly in sales, but he founded a group home in St. Petersburg.  Clarence joined the Masons, was active in church affairs, and continued to be an AA stalwart.  Possibly this resume did not include “good husband,” as he and second wife Selma were divorced.

Clarence had never believed in the “tradition of anonymity,” and he granted TV, radio, and newspaper interviews, and even had his photo taken in connection with AA.

Amazing Grace, Serenity, And Howard Cosell

If there is such a thing as “the one,” Clarence found her in the summer of 1969.  Grace Snipes Moore was a fellow alcoholic, an AA member, and by 1971, Mrs. Clarence Snyder.  Grace was religious and it must have been contagious, as Clarence started speaking of Jesus at both meetings and retreats.  (This continues to be more common in Florida, and others parts of the South, according to interviews with on-line folks in these areas.)

The seventies were  a wonderful time for Clarence, his relationship with Grace bringing a serenity previously unfamiliar.  His “later Florida years were filled with joy and contentment.” (HIW, Ch. 9)   Not merely an elder statesman, he had the longest sobriety of any living AA member.  He continued taking people through the steps and led two retreats each year.  He was much in demand as an AA speaker in the U.S., Canada, and beyond.

Nonetheless he spawned mixed reactions.

His biographer, sponsee, and likely number one fan, Mitchell K. states “He was respected by many, but disliked by just as many.” This instantly brought to mind comedian Buddy Hackett’s line about bombastic sportscaster, Howard Cosell: “There have always been mixed emotions about Howard Cosell:  Some people hate him like poison, and other people just hate him regular.”


“In November of 1983, Clarence was off on one of his many speaking engagements.  This particular one was in British Columbia, Canada.” (HIW, Ch. 10)  Ill and worsening as the week went on, he remained determined to fulfil his commitment.  Both “he and Grace prayed for a healing.  Other Christians….’laid hands’ upon him and anointed him with oil.”  (HIW,  Ch. 10)  He made it only halfway through his talk before being rushed off to a physician, who diagnosed laryngitis and a bronchial infection.

They eventually got back to Florida where he rallied temporarily, but “Clarence had developed a malignancy on his left lung… the doctors decided not to operate (he was 82)… It would be too dangerous.”  (HIW, Ch. 10)  Clarence Snyder lived to see his 46 year sobriety anniversary, but on March 22, 1984, “Clarence has gone home to be with the Lord.”  (HIW, Ch. 10)

Would that it were so!


19 Responses

  1. Mitchell K. says:

    Just one correction in the article – Virginia wasn’t married to Hank. One of Dorothy’s other sisters was.

    I always feel sad when I hear terms like a Clarence crowd or Clarence people. As far as AA history is concerned and the documented facts as evidenced in early correspondence and pre 1970 talks made by Clarence, those folks aren’t Clarence followers but the same way Clarence’s evangelical agenda was super charged after 1970, those who came after he passed on received a different message than what Clarence passed on to the early founding members. Pre and post 1970, the difference is very clear if someone is tolerant enough to listen to the recorded talks or had availability to the correspondence.

    I too caught on to that frenzy through the urging of people other than Clarence. However, whenever Clarence had me alone, he always spoke of the AA message and not the religious one. He always told me that the so-called religious portion of the retreats began AFTER the official AA portion had ended. Today, the entire retreat is more Christian and evangelical and has (in my opinion) lost the original AA message Clarence carried from 1938 through to about 1970.

    Despite the public perception, Clarence always maintained a friendly discourse with Bill – I wish everyone had access to their correspondence. He also maintained a strong friendship with Jim B. and even worked for Hank P.

    I am also very grateful for Irwin M., one of the early men Clarence sponsored. Irv went out and started AA groups all over the country. Irv wasn’t a Christian, didn’t “get on his knees” and remained true to his Jewish roots. Sylvia K., also another member from Chicago wasn’t a holy roller despite her being sponsored by Clarence and Dorothy in Cleveland. Sylvia also had the distinction of having the longest continuous sobriety of any woman in AA up until her death. (Marty M. did have a relapse).

    There was a very interesting book entitled “Under the Influence.” I wish people had the opportunity to speak with Clarence and hear him when he wasn’t “under the influence” and just talking about AA and AA history one-on-one.

    • John M. says:

      Hi Mitchell,

      I just wanted to say thank you for your very well informed, well reasoned, and sensitive responses since joining us here at AA Agnostica. A pleasure having you on board!

      • Mitchell K. says:

        All I know is that, according to AA’s declaration of Responsibility, I am responsible when ANYONE reaches out for the hand of AA to be there.

        That declaration does not say anyone who believes as I do or thinks as I do or is just like those who espouse OUR program without even understanding what OUR program stands for.

        If people want to get from New York City to Seattle, Washington, there are so many ways to do that. If someone likes to take a train or a bus or a car or an airplane and it gets them there and they’ve enjoyed the journey, I’m all for it. If someone gets joy out of walking there, despite the fact I wouldn’t understand it, I’m all for that too.

        Recovery isn’t so much about a method or mode of transportation, it is about recovery. I can’t tell anyone how to get there. All I can do is let them know how I did it and what worked for me.

  2. Jim G. says:

    Thanks for your work. Indeed you present Clarence with less prejudice than some of the comment writers, (who would use terminology like “jesusy”). Please bear in mind, AA has shown us to base our actions on our experience. If our experience is not like that of the Christians, that means nothing other than we have not had the same experience. To suggest (openly or out the side of our mouths) that they are either lying or delusional is an indication of our own weakness.
    Those who would recover have never been excluded from AA by anything other than their own refusal to be tolerant.

    • Roger says:

      I liked all of your comment Jim except your last sentence.
      Atheists and agnostics are often bullied in AA, and that comes with a harsh sense of exclusion. In 1976, a member of the Trustee’s Literature Committee wrote that non-believers in AA – those who don’t believe in an interventionist God, Jim – are treated as “deviants” and not as “full, participating members in the AA Fellowship without qualification.” If anything, things have gotten worse since then. I suppose a person can try to fake it, as I write in The Don’t Tell Policy in AA. But, in my experience, that just hides the problem.
      Next time you talk about a “refusal to be tolerant,” at least make an effort to point the finger at the right crowd.

    • Stephanie says:

      Yeah, no. This is a pretty fair example of clueless majoritarianism in action, though.

  3. Mitchell K. says:

    The quote about Clarence going home to be with the Lord, that was said to the author in a phone call.

    In the 2nd edition of How It Worked, it will talk a bit about the differences between Clarence’s AA work before marrying Grace and his expanding evangelism after being with Grace.

    Most people are more familiar with Clarence during the period of around 1970 and his passing in 1984. Not that many are aware of his actual contributions to AA from 1938 to around 1970. I would recommend listening to recorded talks made by Clarence pre 1970 and post 1970 and comparing the differences in the message.

  4. Frank M. says:

    The more I learn of AA history from folks like you, Bob, the easier it is to laugh at our sense of self-importance as a society.

    We’re human through and through. Just like Clarence.

    A great read from a surprisingly good looking man. Thanks.

  5. Mark C says:

    Thank you for all your most excellent work! I first heard of Clarence Snyder in Kurtz’s “Not God,” and became interested in the Cleveland faction, and the work done there. I was particularly interested in his move away from the Protestant fundamentalism toward a more secular approach. I can’t help but think this backing away from an ‘over-the-top-religiosity’ was a very significant factor in the intense growth of AA during that early period. I was unaware of Snyder’s growing religiosity during the later stages of his life, and his influence in Florida and other parts. Thanks again!
    Mark C

  6. Joe C says:

    Right on Bob. Very mature and professional but more than that, your writing style brings the story alive. It was over too soon.

    • bob k says:

      Thanks to you folks for all the fawning – a guy can never get too much of that. Watch for an upcoming essay about a MOST interesting character, Charlie Towns, founder of Towns Hospital.

  7. Tom G says:

    Regarding Ebby’s desire to be considered one of AA’s founders. Father Martin on one of his DVDs, I believe it was Back to Basics, said that Bill may have scored the touchdown but it was Ebby who handed hin the ball.
    It’s not the early people in AA that I admire its the ones who keep it going. The ones who open the meeting, make the coffee, and man the phones in the Intergroup offices.

    • bob k says:

      Lois Wilson was not fond of Ebby, drunk or sober. Ebby was involved in a SINGLE vital event in AA history, but he did little else. His sobriety was sporadic, and he was not much for service. His call on Bill may well be the result of coercion by Rowland Hazard.
      There is an interesting essay on this website about Ebby Thacher. I can’t remember the author’s name, but he’s a handsome chap!

  8. John M. says:

    Thanks for doing the research for this, Bob. It’s always good to know how current AA practices evolved throughout its history, and how they were often born out of “personalities” and the particular individual’s fondness for one style or belief over another.

    It is of course why we have 12 Traditions and 12 Concepts to allow individuality but also to protect others from strong-willed individuals who want to make their style and beliefs the norm.

    And hence the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking (Tradition III); the fundamental respect for group autonomy (Tradition IV); principles before personalities (Tradition XII); and “no penalties to be inflicted for nonconformity to AA principles” (Concept XII).

    The Traditions and Concepts may have saved Clarence himself from “getting the boot.” They also save us from “Clarence-clones” giving us the boot.

    Well…perhaps not in Toronto!

  9. life-j says:

    Clarence is also the one who would most religiously tell people to get on their knees and pray as a first requirement, if they wanted help getting sober, right?
    I believe I read that in Not-God.
    Maybe that angle deserved a bit more emphasis in the article. To my knowledge there exists a whole Clarence S movement in the heartland area/bible belt that teaches AA at its most conservative, this is probably in large measure responsible for how AA is fossilizing into dogma.

    • Thomas B. says:

      From my reading of Ernie Kurtz, especially Appendix B of his 1991 expanded edition of Not-God, Clarence S. is the primary founder and a major evangelizer of what Kurtz refers to as “Akron-Style AA”, which limits the “spiritual” exclusively to Christian themes and dogma.

      • bob k says:

        The good news is that there will likely be something coming on “Akron-style AA.” This is a complex topic deserving of a “full treatment” as opposed to a couple of paragraphs. I did a quick review of Kurtz’ marvellous book, and see neither Snyder as the spearhead of Akron AA (he was a Clevelander after all) nor was he particularly a pusher of Christianity, until his later years as Grace’s husband.
        Now, he was very much a fundamentalist, and absolutely a “God boy,” but it was more Bob Smith pushing the Christian theme, AND highly reluctant to leave the Oxford Group behind. Ohio AA of the 40’s was not “user-friendly” for atheists or agnostics.
        Clarence’s style, touted by many today, was to move his prospects rapidly through the steps, and into sponsorship. However, his concern for Catholics led him in the direction of AA meetings that were less religious, less Christian than what was happening in Akron. Had Dr. Bob written the Big Book, it would have been unapologetically Christian.
        For the sake of the Catholics, Snyder allied with Wilson, a man he was not very fond of, in pursuing a more moderate path. Snyder only became “Jesusy” in the 70’s.

      • bob k says:

        It is hard for younger people to imagine, but Roman Catholics were ABSOLUTELY PROHIBITED from any sort of participation in Protestant religious services. This eased in the 1960s.
        Cleveland Catholics were told by their priests to NOT go to the Oxford Group meetings in Akron, in spite of the aid provided in staying sober. Penalty was eternal damnation (with NO hope of parole).

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