By bob k
St. Johnsbury, Vermont
Dr. Bob Smith remembers his childhood hometown of St. Johnsbury, some 100 miles northeast of the East Dorset birthplace of Bill Wilson, as having a general moral standard “far above the average.” The consumption of alcohol was considered a question of morality. “No beer or liquor was sold in the neighborhood, except at the State liquor agency where perhaps one might procure a pint if he could convince the agent that he really needed it… Men who had liquor shipped in from Boston or New York by express were looked upon with great distrust and disfavor.” (Doctor Bob’s Nightmare, p. 171)
Judge and Mrs. Walter Perrin Smith were prominent citizens in the archetypical New England village of about 7,000. “Judge Smith sat on the Caledonia County Probate Court. He was also, at various times, state’s attorney, member of the state legislature, superintendent of St. Johnsbury schools, director of the Merchants National Bank, and president of the Passumpsic Savings Bank. In addition, he taught Sunday school for 40 years. Dr. Bob, who rarely discussed family background, described his father as being a typical Vermont Yankee – reserved and taciturn.” (Dr. Bob and The Good Oldtimers, p. 9) Beneath the granite surface, the Judge had warmth and passion, and considerable indulgence toward his only son.
That son was Robert Holbrook Smith, who was born in their large home on August 8th, of 1879. He had a much older foster sister, Amanda Northrup, but he essentially grew up as an only child. “Mrs. Smith… was… a stern, tight-lipped, churchgoing lady who busied herself with the countless social and religious activities of St. Johnsbury’s towering, gray stone North Congregational Church. “Grandma Smith was a cold woman,” said Sue Windows, Dr. Bob’s adopted daughter.” (Good Oldtimers, p. 10) Mrs. Smith did live to see her sybaritic son become sober. The Judge died in 1918.
A “Churchy” Childhood and a Taste of Hard Cider
Young Bob was forced to go to church, Sunday school and other prayer meetings, as many as four or five times per week. “This had the effect of making me resolve that when I was free from parental domination, I would never again darken the doors of a church.” (Good Oldtimers, p. 12) A second rebellion was more immediate. Sent to bed at five o’clock every evening, he went without argument, but stealthily slipped out to join his friends, once he thought the coast was clear.
Bob was a boy who liked the outdoors – hunting, fishing, hiking and swimming. One day, while at a neighbor’s farm helping the men bale hay, he discovered the “secret stash” of one of the workmen, a jug of ‘hard cider,” and the irresistible lure prompted a large swallow. He liked the taste. He was barely nine. Although he was not to drink again for ten more years, this single event was memorable.
At school he managed creditable grades in spite of an effort level that was less than diligent. He was popular, having plenty of friends. At a high school dance at the St. Johnsbury Academy, he met Anne Robinson Ripley who would, many years later, become Mrs. Robert Smith.
The “Dinkingest of Ivy League Schools”
Dr. Bob attended Dartmouth which “had a name then for being a rugged backwoods school where the 800 or so students spent the long winters ignoring their books and drinking as much beer and hard cider as they could hold.” (Good Oldtimers, p. 18) Bob Smith could hold a lot – he was a prodigious drinker. At university, sixty miles from parental supervision, he was unrestrained.
Regarding his college drinking, Smith writes, “I did it more and more, and had lots of fun without much grief, either physical or financial. I seemed to be able to snap back the next morning better than most of my fellow drinkers… Never once in my life have I had a headache, which fact lends me to believe that I was an alcoholic almost from the start. My whole life seemed to be centered around doing what I wanted to do, without regard for the rights, wishes, or privileges of anyone else; a state of mind which became more and more predominant as the years passed. I was graduated “summa cum laude” in the eyes of the drinking fraternity, but not in the eyes of the Dean.” (Nightmare, p. 172) At college, he developed a fondness for billiards, horseshoe pitching, and several forms of cards, including the beginnings of a lifelong passion for bridge. Highly competitive, he played to win. He was also a very skilled chugalugger.
“My Son the Doctor? No, I Don’t Think So!”
“When it came to things he really wanted, Bob was hardworking. He was also ambitious, and he wanted to become a medical doctor like his maternal grandfather. For some reason we have never learned, his mother opposed this quite strongly. He had no choice but to get a job.” (Good Oldtimers, p. 24) He became a salesman for Fairbanks Morse, a St. Johnsbury manufacturer of platform scales. The future doctor was uninspired by “heavy hardware,” and was not particularly successful. Weekends were spent bingeing. After two years, a change of companies took him to Montreal, and then to Boston.
With pledges and sweet promises, he finally persuaded his parents to send him to medical school, but his reckless drinking caused him to get expelled from the University of Michigan after his second year. The assistance of his father enabled a transfer to Rush University, where his jitters caused him to miss several classes, and “his life in school became one long binge after another, and he was no longer drinking for the sheer fun of it.” (Good Oldtimers, p. 25) His worsened imbibing prompted his fraternity brothers to send for his father, who’s quiet attempts at understanding only heightened Bob’s feelings of remorse. Hard liquor replaced beer, binges lengthened, and shakes intensified. At one final exam, he could not hold a pencil, and turned in three absolutely blank booklets.
Two Dry Quarters, Eight Dry Months
On the carpet once more, Bob was given a final chance. The dean of the medical school decided that if Bob wished to graduate, he needed to come back for two quarters, remaining completely dry. This he was able to accomplish, and in 1910, at age 31, he was finally Dr. Bob Smith.
City Hospital, Akron, Ohio
“I conducted myself so creditably that I was able to secure a much coveted internship in a western city, where I spent two years. During these two years I was kept so busy that I hardly left the hospital at all. Consequently, I could not get into any trouble.” (Nightmare, p. 174) The new doctor opened an office downtown, in the Second National Bank Building, where he was to remain until he retired in 1948.
“Perhaps as a result of the irregular hours and tense work of a new GP, Dr. Bob developed considerable stomach trouble. “I soon discovered that a couple of drinks would alleviate my gastric distress, at least for a few hours at a time,” he said. It didn’t take him long to return to the old drinking habits. Almost immediately, he began to ‘pay very dearly physically,’ to know the real horror and suffering of alcoholism.” (Good Oldtimers, p. 28)
When so bad that he could not function, the new medical practitioner put himself into one of the local “drying-out” spots. This happened at least a dozen times. In one small hospital for patients with socially unacceptable ailments, he sabotaged the sincere efforts of the staff by getting friends to smuggle in whiskey by the quart. If unavailable, he then stole medicinal alcohol.
Sobriety And Tranquil Domesticity
In 1914, Judge Smith dispatched a doctor to bring Bob home where he remained in bed for two full months before daring to venture out. He was utterly demoralized. “Scared straight” Smith stayed sober, and believed he was that way to stay. He went to Chicago to finally marry Anne, which he did on January 25, 1915. It was about a full year since his last drink.
“The first three years of the Smiths’ married life were ideal, free from the unhappiness that was to come later. Dr. Bob continued to stay sober, and any lingering doubts Anne may have had were stilled. Then were then, as always, an extremely devoted couple… Dr. Bob’s professional life was going smoothly, too; he was developing a reputation as a physician, work he loved… A bit authoritative and difficult to approach, he was sympathetic and understanding once you started talking.” (Good Oldtimers, p. 30) In 1918, the Smiths became the parents of Robert Jr., later known as “Smitty.”
The Volstead Act
Activism by the very vocal forces of Temperance, the Anti-Saloon League, and other anti-alcohol groups had successfully pushed for a dramatic end to the explosively expanding problems with drunkenness in America. By late 1917, the Eighteenth Amendment, prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxication liquors, had been passed by Congress, and was awaiting ratification by the states. The drunkenness problem would be ended (in theory) by a complete shutdown of supply. America would become “dry.”
“With the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment I felt quite safe. I knew everyone would buy a few bottles, or cases, of liquor as their exchequers permitted, and that it would soon be gone. Therefore it would make no great difference, even if I should do some drinking. At that time I was not aware of the almost unlimited supply the government made it possible for us doctors to obtain, neither had I any knowledge of the bootlegger who soon appeared on the horizon… During the next few years I developed two distinct phobias. One was the fear of not sleeping, and the other was the fear of running out of liquor.” (Nightmare, p. 175)
Of course, it was not only physicians who were able to get liquor during Prohibition. The Ebby Thachers, Rowland Hazards, and Bill Wilsons of the world did the worst of their drinking during America’s grand failed experiment. The thirty-sixth state (of forty-eight) provided ratification on January 16th, 1919, and the legislation would be in force one year later. The Amendment was repealed in 1933, ironically, right about the time a rapidly deteriorating Bill Wilson entered the Towns Hospital for the first time.
855 Ahdmaw Avunuh
The Smith family home at 855 Ardmore (Ahdmaw, with Bob’s heavy New England drawl) Avenue, purchased new in 1915 for $4,000. is quite ordinary by the standards of physicians’ homes in the current era. “This house, neither modest nor opulent, speaks of unadorned respectability. It recalls that Dr. Bob shared the stolidly simple ways of his Vermont ancestors, including their moral and verbal austerity.” (Bill W. and Mr. Wilson, Matthew J. Raphael)
Visited annually by many thousand alcoholics and addicts in recovery, anxious to be near “where it all began.” The now famous residence has been designated a “National Historical Landmark” and a museum. Founders Day, held each June, is a weekend of the celebration of sobriety, with a very large component of bikers. Gigantic men, muscled and leather clad, tattooed and pierced, some former gang members, are seen bawling like babies, overwhelmed by the enormity of being at the site of the birth of a life-altering process.
For Mrs. Smith, it must have been more of a hysterical landmark as her husband once more fell into the pit of destructive drinking. The good doctor, of course, needing to earn an income, had various ways of “managing” his drinking, such as no morning drinking (usually), taking sedatives instead, to quiet the “jitters.” Today, he would recognize a “dual addiction.” “I had sense enough never to go to the hospital if I had been drinking, and very seldom did I receive patients.” (Good Oldtimers, p. 33) On a good day, he would stay “dry” but well-sedated until four o’clock, then go home, acquiring a good supply along the way. Thus, he preserved his great “secret,” discovering later that he fooled himself far more than anyone else.
Amazingly, this life went on and on and on.
The Oxford Group
Five years after the birth of Robert Jr., a daughter Sue was adopted. As the children aged, they grew more and more aware of their father’s alcoholism. They have fond childhood memories, nonetheless. Possibly to counterbalance his own strict upbringing, Dr. Bob was the most liberal of parents. The long-suffering and frustrated Mrs. Smith, however, took up cigarettes in her fifties, and became a chain smoker. “She was broiling inside. She had to be.” (Good Oldtimers, p. 37) Bob’s promises to his wife and children, though sincerely made, barely got him through a day.
By 1933, the country’s full-blown Depression, combined with a bread winner who only rarely made it to work, left the Smiths in economic desperation. Only the national mortgage moratorium kept the family from losing their house. Dr. Bob was often irritable, and this tetchiness was without doubt magnified when Anne dragged him to the Oxford Group. In spite of bitter remembrances of the “force-fed” religion of his childhood, the guilt-ridden inebriate could hardly refuse the pleadings of his more devout spouse who surely clung to the faint hope of a religious cure.
The Oxford Group had burst dramatically onto the Akron scene in January of 1933, when “a rubber company president [Harvey Firestone], grateful because the Oxford Group had sobered up his son [Russell, “Bud”], brought some sixty OG leaders and team members to Akron for a ten day ‘house party,’ as their gatherings were called. They held meetings throughout the day, and it all culminated in a dinner for 400 prominent citizens of the community.” (Good Oldtimers, p. 55) This group profoundly attracted Anne Smith, who dragged her recalcitrant husband to this altar of potential redemption.
Despite his original antipathy, Smith was somewhat drawn to the Oxford folks, “…because of their seeming poise, health, and happiness. They spoke with great freedom from embarrassment, which I could never do, and they seemed more at ease on all occasions.. I was self-conscious and ill at ease most of the time, my health was at the breaking point, and I was thoroughly miserable… I gave the matter much time and study for the next two and one half years, but I still got tight every night nevertheless.” (Nightmare, p. 178)
“My wife became deeply interested and it was her interest that had sustained mine, though I at no time thought it might be the answer to my liquor problem.” (Nightmare, p. 178)
By the Spring of 1935, even the dedicated and ever hopeful Anne Smith must have realized, in her heart of hearts, that the desperately desired spiritual cure was not to be forthcoming.
The Mayflower Hotel and The Seiberling Gatehouse
By the Spring of 1935, there were things that Bill Wilson, now five months sober, knew as well. His Towns Hospital “spiritual experience” along with the religious practices of the Oxford Group, were insufficient, in and of themselves, to sustain his sobriety. A few years later, he would write, “…I soon found that when all other measures failed, work with another alcoholic would save the day.” (Bill’s Story, p. 15) And, “Practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics. It works, when other activities fail.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 89) Lest the key point be missed: “…it is well to let him (alcoholic dad) go as far as he likes in helping other alcoholics. During those first few days of convalescence, this will do more to ensure his sobriety than anything else.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 129)
Bill Wilson’s “clean wind of a mountaintop” spiritual experience was a mere five months removed, but possibly already past its “best before” date, when at the Mayflower Hotel, on May 11th of 1935, “his self-pity and resentment began to rise. He was lonely… Now began the personal crisis that was to set in motion a series of life-changing events for Bill. There was a bar at one end of the lobby, and Bill felt himself drawn to it… the idea was loaded with danger… For the first time in months, Bill had the panicky feeling of being in trouble… I thought, ‘You need another alcoholic to talk to. You need another alcoholic just as much as he needs you!'” (Pass It On, p. 135-136)
And thus the phone calls were made that led Bill Wilson to Dr. Bob, through Reverend Tunks, Norman Sheppard, and Henrietta Seiberling. Beyond this point the events are well known, recorded in some detail in the “Foreword To The Second Edition.” It is worth revisiting Bob Smith’s own words regarding what was magical about this first meeting, and more impactful than thirty months of Oxford Group religiosity: “He gave me information about the subject of alcoholism which was undoubtedly helpful. Of far more importance was the fact that he was the first living human with whom I had ever talked, who knew what he was talking about in regard to alcoholism from actual experience. In other words, he talked my language.” (Nightmare, p. 180)
Dr. Bob stopped drinking and Bill Wilson moved into the Smith home. There was to be one more relapse at the AMA Convention about a month later, but the physician then sobered permanently in June of 1935, the date memorialized as the start of AA. Perhaps fittingly in an organization priding itself on a lack of organization, the famous date was incorrectly remembered as June 10th, but is now thought to have been June 17th.
End of Part One
Part Two will look at Dr. Bob’s 15 years of sobriety, his diligent service to others, “Akron-style AA” as it existed under his leadership, and the aggregation of fundamentalist movements seeking a return to the more doctrinaire systems of the early 40’s.
A paperback version of Key Players in AA History is available at Amazon USA.