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The First A.A. International Convention
Cleveland, OH, 1950

by Nancy O.

The first A.A. International Convention was held in Cleveland July 28-30, 1950.

A.A. membership was approaching a hundred thousand and there were thirty-five hundred groups worldwide. The decision to hold this first international convention was a fine example of how Bill Wilson was always able to stay on top of trends that threatened to divide A.A. His enormous personal popularity was the cement that bound A.A. together, but it was also something other members of A.A. thought they would enjoy if they became A.A.'s head man.

By 1946 there were more than two thousand A.A. members in Cleveland, far more than in New York. Chicago had more than twice as many members as New York, and Detroit about as many as New York. Many people in these locations didn't see why A.A. had to be run by Bill Wilson from New York.

Many state and regional A.A. conventions were being held, and Texas, among others, was planning to hold its own international convention, independent of New York and the Alcoholic Foundation.

Bill Wilson, with "Disraeli-like diplomacy," according to Hartigan, told the Texas A.A. members he thought it would be all right if they invited whomever they wanted to their planned 1952 convention, but he suggested they not call it an "International" convention because this could inspire other states to do the same.

Bill then quickly began to organize an international convention of his own, to be held before the planned Texas convention.

Three thousand people attended the first international convention in Cleveland at the end of July 1950. This was the only international Convention attended by Dr. Bob. His wife, Anne, had died the year before, and Bob was very ill with cancer.

Bill chose Cleveland for several reasons:

  1. It would be possible for Dr. Bob to attend, since it was not far from Akron.
  2. It had one of the largest and earliest concentrations of sober alcoholics.
  3. It was the home turf of Clarence Snyder (the "Home Brewmeister) who had begun claiming that he was the founder of A.A.. He based this claim on the fact that when the Cleveland members broke away from the Akron group because priests were refusing to allow Catholics to attend Oxford Group meetings, the Cleveland group was the first group that used the name Alcoholics Anonymous.
  4. Convention planning required a lot of cooperation between Cleveland, Akron, and New York, which would help to ameliorate friction between the three groups.

To demonstrate the significance of the greater whole to which each group was joined, Bill opened the convention wearing a lei over his right shoulder. He explained that it was a gift to all A.A.s from a group whose members would never attend any A.A. gathering but their own, the A.A. group at the leper colony in Hawaii.

Dr. Bob, whose cancer was painfully advanced, spoke only briefly. The experience exhausted him. He left the convention early and was driven home to Akron. He died within six months, November 16, 1950.

But during his brief talk he told the assembled members:

    "My good friends in A.A. and of A.A., I feel I would be very remiss if I didn't take this opportunity to welcome you here to Cleveland, not only to this meeting but those that have already transpired. I hope very much that the presence of so many people and the words that you have heard will prove an inspiration to you -- not only to you, but may you be able to impart that inspiration to the boys and girls back home who were not fortunate enough to be able to come. In other words, we hope that your visit here has been both enjoyable and profitable.

    "I get a big thrill out of looking over a vast sea of faces like this with a feeling that possibly some small thing I did a number of years ago played an infinitely small part in making this meeting possible. I also get quite a thrill when I think that we all had the same problem. We all did the same things. We all get the same results in proportion to our zeal and enthusiasm and stick-to-itiveness.

    "If you will pardon the injection of a personal note at this time, let me say that I have been in bed five of the last seven months, and my strength hasn't returned as I would like, so my remarks of necessity will be very brief.

    "There are two or three things that flashed into my mind on which it would be fitting to lay a little emphasis. One is the simplicity of our program. Let's not louse it all up with Freudian complexes and things that are interesting to the scientific mind but have very little to do with our actual A.A. work. Our Twelve Steps, when immersed down to the last, resolve themselves into the words 'love' and 'service.' We understand what love is, and we understand what service is. So let's bear those two things in mind.

    "Let us also remember to guard that erring member the tongue, and if we must use it, let's use it with kindness and consideration and tolerance.

    "And one more thing: None of us would be here today if somebody hadn't taken time to explain things to us, to give us a little pat on the back, to take us to a meeting or two, to do numerous little kind and thoughtful acts in our behalf. So let us never get such a degree of smug complacency that we're not willing to extend, or attempt to extend, to our less fortunate brothers that help which has been so beneficial to us. Thank you very much."

Bill used his time on the platform to urge that A.A. unity be emphasized above all else. It was here that he asked A.A. to approve the A.A. traditions, and to agree to put into place the A.A. system of representation known as the A.A. Conference. The longer form of the traditions had been shortened at the suggestion and with the help of Earl Treat ("He Sold Himself Short) who started A.A. in Chicago.

Among those who were opposing the conference idea were, among others, Henrietta Seiberling, the Oxford Group non-alcoholic woman who had introduced Bill and Dr. Bob. Despite Dr. Bob's support for the conference idea, the best that Bill could obtain during the Cleveland convention was approval to try the conference idea on an experimental basis.

Nonetheless, the Cleveland Convention was a memorable event. It not only approved the Traditions, but it set precedent for International Conventions to come. Since then, they have been held every five years.

Tex Brown was present at this convention, and described it to me at the 2000 International Convention in Minneapolis. I asked him to write it for posting. This is part of what he wrote:

"In 1950 I attended the First International A. A. Convention in Cleveland. This was a wonderful thing and a wonderful time. Everyone was excited about everything. Especially getting to see and hear Bill and Dr. Bob. I think that this was where we knew that A.A. was really working and that we were here to stay.

"One special memory that I have was seeing an Amish family (my first) all dressed up in their Sunday Meeting clothes, in a horsedrawn buggy on the highway just outside of Cleveland. The next day on the floor of the big meeting at the Convention, there they were. The driver of the buggy (Miles ?), big hat and all, was running up and down the aisles shaking hands. He seemed to know everybody. He was one of our early members.

"On Sunday morning the 'Spiritual Meeting' was held. I went much excited by the prospect that I was going to rub elbows with the real heavy hitters in the 'God' department. I do not remember the name of the main speaker, but his topic dealt with the idea that the alcoholic was to be the instrument that God would use to regenerate and save the world. He expounded the idea that alcoholics were God's Chosen People and he was starting to talk about 'The Third Covenant,' (there are two previous covenants with the Jewish people described in the old Testament), when he was interrupted by shouted objections from the back of the room. The objector, who turned out to be a small Catholic priest, would not be hushed up.

There was chaos and embarrassment as the meeting was quickly adjourned. I was upset and in full sympathy with the poor speaker. I did not realize it at the time, but I had seen Father Pfau (Fr. Ralph Pfau of Indianapolis) in action and Father Pfau was right. I had heard the group conscience and I rejected it."

But this is how Bill Wilson described the 1950 International Convention:

"On A.A.'s 15th Anniversary everybody knew that we had grown up. There couldn't be any doubt about it. Members, families and friends -- seven thousand of them -- spent three inspiring, almost awesome days with our good hosts at Cleveland.

"The theme song of our Conference was gratitude; its keynote was the sure realization that we are now welded as one, the world over. As never before, we dedicated ourselves to the single purpose of carrying good news of A.A. to those millions who still don't know.

"As we affirmed the Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, we asked that we might remain in perfect unity under the Grace of God for so long as He may need us.

"Just what did we do? Well, we had meetings, lots of them. The medical meeting, for instance. Our first and greatest friend Dr. Silkworth couldn't get there. But his associate at Knickerbocker Hospital, New York, Dr. Meyer Texon, most ably filled the gap, telling how best the general hospital could relate itself to us. He clinched his points by a careful description how, during the past four years at Knickerbocker, 5000 drunks had been sponsored, processed and turned loose in A. A.; and this to the great satisfaction of everybody concerned, including the hospital, whose Board was delighted with the results and specially liked the fact that its modest charges were invariably paid, money on the line. Who had ever heard of 5000 drunks who really paid their bills? Then Dr. Texon brought us up to the minute on the malady of alcoholism as they see it at Knickerbocker; he said it was a definite personality disorder hooked to a physical craving. That certainly made sense to most of us. Dr. Texon threw a heavy scare into prospective 'slippees.' It was that little matter of one's liver. This patient organ, he said, would surely develop hob nails or maybe galloping cirrhosis, if more guzzling went on. He had a brand new one too, about salt water, claiming that every alcoholic on the loose had a big salt deficiency. Fill the victim with salt water, he said, and you'd quiet him right down. Of course we thought, 'Why not put all drunks on salt water instead of gin? Then the world alcohol problem might be solved overnight.' But that was our idea, not Dr. Texon's. To him, many thanks.

"About the industrial meeting: Jake H., U.S. Steel, and Dave M., Dupont, both A.A.s, led it. Mr. Louis Selser, Editor of the Cleveland Press, rounded out the session and brought down the house. Jake, as an officer of Steel, told what the company really thought about A.A. - and it was all good. Jake noted A.A.s huge collective earning power - somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 billion of dollars annually. Instead of being a nerve-wracking drag on society's collective pocket book, we were now, for the most part, top grade employables who could contribute a yearly average of $4,000 apiece to our country's well being. Dave M., personnel man at Dupont who has a special eye to the company's alcohol problem, related what the 'New Look' on serious drinking had meant to Dupont and its workers of all grades. According to Dave, his company believes mightily in A.A.

"By all odds the most stirring testimony at the industrial seminar was given by Editor Louis Selser. Mr. Selser spoke to us from the viewpoint of an employer, citizen and veteran newspaper man. It was about the most moving expression of utter confidence in Alcoholics Anonymous we had ever heard. It was almost too good; its implications brought us a little dismay. How could we fallible A.A.'s ever measure up to Mr. Selser's high hope for our future? We began to wonder if the A.A. reputation wasn't getting far better than its actual character.

"Next came that wonderful session on prisons. Our great friend, Warden Duffy told the startling story of our original group at San Quentin. His account of A.A.'s 5-year history there had a moving prelude. We heard a recording, soon for radio release, that thrillingly dramatized an actual incident of A.A. life within the walls. An alcoholic prisoner reacts bitterly to his confinement and develops amazing ingenuity in finding and drinking alcohol. Soon he becomes too ingenious. In the prison paint shop he discovers a promising fluid which he shares with his fellow alcoholics. It was deadly poison. Harrowing hours followed, during which several of them died. The whole prison was tense as the fatalities continued to mount. Nothing but quick blood transfusions could save those still living. The San Quentin A.A. Group volunteered instantly and spent the rest of that long night giving of themselves as they had never given before. A.A. hadn't been any too popular, but now prison morale hit an all time high and stayed there. Many of the survivors joined up. The first Prison Group had made its mark; A.A. had come to San Quentin to stay.

"Warden Duffy then spoke. Apparently we folks on the outside know nothing of prison sales resistance. The skepticism of San Quentin prisoners and keepers alike had been tremendous. They thought A.A. must be a racket. Or maybe a crackpot religion. Then, objected the prison board, why tempt providence by freely mixing prisoners with outsiders, alcoholic women especially. Bedlam would be unloosed. But our friend the Warden, somehow deeply convinced, insisted on A.A. To this day, he said, not a single prison rule has ever been broken at an A.A. meeting though hundreds of gatherings have been attended by hundreds of prisoners with almost no watching at all. Hardly needed is that solitary, sympathetic guard who sits in the back row.

"The Warden added that most prison authorities throughout the United States and Canada today share his views of Alcoholics Anonymous. Hitherto 8O% of paroled alcoholic prisoners had to be scooped up and taken back to jail. Many institutions now report that this percentage has dropped to one-half, even one-third of what it used to be. Warden Duffy had traveled 2000 miles to be with us at Cleveland. We soon saw why. He came because he is a great human being. Once again, we A.A.'s sat and wondered how far our reputation had got ahead of our character.

"Naturally we men folk couldn't go to the meeting of the alcoholic ladies. But we have no doubt they devised ways to combat the crushing stigma that still rests on those poor gals who hit the bottle. Perhaps, too, our ladies had debated how to keep the big bad wolf at a respectful distance. But no, the A.A. sister transcribing this piece crisply assures me nothing of the sort was discussed. A wonderfully constructive meeting, she says it was. And about 500 girls attended. Just think of it, A.A. was four years old before we could sober up even one. Life for the alcoholic woman is no sinecure.

"Nor were other special sufferers overlooked, such as paid Intergroup secretaries, plain everyday secretaries, our newspaper editors and the wives and husbands of alcoholics, sometimes known as our 'forgotten people.' I'm sure the secretaries concluded that though sometimes unappreciated, they still love every moment of their work.

"What the editors decided, I haven't learned. Judging from their telling efforts over the years, it is altogether possible they came up with many an ingenious idea.

"Everybody agreed that the wives (and husbands) meeting was an eye opener. Some recalled how Anne S. in the Akron early days, had been boon companion and advisor to distraught wives. She clearly saw alcoholism as a family problem.

"Meanwhile we A.A.'s went all out on the work of sobering up incoming alkies by the thousands. Our good wives seemed entirely lost in that prodigious shuffle. Lots of the newer localities held closed meetings only, it looked like A.A. was going exclusive. But of late this trend has whipped about. More and more our partners have been taking the Twelve Steps into their own lives. As proof of this, witness the 12th step work they are doing with the wives and husbands of newcomers, and note well those wives' meetings now springing up everywhere.

"At their Cleveland gathering they invited us alcoholics to listen. Many an A.A. skeptic left that session convinced that our 'forgotten ones' really had something. As one alkie put it - 'The deep understanding and spirituality I felt in that wives' meeting was something out of the world.'

"Far from it, the Cleveland Conference wasn't all meetings. Take that banquet, for example. Or should I say banquets? The original blueprint called for enough diners to fill the Rainbow Room of Hotel Carter. But the diners did much better. Gay banqueteers quickly overflowed the Ballroom. Finally the Carter Coffee Shop and Petit Cafe had to be cleared for the surging celebrants. Two orchestras were drafted and our fine entertainers found they had to play their acts twice, both upstairs and down.

"Though nobody turned up tight, you should have heard those A.A.'s sing. Slap-happy, they were. And why not? Yet a serious undertone crept in as we toasted the absent ones. We were first reminded of the absent by that A.A. from the Marshall Islands who, though all alone out there, still claimed his group had three members, to wit: 'God, the book Alcoholics Anonymous and me.' The first leg of his 7,000 mile journey to Cleveland had finished at Hawaii whence with great care and refrigeration he had brought in a cluster of floral tributes, those leis for which the Islands are famous. One of these was sent by the A.A. lepers at Molokai - those isolated A.A.'s who will always be of us, yet never with us. We swallowed hard, too, when we thought of Dr. Bob, alone at home, gravely ill.

"Another toast of the evening was to that A.A. who, more than anything, wanted to be at Cleveland when we came of age. Unhappily he never got to the Tradition meeting, he had been carried off by a heart attack. His widow came in his place and she cheerfully sat out that great event with us. How well her quiet courage will be remembered. But at length gaiety took over; we danced till midnight. We knew the absent ones would want it that way.

"Several thousand of us crowded into the Cleveland Music Hall for the Tradition meeting, which was thought by most A.A.'s to be the high point of our Conference. Six old time stalwarts, coming from places as far flung as Boston and San Diego, beautifully reviewed the years of A.A. experience which had led to the writing of our Traditions.

"Then I was asked to sum up, which I did, saying: 'That, touching all matters affecting A.A. unity, our common welfare should come first; that A.A. has no human authority - only God as He may speak in our Group Conscience; that our leaders are but trusted servants, they do not govern; that any alcoholic may become an A.A. member if he says so -- we exclude no one; that every A.A. Group may manage its own affairs as it likes, provided surrounding groups are not harmed thereby; that we A.A. Alcoholics have but a single aim -- the carrying of our message to the alcoholic who still suffers; that in consequence we cannot finance, endorse or otherwise lend the name 'Alcoholics Anonymous' to any other enterprise, however worthy; that A.A., as such, ought to remain poor, lest problems of property, management and money divert us from our sole aim; that we ought to be self -- supporting, gladly paying our small expenses ourselves; that A.A. should forever remain non-professional, ordinary 12th step work never to be paid for; that, as a Fellowship, we should never be organized but may nevertheless create responsible Service Boards or Committees to insure us better propagation and sponsorship and that these agencies may engage full time workers for special tasks; that our public relations ought to proceed upon the principle of attraction rather than promotion, it being better to let our friends recommend us; that personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and pictures ought to be strictly maintained as our best protection against the temptations of power or personal ambition; and finally, that anonymity before the general public is the spiritual key to all our traditions, ever reminding us we are always to place principles before personalities, that we are actually to practice a genuine humility. This to the end that our great blessings may never spoil us; that we shall forever live in thankful contemplation of Him who presides over us all.'

"So summing up, I then inquired if those present had any objections to the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous as they stood. Hearing none, I offered our Traditions for adoption. Impressively unanimous, the crowd stood up. So ended that fine hour in which we of Alcoholics Anonymous took our destiny by the hand.

"On Sunday morning we listened to a panel of four A. A.'s who portrayed the spiritual side of Alcoholics Anonymous -- as they understood it. What with churchgoers and late-rising banqueteers, the Conference Committee had never guessed this would be a heavy duty session. But churchgoers had already returned from their devotions and hardly a soul stayed abed. Hotel Cleveland's ballroom was filled an hour before hand. People who have fear that A.A. is losing interest in things of the spirit should have been there.

"A hush fell upon the crowd as we paused for a moment of silence. Then came the speakers, earnest and carefully prepared, all of them. I cannot recall an A.A. gathering where the attention was more complete, or the devotion deeper.

"Yet some thought that those truly excellent speakers had, in their enthusiasm, unintentionally created a bit of a problem. It was felt the meeting had gone over far in the direction of religious comparison, philosophy and interpretation, when by firm long standing tradition we A.A.'s had always left such questions strictly to the chosen faith of each individual.

"One member [Fr. Ralph Pfau] rose with a word of caution. As I heard him, I thought, 'What a fortunate occurrence. How well we shall always remember that A.A. is never to be thought of as a religion. How firmly we shall insist that A.A. membership cannot depend upon any particular belief whatever; that our twelve steps contain no article of religious faith except faith in God -- as each of us understands Him. How carefully we shall henceforth avoid any situation which could possibly lead us to debate matters of personal religious belief. It was, we felt, a great Sunday morning.

"That afternoon we filed into the Cleveland Auditorium. The big event was the appearance of Dr. Bob. Earlier we thought he'd never make it, his illness had continued so severe. Seeing him once again was an experience we seven thousand shall always treasure. He spoke in a strong, sure voice for ten minutes, and he left us a great heritage, a heritage by which we A.A.'s can surely grow. It was the legacy of one who had been sober since June 10, 1935, who saw our first Group to success, and one who, in the fifteen years since, had given both medical help and vital A.A. to 4,000 of our afflicted ones at good St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, the birthplace of Alcoholics Anonymous. Simplicity, devotion, steadfastness and loyalty; these, we remembered, were the hallmarks of that character which Dr. Bob had well implanted in so many of us. I, too, could gratefully recall that in all the years of our association there had never been an angry word between us. Such were our thoughts as we looked at Dr. Bob.

"Then for an hour I tried to sum up. Yet how could one add much to what we had all seen, heard and felt in those three wonderful days? With relief and certainty we had seen that A.A. could never become exhibitionistic or big business; that its early humility and simplicity is very much with us, that we are still mindful our beloved Fellowship is really God's success - not ours. As evidence I shared a vision of A.A. as Lois and I saw it unfold on a distant beach head in far Norway. The vision began with one A.A. who listened to a voice in his conscience, and then said all he had.

"George, a Norwegian-American, came to us at Greenwich, Connecticut, five years ago. His parents back home hadn't heard from him in twenty years. He began to send letters telling them of his new freedom. Back came very disquieting news. The family reported his only brother in desperate condition, about to lose all through alcohol. What could be done? The A.A. from Greenwich had a long talk with his wife. Together they took a decision to sell their little restaurant, all they had. They would go to Norway to help the brother. A few weeks later an airliner landed them at Oslo. They hastened from field to town and thence 25 mile down the fjord where the ailing brother lived. He was in a bad state all right. Unfortunately, though, everybody saw it but him. He'd have no A.A., no American nonsense. He an alcoholic? Why certainly not! Of course the man from Greenwich had heard such objections before. But now this familiar argument was hard to take. Maybe he had sold all he had for no profit to anybody. George persisted every bit he dared, but finally surmised it was no use. Determined to start an A.A. Group in Norway, anyhow, he began a round of Oslo's clergy and physicians. Nothing happened, not one of them offered him a single prospect. Greatly cast down, he and his wife thought it high time they got back to Connecticut.

"But Providence took a hand. The rebellious Norwegian obligingly tore off on one of his fantastic periodics. In the final anguish of his hangover he cried out to the man from Greenwich, 'Tell me again of the Alcoholics Anonymous, what, oh my brother, shall I do?'

With perfect simplicity George retold the A.A. story. When he was done, he wrote out, in his all but forgotten Norwegian, a longhand translation of a little pamphlet published by the White Plains, N.Y. Group. It contained, of course, our Twelve Steps of recovery. The family from Connecticut then flew away home. The Norwegian brother, himself a typesetter, commenced to place tiny ads in the Oslo newspapers. He explained he was a recovered alcoholic who wished to help others. At last a prospect appeared. When the newcomer was told the story and shown the White Plains pamphlet, he, too, sobered instantly. The founders to be then placed more ads.

"Three years after, Lois and I alighted upon that same airfield. We then learned that Norway has hundreds of A.A.'s. And good ones. The men of Oslo had already carried the light -- giving news to other Norwegian cities and these beacons burned brightly. It had all been just as simple, but just as mysterious as that.

"In the final moments of our historic Conference it seemed fitting to read from the last chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. These were the words we took home with us: 'Abandon yourself to God as you understand God. Admit your faults to Him and your fellows. Clear away the wreckage of your past. Give freely of what you find, and join us. We shall be with you, in the Fellowship of The Spirit, and you will surely meet some of us as you trudge the road of happy destiny. May God bless you and keep you -- until then.'"

Index of A.A. History Pages on Barefoot's Domain

As in so many things, especially with we alcoholics, our History is our Greatest Asset!.. We each arrived at the doors of A.A. with an intensive and lengthy "History of Things That Do Not Work" .. Today, In A.A. and In Recovery, Our History has added an intensive and lengthy "History of Things That DO Work!!" and We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it!!

ABC Page 60 from the Big Book



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