In Memory of Denis

Denis Featured II

By Dan V.

Today I write with a heavy heart and with great sadness about a man whose name is Denis Kilborn.

On April 1, 2016, he passed away from cancer complications.

His sobriety date was April 28, 1975. He was introduced to AA in Toronto, Ontario, and it was there that he met his first sponsor, Jack. It was Jack who told Denis you don’t do steps, you live them, which he followed for the rest of his life.

In his 41 years in AA he helped countless numbers of people, as a sponsor and as a friend. AA was his life – he was always working with newcomers – and the life of his family.

His wife’s parents – her father, Bud, was Denis’ sponsor when he moved to the west coast and that, of course, is how he met his wife – were both alcoholics and had over 50 years each of sobriety in AA.

He had three children; two daughters and a son. His son James was in the program as both an alcoholic and addict, and spent a great deal of time in treatment, until his death on September 26, 2013 at the young age of 23 as a result of a drug overdose.

Denis was not only my sponsor for 32 years but also my trusted friend.

I first met him on February 14, 1984. On Valentine’s Day. At the time he was doing a tremendous amount of 12 Step work, had lots of different sponsees and was very, very active in taking the message to people. On that day Denis became my sponsor and was not only my sponsor for 32 years, but also very much a trusted friend. He always referred to me as his Valentine’s Day present.

I’ve only had one sponsor in all my time in recovery, and he’s the guy.

AA was a simple program for Denis.


Twenty five years in sobriety, in the year 2000, Denis checked himself into a treatment centre. It was there that he found answers to some burning questions that had tormented him throughout his recovery process.

It had everything to do with his belief system. He had faked it for so long in AA and could no longer handle the internal struggles as a result. “What do I believe? What don’t I believe?” were the questions on the table in that period of treatment.

And that’s where he started verbalizing his lack of belief in God.

Now he had this new-found idea that you actually can get sober and maintain sobriety at a level that is conducive to a good life without a God. Well, this is going against everything that he had heard over the last twenty-five years. His big question then was, “Who do I share that with?”

It was then that a decision was made to help widen the path of AA for all who suffer.

Denis started the first agnostic AA meeting in the city of Vancouver.

The meeting sort of morphed into an agnostic meeting. It began as a Step meeting that attracted a number of guys who were like-minded and at one point they all realized, “Wow, we are all agnostics and atheists!” There wasn’t a god-believing person in the room.

At this time Denis read about the agnostic groups in Toronto being booted out of Intergroup (you can read that here: Fight Over God Splits Toronto AA Groups) and he decided, along with the group, that this is where they were going to make their stand, this would be their “Waterloo”. So Denis registered the meeting with Vancouver Intergroup as “We Agnostics”.

He also helped start a Tuesday night meeting called “Sober Agnostics”. Its founding meeting was on May 7, 2013, and it is still going strong.

It too was registered with Central Office and on the Vancouver AA meeting list.

But that’s when the problem arose in Vancouver. The groups were not only originally accepted but they were welcomed. The person at Central Office said “Fantastic! It’s time we had one of these meetings in Vancouver”, and then a short time later that individual was let go or fired and then the meetings were stricken from the list.

This did not go well with some people. I personally wanted to lash out, however, Denis calmly stood his ground and as a result of that agnostic AA is flourishing in Vancouver today, thanks to our elder statesman. Denis was the poster child of agnostic AA in Vancouver.

When he found AA Agnostica it was like, “Wow, there is the family I have been looking for. We were lost and now we have found each other…” The wonderful articles. The great comments.

About two years ago Denis was told that a shadow was seen on his lungs. After many tests and doctor appointments, two months ago he was told he had stage 4 lung cancer. With treatment he should live a little over a year.

Never one to duck the challenge, he simply said “it is what it is”, “let’s fight this to the end”, and with good humor and integrity he marched forward.

On April 1/16 he awoke like any other day, drove to his favorite coffee shop to meet with his friends. Feeling a bit funny he decided to go home to lie down and rest, and that is where he died three hours later.

On a personal note, Denis and I spoke the same language. It is the language of someone who has been where you are. It is in the eyes, the eyes of a true friend  and confidant. Without words so much is said.

It is in the silence that I heard his voice, “don’t drink and go to meetings”, which is still working today, some 32 years later.

Thank you Denis, you helped me save my life and the life of my family. I will forever be grateful.

Your friend,
Dan V.

Roger’s Footnote: Denis and I were great pals. We talked on the phone at least once a week. If he were in Toronto, we would get together at a meeting and for dinner. We were both in Santa Monica for the convention. In January, he used his points to cover the cost of my flight to Vancouver so that he, Dan and I could go down to Olympia, Washington, together for the Widening Our Gateway agnostic AA conference. What a great time the three of us had together.

It was on the way to Olympia that we stopped at one of his favourite diners, the Argo Cafe, and that’s where I took the above photo of Denis.

We talked a lot towards the end, especially prior to his chemotherapy. He was determined to live each and every remaining day as fully as possible, one day and one moment at time. Sounds like something he might have learned in AA. Another friend of his, Mike D, phoned me the day he died. He reported that Denis had told him that the previous day had been one of the best days of his life. I am overwhelmed by sadness every time I think of Denis, but that thought makes me smile, makes me happy. I miss you Denis.

10 Responses

  1. Dan C says:

    I met Denis over 25 years ago in Calgary during my first visit to Alcoholics Anonymous. I became reacquainted with Denis 20 years later in Vancouver.

    Coincidentally I asked Danny V to sponsor me before I was aware that Denis was his sponsor.
    Danny remains my sponsor today. So there is a definite lineage from Denis to me vis-à-vis Dan V.

    I came to regard Denis as a good friend and a champion for recovery.

    He and I had many interesting talks over breakfast and I came to enjoy his company and friendship. I shall miss him.

  2. Brent P. says:

    Without knowing Denis, this post reminds me of all the giants in AA. The ones so true to themselves and the myriad paths they travel in an effort to know their truth, whatever that may be.
    In having the heart and courage to explore uncharted territories, I thank them for the insights each unearthed. Still, it is a small world and Denis and I are brothers of a sort because I too was raised in AA, in part, by his sponsor and, latterly, mine, Jack R.

    • wisewebwoman says:

      I will never forget Jack R & Maggie. I met him in his studio when I was 30 days sober and he gave me a piece of his work which I still have on my wall 30 years later. Giants. I never knew, he said to me, that inside this drunken bar fighter was the soul of a poet. RIP Denis & Jack.

  3. Pat N. says:

    A great man who did great things and who will be greatly missed.

    Thanks for such an eloquent eulogy.

  4. Mike B says:

    Dan. Thank you for your tribute to Denis K; my condolences and sympathy go to all his family and friends. We have lost a fine, respected and principled man. A man whom I came to appreciate and respect in the short time we were friends. He was a pillar in the secular AA movement.

    A freethinker, Denis believed an atheist or agnostic could achieve sobriety in AA without god through the fellowship and principles of our 24 hour plan.

    Even though I never met Denis in person I spoke to him many times on the phone and via emails over the few months prior to his death. Thanks to Roger (AA Agnostica) and John S. (AA Beyond Belief) for asking Denis to contact me when I desperately needed help from another drunk who shared similar beliefs. He became an important part of my sobriety earlier this year. I had just about given up all hope in AA after 25+ years in traditional theist AA.

    My only regret is that I was unable to get to know Denis more. We had plans to meet this summer but it just wasn’t meant to be. And so I grieve his passing but will always be grateful for his life and friendship. I miss him greatly as I’m sure most others who knew him better will and do. I consider Denis a true friend and a shining example of AA12th step work in action.

    My story is similar to Denis in many ways. He encouraged me to get involved in secular AA and participate in the AA service structure to help secure the legitimate rights of non- believers in AA and to continue trying to steer our fellowship back to the path where AA needs to go in order to give hope and save the lives of all alcoholics; regardless of beliefs or non-beliefs.

    Rest in peace Denis!

    • Shelley says:

      Well said. I only met Denis once, on Feb. 1st of this year. After countless phone conversations, my husband and I flew to Vancouver to meet at the Argo, then he met us for a meeting. I had high hopes of starting an AA agnostic meeting here on the north island. He already knew he was very ill but was still there for me. I miss his calls tremendously.
      Shelley P.

  5. Hilary J. says:

    Thanks so much for posting this, Dan. Denis is definitely missed at Sober Agnostics.

  6. Deirdre says:

    So sorry for the lost to you all and to the rest of us. Very good tribute.

  7. Joe C. says:

    Wow, thanks Dan and Roger. It’s Mother’s Day – the first since my mother died in October, so this post found me already sad and nostalgic. Denis and I share some of that Toronto history together. We were both members of the Kingsway Group for a period of time. It was a monster of a group by today’s standards with 300 regulars and simul-casts to overflow rooms on Group anniversaries. Today’s Kingsway group is an unrecogognizable shadow of itself. Many of the personalities that made up the Kingway, Denis’s sponsor and his wife, Jack and Maggie R for example, are gone now. Denis was to other AAs what Jack was to him; we learn in AA and we pass it on.

    I was lucky to know Denis, too. He enriched my life, he was a voice of sober second thought when I needed one and I am glad to have shared some common history with this gentle and generous man.

  8. Thomas B. says:

    A beautiful tribute to Denis — thank you Dan and Roger for posting it.

    I’m so grateful for the time we were able to spend with Denis at the Secular AA Olympia Conference this past January, and for the times we’ve interacted on AA Agnostica and via email.

    He will sorely be missed, but as the article demonstrates his legacy and devotion to the Secular AA Fellowship shall live on . . .

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