Friday, July 19, 2013

Bill and Lois ... nothing more need be said

(My latest Addiction and Recovery column.)

By Bob Gaydos
Stepping Stones, the home of Bill and Lois Wilson,
 in Katonah. IR Photography.

Bill and Lois. Mention those names to members of Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-. Anon and nothing more need be said. They are the founders, the driving forces behind the 12-step programs that have helped so many people to recover from alcoholism.
Wilson is their last name, but he is best known as Bill W. and she as just Lois, perhaps the only woman in the world who could have lived with him during years of alcoholic behavior and stuck with him through the ensuing years of the creation and growth of AA into a worldwide program of recovery. At Bill’s urging, Lois later organized what was a loose collection of groups of people struggling with the effects of  others’ alcoholism into what today is the worldwide Al-Anon Family Groups.
As partnerships go, theirs succeeded beyond what any conventional wisdom might have predicted. And while it’s true that there are no gurus in the AA model of recovery, make no mistake about it, Bill and Lois are special people to those who seek help from the two programs. Together, they lived through the pain of alcoholism and created the mold millions have adopted for escaping its grip.
One of the ways in which that special regard is demonstrated is the thousands of visitors yearly to Stepping Stones, the Wilsons’ home in Katonah, in Westchester County. The large, comfortable home and well-kept gardens that occupy eight acres exude the peace and serenity to which members of AA and Al-Anon aspire.
Not that it was always so. When Bill and Lois first moved to Katonah from 182 Clinton St. in Brooklyn, their new home (they moved 51 times) became the destination of choice for people desperate for an answer to their drinking problem. There was seemingly always someone (or more than one) being 12-stepped by Bill in the living room (Bill kept alcohol on hand for those who needed detoxing), or just having impromptu AA meetings. The coffee pot in the small kitchen was meant for large gatherings. As Joe D., a 29-years-sober guide at Stepping Stones, puts it, “We think of Clinton Street and Stepping Stones as the first rehabs.”
The house also had the feel of a hotel, since AA friends were always on hand, helping to produce literature to spread the word on the recovery program or to sit and listen to Lois play the piano while Bill played the fiddle. On occasion, friends would join them in the “ghost room” where the ouija board was located.
It got so busy in Katonah that Bill eventually had a writing studio built up the hill from the bustling house so he could get some quiet to write “Alcoholics Anonymous,” better known as “the Big Book,” and other books detailing the AA path to sobriety.
The home and studio are part of a 90-minute tour given Monday to Saturday at 1 p.m. The tour is informative, but can’t possibly encompass the magnitude of the writings, photos, letters, books, art work, gifts, newspaper articles and personal mementos that Lois kept and organized. “Lois saved everything but Bill’s clothes,” Joe says. The Stepping Stones Foundation has archived all of this and now presents it at the national historic site as a history of the lives of Bill, Lois, AA and Al-Anon. Visitors are free to peruse the collection as it suits their curiosity. Return visits are not uncommon.
On a recent week day, a couple from Brooklyn took the tour. Kate, three years sober, said, “It’s amazing to be up here,“ She was impressed with how “selfless’’ Bill and Lois were and “how much of their lives they dedicated to helping others get sober.”
Her companion, Tim, 28 months sober, said there were a couple of things they could have done that day, but he was glad they chose to visit Stepping Stones, among other reasons because he learned that “Lois was a major person” in the history of AA as well as Al-Anon.
Another visitor, M., from Sullivan County, with four-plus years in Al-Anon, said, “I came to see Lois’ legacy because she’s basically my hero. Notwithstanding the fullness and complexity of her own life, it was enlightening to discover how much of herself was consumed by standing in the way of Bill and his next drink.” Of  Stepping Stones, M. said, “It’s nothing short of magnificent the way it has been preserved.”
That’s true. And it’s more than just a home that has been preserved. It’s an idea, a legacy, a way of life, a unique pairing that brought hope to millions of people and, indeed, changed history in the process. All of that is what keeps people coming to Stepping Stones.

If you go …
A Bill and Lois commemorative coin, available in the gift shop.
                                                                            IR Photography
Stepping Stones is located at 62 Oak Road, Katonah. It is open Monday through Saturday, from noon to 3 p.m. Tours lasting roughly 90 minutes start shortly after 1 p.m. and it is suggested that you call ahead or e-mail to reserve a spot.
 The buildings are air-conditioned. There is a small gift shop. A donation of at least $10 per person is suggested.
 The phone number is (914) 234-4822; e-mail: For more information on the site, including directions, the web site is

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