Pilgrimage to Akron
By Elizabeth R. – Sentinel Chair District One
The house in this photo is the home of Dr. Bob in Akron, Ohio and where recovery miraculously began for many hundreds of men and women. These men and women, my forefathers, have gone on to spread this message of recovery around the world for the past century.
According to some, the most important sights to see in Akron are the home of Dr. Bob, The Archives/Intergroup, The Kings School, Dr. Bob’s grave, and the gatehouse at the home of Henrietta Seiberling where Bill W. met Dr. Bob for the first time.
The house at 855 Ardmore Ave, built-in 1912 was the lifelong home of Dr. Bob Smith and his wife Anne. It was in this house that Dr. Bob and Bill W. began this incredible journey through the twelve steps and made history as the Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. The house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2012. It is now owned by Founders Foundation and is operated by them as a museum dedicated to the history of AA.
Tommy S., one of our young old-timers, (38 years on March 26th), has made the trip to Akron Ohio, to Dr. Bob’s home, about 43 times! He has taken about 120 drunks from our District to Akron. 12 steps that lead up to the porch and Tommy S. says, “When I took Frank V. (just celebrated 56 years) on one of our road trips up there he climbed the 12 Steps and someone opens the door, stuck out their hand, and said, “Welcome Home.” He took to one knee, weeping right there where he stood.”
He usually takes off early on a Monday for the 11-hour drive and when I asked why they didn’t just fly up there, Tommy said, “No, part of the trip is talking in the car, listening to historical tapes, and preparing for what we’re about to see. Plus, a lot of the folks we take up there don’t have much money. We even have ones we sponsor financially to take the trip. I try to make it low budget so more people who want to, can go.”
Morris H., one of Tommy’s fellow travelers. says, “Going with Tommy is great. He shows you the best way to get the full effect. If you go up there, from here, you have to go with Tommy.” Morris has been on three of the trips and had many anecdotes to share. He had me laughing and crying with his stories.
One, which was extremely meaningful to him was at the house of Dr. Bob. There is a room upstairs where he went and knelt with his sponsee, Lee, and they said the third step prayer together. Lee said, “It was a very special moment for me.” I got choked up listening to Morris talk about it.
Tommy’s travelers stay for two full days and nights in Akron. Tommy says he runs a very “regimented” visit. There are usually four folks on each trip. Activities include seeing Dr. Bob’s House, Akron Archives, Dr. Bob’s grave, and attending a meeting at King’s School Auditorium. Tommy also boasts about knowing the area “pretty well now” and he has discovered the best ice cream shop and steak house in the city. Morris talked about how Tommy had indeed researched and found the best places to eat. Morris also confirmed with a twinkle in his eye, “Oh those people all know Tommy up there.”
Morris tells a funny little story of arriving on the porch of Dr. Bob’s home. Volunteers ask where they are from and he tells them Alabama. One guy says, “You should have come with Tommy Simmons!” Morris laughs and tells them, “We did. He’s parking the car!” Tommy is like our Alabama Ambassador.
Tommy’s very first visit to Akron was with his family. On a whim, he took his wife and son, and he says, “I was in awe of everything, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.” He said he dragged his family around and maybe they did not share his enthusiasm. Perhaps this was part of the reason he started his trips to Akron from the deep south exposing this magical part of our history to those who would appreciate it, fellow drunks.
Alan L. is our District Literature chair and naturally, when he went to Akron he was very impressed with the Archives. He said there was so much information there and that’s why he had to go back. Alan said that overall, “I was mostly into the history and how it all started. God put people together at the right time and just when it was supposed to happen.” After visiting Akron he studied The Oxford Groups, The Four Absolutes, and The Sermon on the Mount.
When Alan first arrived at Dr. Bob’s house, he was told that 12 steps lead up to the porch. He mounted them counting along the way. And then he went back down and as he stepped on each step, he recited that step (in the Big Book) out loud. When he went to the Mayflower and stood in the hall thinking about the moment Bill turned from the bar and walked to the phone he said, “I got teary-eyed.”
Jon C. said, “The thing that impressed me most about my trip to Akron was praying in the library at the gatehouse where Bill and Dr. Bob met.” It was Dr. Bob’s unlikely meeting with Bill W. at a gatehouse on the Stan Hywet Hall estate on Mother’s Day 1935 that set the groundwork for the formation of AA.
Phillip N. has been three times with Tommy and once on his own. He said, “I was overwhelmed with all the meetings they have up there. They open the first meeting at 6:30 am and there’s a meeting every hour throughout the day and the last meeting of the day opens up at 10:30 pm.”
As Morris put it so beautifully “Everything that happened there was divinely inspired.” He loves studying the first 164 pages in our Big Book and comparing it to a copy he got his hands on of the marked-up manuscript of those pages. He says it has parts marked out and changed and then a little note of who made the change, such as Bill Wilson. Morris feels that the chapter We Agnostics in the Big Book is so powerful. He said, “We Agnostics is one of the most beautiful and spiritual pieces ever written. Even Christians who aren’t alcoholics need to read this chapter.”
One of Morris’ favorite stories involves Roy S. from Haleyville. They were taking a guided tour of Dr. Bob’s house and they were in a bedroom and on the dresser, there was a photograph of a man. The fellow facilitating the tour challenged, “If anyone knows who this man is I will give you $100.” There was a pause and suddenly Roy piped up and said, “That’s Archie Trowbridge.” The guide was in shock. He had never had anyone know the answer to this, thus his confidence in offering $100 to anyone who could get it was shaken. Roy S. now lives in Haleyville, but he is from Detroit. Archie Trowbridge was a man from Detroit who got sober living there with Dr. Bob. He lived with them, became like a son to Anne Smith (Dr. Bob’s wife), got sober and then, through a series of events, took the program back to Michigan.
After Roy explained how he knew this fellow, he wanted his $100 which the guide had never intended to give anyone! That was one of the big jokes on that trip.
Morris also recalls the story of the bell. King’s School is where meetings were moved when Dr. Bob’s home became too small to hold the meetings. I believe they were having up to 70 people piling into Dr. Bob’s house! And in the early days of King’s School meetings, they would ring a bell to start the meeting. Roy, who rings the bell at his home group in Haleyville asked if he could ring the bell. He was allowed to do it. Morris says, “It was very special.”
Roy S. says that ringing that bell in a King’s School meeting was quite literally a spiritual experience for him. He also confirmed the story of recognizing the photo in the upstairs bedroom at Dr. Bob’s home to be Archie Trowbridge. He explained that Trowbridge was one of the pioneers of AA, from Grosse Point, Michigan and is one of the stories in the Big Book, “The Man Who Mastered Fear” where he talks about his experience with early recovery, fear, and starting the first AA group in Detroit.
I found Roy to be quite knowledgeable regarding the history of AA and I felt honored to have a first-class history lesson in my interview with him. He seemed to know inside information on this Trowbridge fellow and how eventually he looked up to Ann, Dr. Bob’s wife, as a mother.
Roy spoke of The Oxford Group and its ties to our program. Frank Buchman–Sam Shoemaker–Rowland H.–Jim N.–Eleanor F.–Ebby T.–Shepard C.–Henrietta Seiberling–Rev. Walter Tunks–Norman S.–Russell Firestone–T. Henry & Clarace Williams… All of these people were instrumental in a scenario that contributed to making possible that historic meeting at the Gate House of the Seiberling Estate in Akron that became the birthplace of Alcoholics Anonymous. If it were not for these people, that meeting could never have taken place, and the fellowship to which we all owe our lives today might never have been born.
There has been one group of ladies who make this trip with Tommy to Akron. Judy W., Peg P., Kristi K, and Candy H. braved the journey with four men and were our first females to make this historical voyage. Judy says, “I and three other women went to Akron with Tommy and four other guys. The nine of us stayed on the move to get as much first-hand experience, strength, and hope as we could cram into those 3 days. Tommy is well known and respected in those rooms also.”
Phillip N. has been to Akron four times with Tommy and once on his own. He thinks that Tommy is an amazing man and has known him for a very long time. He spoke of how Tommy lives this program even through the most difficult times of his life. Tommy has been through personal health problems, the health problems of his wife, recently losing his mother and the unbelievable trauma of losing his son. Phillip said he’ll never forget standing on a hill with Tommy as they watched paramedics putting his son into a body bag. He said, “This man has shown me that we can stay sober through anything, even the most difficult moments in our lives.”
And believe it or not, Tommy has a group in Akron as I’m writing this! I just saw someone post a video of Tommy playing Amazing Grace on the piano in the Gatehouse.
After writing this article, I know I want to make this trip with Tommy one day soon. I still thought it was a good idea to fly as we could probably find cheap tickets but I believe now that is not the “trip” with Tommy Simmons that so many in our district have had the blessing of taking.
A huge part of this journey is the drive up and back together. Tommy prepares his guests in the car for what they are about to see and with each mile, the excitement and reverence grows. Upon arrival, they walk into the rooms where our life-saving solution was born through “divine inspiration” in this otherwise uneventful little town of Akron, Ohio. I thank you Tommy Simmons for your dedicated service to folks in our area and encourage all of you to get on the list for the next trip to Akron with Tommy!