AA members drawn to Bill W.’s house

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BEDFORD HILLS, N.Y. (AP) – At least once a year, Bill T. gathers up a few of his fellow Alcoholics Anonymous members and drives up from Florida to thank the people – now long dead – who saved him from a life of drunkenness.

The 56-year-old sobered up in 1990 – “the most important event of my life” – and he likes to honor the co-founder of AA, Bill Wilson, and his wife, Lois, by visiting their former home in the New York City suburbs.

“I like to come up here because it carries the message,” he said during a visit this month. “There’s a connectedness. Bill and Lois and Dr. Bob (Robert Smith, the other co-founder), you can feel they were here.”

At Stepping Stones, Bill T. can sit at the kitchen table where in 1934 Wilson sat and drank gin with pineapple juice as a newly sober friend sparked his quest for a way out of alcoholism.

He can see the desk, marred by cigarette burns, where Wilson wrote “Alcoholics Anonymous,” better known as “The Big Book,” and set out the 12 steps and other principles that have helped millions.

And he can spend hours in the second-floor gallery, where Lois Wilson – herself the founder of Al-Anon, the organization for alcoholics’ relatives – spent the years after Bill Wilson died cataloging and labeling hundreds of books, photos and keepsakes, including a letter from Carl Jung, a blessing from Pope Paul VI and a collection of plastic dinosaurs.

Little escaped her notice, apparently. A colorful towel is tacked to the wall, right where she placed it in the 1980s, and its label says, “This is a beach towel and I really don’t remember where I got it.”

The Wilsons came to Bedford Hills in 1941, six years after the founding of AA. Bill Wilson was sober but the couple was poor and had been evicted from their Brooklyn brownstone. They made house payments of $40 a month as their fame grew over the next few decades.

Bill Wilson died in 1971 and Lois Wilson set up the Stepping Stones Foundation in 1979, intending for the house to be part of their legacy and feeling it would become a magnet for their admirers. She died in 1988, and the house is maintained to look the way it did while they lived. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Many visitors are members of AA, who use their first name and last initial in public to preserve their anonymity (for many, Bill Wilson is better known as “Bill W.”). For some of them, the Wilsons were miracle workers and visiting their house is an emotional experience.

Tim H., 62, who lives on Long Island, said, “If you’re sober in AA, you have this second life you never thought you’d have. It’s very moving to see the books and the people and the things of interest that went into making Bill and Lois who they were. … It’s like learning about your Dad when he was a boy.”

The four-bedroom, brown-shingled Dutch colonial and the 81/2 acres around it are owned and managed by the foundation.

Executive Director Annah Perch says the foundation has begun an ambitious plan to preserve the site and its contents, accentuate its educational aspects and create a traveling exhibit that would bring the Wilsons’ story “offsite and around the world.”

Stepping Stones’ location in a quiet neighborhood will prevent it from ever becoming a big business – about 1,200 visitors came last year – and Perch said, “Some people will never be able to come here. We have to bring the legacy of Bill and Lois beyond Stepping Stones.”

Among the items in need of preservation, and not currently seen on the tour, is Bill Wilson’s original volume of “Alcoholics Anonymous,” annotated by him as the first copy off the press in 1939. It was followed by 25 million more in English alone and millions more in other languages.

Stephanie O’Keefe, 78, of Larchmont, was a friend of the Wilsons and visited the house Tuesday for the first time since Lois Wilson’s death.

“This looks pretty much the same,” she said. “They found peace here. They were able to regenerate when they were exhausted.”

She remembered, however, that the Wilsons would occasionally steal away to another friend’s house nearby for some privacy, since so many people were drawn to Stepping Stones.

“They found the adoration difficult but understandable,” she said.



On the Net:

Stepping Stones Foundation: http://www.steppingstones.org

Alcoholics Anonymous: http://www.aa.org

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