May 11, 2005

Doherty Sheerin and the
Founding of A.A. in Indianapolis:
October 28, 1940

EDITOR'S NOTE:  James D. "J. D." Holmes, the tenth person to get sober in A.A., moved from Akron to Evansville, Indiana, and started the first A.A. group in Indiana on April 23, 1940 when he finally persuaded a physician named Dr. Joe Welborn to join him. They soon had several other people interested and started meeting once a week in J. D.'s home, a little four-room house at 420 S. Denby Street in Evansville. By the end of the year they had thirteen men and eight women coming every Tuesday evening.

There is a good deal about J. D. in Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers. There is also a document in the New York A.A. archives, a letter which J. D. wrote around 1953 or 1954, to Dean Barnett, the first person who attempted to write an overall history of Alcoholics Anonymous in Indiana. (The article Dean wrote, "A Brief History of Alcoholics Anonymous in Indiana," is short and has a good many historical errors in it, but can also be found in the New York A.A. archives.)

J. D.'s letter not only describes the beginnings of the little group in Evansville, but also tells us how A.A. got started in Indianapolis.

  The first group in Indianapolis was started six months after the Evansville group, on October 28, 1940. There was a good Irish Catholic businessman named Doherty "Dohr" Sheerin there in Indianapolis, who had been struggling with his alcoholism since 1936. He was institutionalized for two years at Sacred Heart Hospital in Milwaukee by his family at one point during those dark years. But the only way they found to keep him away from alcohol for long was to lock him up in an institution or have a full-time attendant accompanying him everywhere he went. The doctors said that Dohr's liver was so damaged that he would not last six months if he returned to drinking, but his obsession to drink outweighed his will to live. In 1940 he found out about the new Alcoholics Anonymous movement and decided to try their method. He contacted either the New York A.A. office or the A.A. group in Cleveland, Ohio (the evidence is unclear on this matter) and asked for help.

Arrangements were made for Irvin Meyerson, a member of the Cleveland A.A. group, to visit Indiana and see if he could help. When he arrived at Dohr's house, Dohr and his family were having a cook-out in the yard. Irvin asked Dohr, "Are you an alcoholic?" He answered, "Well, I don't really know whether I am or not." So Irvin said, "Make up your mind, you are or you aren't."

Apparently Dohr admitted that he was, and the first thing Irvin decided to do was to take him down to Evansville to meet J. D. Holmes and attend a meeting of the newly-founded A.A. group there. That was the crucial contact:  J. D. showed Doherty how to set up an A.A. group so it would work and grow. And even more importantly, the two of them -- J. D. and Dohr -- then formed a sort of team to spread the A.A. message to other parts of Indiana.

J. D. talked about all this in his letter to Dean Barnett:
One day I received a telegram from one Irvin M[yerson] asking if we had an A.A. group at Evansville and when did we meet. I replied and received another telegram saying he was bringing two prospects.

The two prospects were Doherty S[heerin] and a chap by name of B[arr]. You better check with Doherty as to the date.

Doherty had been sober for more than two years [and he] came at a time when I needed someone who realized the need of A.A. and who was willing to work -- someone with executive ability. S[heerin] and I corresponded weekly, phoned each other and was of mutual aid to each other.

The growth of A.A. in Indiana is due almost entirely to S[heerin]. While a few groups sprang up in the tri-state area from [the] Evansville group, S[heerin] is really the boy that put A.A. on the Indiana map . . . .

Of course there are hundreds of men and women in Indiana who have contributed much to A.A. However, when S[heerin] and I started there was no literature. All we had was a hope and prayer and shoes that had been half-soled many times. Had it not been for my wife Rhoda I might have given up the effort. Maybe I might have given up had not Sheerin appeared on the scene.

I know what a tough job it was in Akron to get A.A. started. I was here 18 months in the formative stage of A.A.

But regardless of the small effort I put into A.A. and the dead cats that was hurled my way I have gotten much more out of it than I ever can hope to put into it. I deserve no credit for the part I played -- remember I was keeping sober all the time and was happy. I'm still keeping sober and very happy.
J. D., a man of great humility, tried to downplay his own efforts in all of this. But in fact he turned his job as a traveling salesman working out of Evansville into a tool for working far and wide, spreading A.A. and helping keep newly founded A.A. groups going. He drove miles out of his way in his car when he was out selling, and spent whole weekends going on ten and twelve-hour train trips to various places, continuously coordinating his efforts with Doherty's to help struggling alcoholics meet one another and get the program.

J. D. described that part of his work when he was interviewed by the people who put together Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers (see p. 258):
"I used to carry three or four Big Books in my car. If they didn't have any books at a particular group, I'd give them one and some pamphlets -- or I'd know who the secretary of a neighboring group was, and arrange for them to get in touch with each other. Sometimes, you'd have a lone wolf. You'd drive 30 or 40 miles out of your way to hit a town of 400 to see a guy whose name you got from the office.

"[Doherty S. would] get a lone wolf from one town together with another one for Sunday breakfast. I had to go up there Saturday nights and spend half the night getting there. It was a lousy trip, changing trains and all. Then I'd get out of there about noon to get home. It took about ten or 12 hours to get 160 miles. But it was a very interesting experience."
This was hard work. We need to remember that Indiana had very little in the way of a road system in those days. There was nothing but narrow dirt roads in many places, or you would have to take little local trains pulled by smoke-belching steam locomotives that stopped at every tiny town. And in the more isolated places, you might have to climb on board a horse-drawn wagon for the last hour or so of your journey. J. D. and Doherty, between them, were probably reponsible for the creation of more groups in Indiana than just about anybody else.
EDITOR'S NOTE:  There is a lot of good material describing Dohr as a sponsor and the wise and compassionate manner in which he dealt with alcoholics in Ralph Pfau (Father John Doe) and Al Hirschberg, Prodigal Shepherd (1958), originally published by Ralph through the SMT Guild, his publishing operation in Indianapolis, but now handled by Hazelden in Minnesota.

The First Roman
Catholic Priest in A.A.

  One of the people whom Doherty Sheerin brought into the program was the first Roman Catholic priest in the United States to join A.A. This was Father Ralph Pfau. He was brought up in Indianapolis and went to seminary at St. Meinrad's in southern Indiana. The bishop of Indianapolis sent him to pastor congregations all the way from Snake Run, Indiana (six miles off the paved highway down in Gibson County) to the nice Indianapolis suburbs. He was a good pastor, he did a very good job every time, and unlike many Roman Catholic priests before Vatican II he could preach a rousing good sermon -- but every time his drinking would eventually create such a public scandal that the bishop would have to pull him out, send him off to a sanitarium to dry him out, then give him a stern lecture and send him to serve as priest of some other parish. He had gone through enough churches that way, that his bishop and the whole diocesan administration were in total despair.

Father Ralph was back in Indianapolis, shaky and about ready to fall to pieces again, when he saw some A.A. literature and telephoned Doherty Sheerin. Doherty came over, and Father Ralph said "I'm not an alcoholic, of course, but I'd like to know a little more about this program," and Doherty, a very wise man, just smiled gently and promptly dragged Father Ralph off to his first A.A. meeting.

Dohr continued to be Ralph's sponsor until the end of Dohr's life. Afterwards Ralph -- who was a Roman Catholic priest and understood the standards, and would not have made such a statement lightly -- said simply that in knowing Dohr he had had the privilege of knowing one of the real saints. J. D. Holmes said something very similar:  that Dohr was the only man he had ever known whom he would put on the same level as Dr. Bob. He must have been a truly extraordinary man.

Ralph later organized the Catholic Clergy Conference on Alcoholism, and played a major role in getting the Roman Catholic Church in the United States to appreciate and support the new A.A. movement.

In June 1946 he ran a weekend spiritual retreat for members of A.A. at St. Joseph's College in Rensselaer, Indiana, the first of its kind. It was the first major function where A.A.'s from all over Indiana, from the far north to the deep south, were able to get together in one place and get to know one another. It was run in some ways like a Roman Catholic retreat, but without the lectures and references to Roman Catholic dogma and practice. Of the ninety A.A.'s who showed up for this first retreat, eighty per cent were non-Roman Catholics. It worked so well that the retreats continued every year, and Ralph discovered that he could, in effect, take off his clerical collar and speak about the spiritual life in ways that could be understood by anyone who had come to know a higher power through the A.A. program. Each of the fourteen little booklets that made up his Golden Book series was based on Ralph's remarks at one year's St. Joseph's retreat.

They are called the Golden Books because, when they did the first one, they were looking around for a fancy cover to put on it: they found some cardboard covered with gold foil, made the covers out of that, and liked the result so much that each subsequent booklet was published with a shiny, gold-foil cover. In respect for the principle of anonymity, he published them under the pen name Father John Doe, which is the name under which most people know him. He also wrote an autobiography, Prodigal Shepherd, telling about his own battle with alcoholism, which so fascinating that Look magazine published long excerpts from the book in a three-part series.

In terms of people who were themselves members of A.A. and who wrote about A.A. and alcoholism, the four most published authors during the early days were Bill Wilson, of course, with Richmond Walker in the number two place.
Rich, who lived in Daytona Beach, Florida, wrote the meditational book called Twenty-Four Hours a Day in 1948. He printed and distributed it himself for many years, until the job became too much for him and Hazelden volunteered to take over the task.
The other two most published A.A. authors were Father Ralph and Ed Webster.
Ed Webster, who lived in Minneapolis, Minnesota, wrote The Little Red Book (1946), Stools and Bottles (1955), Barroom Reveries (1958, a book of humor which was a flop and never reprinted), and Our Devilish Alcoholic Personalities (in 1970, just a year before his death). He and Barry Collins called themselves the "Coll-Webb Co., Publishers" and printed The Little Red Book themselves at the beginning.
Father Ralph also printed his own books and distributed them himself in Indianapolis for years, calling his little publishing operation the SMT Guild. Hazelden has now taken over printing and distributing them as a service to the A.A. program, so they're still in print nowadays, and all his writings are still available. They're good stuff.

Father Ralph was the only one of these four who was a professionally trained theologian. His writings were vitally important in keeping A.A. on track during the early period. We sometimes like to think of early A.A. as a time when people were doing everything exactly right, and then we get nostalgic about the good old days, and start talking about how bad things are now. But I had an interesting conversation at the national A.A. archives conference in Chicago last year, with a Chicagoan named Tex who has been in the program fifty-three years, and he started telling stories about some of the A.A. groups that were operating in the Chicago area back in the late 1940's and 50's. There were some absolutely crazy people who were trying to jump on board this movement. There were self-styled gurus who were setting up their own weird interpretations of the program, and Bill W. was driving himself almost crazy at times trying to keep A.A. from self-destructing from their influence.

Tex told about one of these gurus who came to give a speech in which he started proclaiming that Moses had been sent by God to set up the first covenant, Jesus Christ had been sent by God to set up the second covenant and found a new and better religion, and Bill W. and Dr. Bob had been sent by God to set up the new world religion which would replace Christianity and Judaism as the true revelation of God. Tex said that Father Ralph was sitting in the back of the room and started shouting at the man that this was total nonsense and the worst rubbish he had ever heard in his life, and by the time it was all over, the man had to go home without giving the rest of his speech. Father Ralph never let him get another word in uninterrupted!

Father Ralph was one of the people who fought and worked to keep the program stable. He was a trained theologian himself, and in those fourteen Golden Books (and the recordings and other publications he distributed) he laid out the basic principles of the spiritual side of the program with good, solid common sense, based on a lot of practical experience as a pastor -- what really works, how do we keep it simple, how do we actually go about this -- and I think that he deserves a lot of credit as one of the people who helped keep A.A. together during that crucial period before we got the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions book out, and that sort of thing. And he's one of our own Indiana folk here, someone we can be really proud of.

The Myth of Perfection

  I'd like to just give you a little bit of the spirit of this man. One of his little Golden Books is called the Golden Book of Resentments -- yeah, he was one of us, he knew all about how resentments can destroy your life -- a little book that came out in 1955. He had one long section in that book (pp. 41–55) called "The Myth of Perfection." He began it with a quote from St. Augustine, the dark-skinned African saint who supplied so many of the basic ideas of the medieval Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformation, and Bill Wilson's interpretation of the twelve-step program: "Let us admit our imperfections so we can then begin to work toward perfection."

St. Augustine was converted to Christianity when he was thirty-two, and then spent years trying to become perfect, and attempting to flee from all ordinary human emotion into a kind of supernatural vision of the divine ground of being. When he was made bishop of a port city on the coast of Africa, he finally realized that this was crazy. He wasn't achieving this, and the people who he was preaching to were not going to achieve it either. It wasn't relevant. Trying to be perfect is not relevant to the everyday problems which both he and the people in his church actually faced.

St. Augustine gained that insight from his own personal spiritual experience: "Let us admit our imperfections so we can then begin to work toward perfection." Father Ralph quoted Augustine, and then said, let's put that basic principle into simple Hoosier language: "There ain't nobody perfect in this world."
"There ain't nobody perfect in this world" . . . . All of our lives we expected perfection, and when we again and again found instead imperfection, faults, failings, even serious ones, we became "disillusioned" -- which in reality was only a vicarious form of self-pity . . . .

We first thought our parents were perfect. Then we found out they weren't! Frustration number one. Then we met the gal (or guy) of our dreams. And think we to us: here is perfection. And then we married her (or him)! Frustration number two . . . . Then along came our children. And without doubt they were perfect. "Isn't he the most perfect thing that ever lived?" And then the policeman brought T. Jonathan home one day . . . . Our child? Never! But it was our child. More frustration . . . .

But we held on to the mirage to the very last: We were perfect, and if you didn't believe it, all you had to do was to ask us! . . . The truth? No one is perfect . . . . Like a little Scriptural proof? "If anyone among you says he is without sin, he is a liar and the truth is not in him." (1 John 1:8, 2:4, 4:20 and Romans 3:23) Just a longer way of saying: There ain't nobody perfect.
Perfection is a myth based on spiritual pride. But in fact we will never have a perfect family, perfect friends, perfect business associates, or a perfect body. Sometimes we'll get sick, or have aches and pains. We will also never have perfect emotional lives. Father Ralph comments:
How many come to us and complain: "I have been trying so long -- for years -- to control myself and I still get upset, I still get jittery, I still get angry, and I still get nervous." Well, what did they expect? Perfect control? Perfection?
This is the alcoholic mind at work, Father Ralph says, the "persistent struggle to reach that smooth feeling." When alcohol stops doing it, some people then turn to drugs. Sedatives like the barbiturates and bromides were the drugs alcoholics most often turned to in the early days of A.A., then there was the tranquillizer era, followed by the marijuana era, and so on. But what do we discover when we finally see that the Myth of Perfection is just that, nothing but a myth?
There will be days when we will be feeling wonderful and there will be days when we will be feeling lousy; and there will be days when one is quick to anger and days when nothing upsets; and there will be days when we feel mean as all get out and days when we feel like doing a good turn even for our worst enemy. But then, life and emotions are like that, very uneven and imperfect, even in the best of men.
We also need to remember that Perfection is a Myth when we get too worried about the wandering thoughts running through our heads. "We may live to be a hundred, but we shall still have distractions, and 'bad' thoughts, and 'screwy' thoughts, until we're dead."

This will be true even in prayer or meditation. Father Ralph refers to the classic tale about St. Francis de Sales to make his point. The way I myself originally heard the little story, it went this way: That saint rode around doing missionary preaching, and the only thing he owned was the horse he rode. One day another priest bragged that he could pray for hours without any distracting wandering thoughts. "Oh," said St. Francis, "I'll bet you my horse that you can't pray for even five minutes without having some distracting thought pass across your mind." The priest got down on his knees and started praying, but after a few moments suddenly looked up at St. Francis and asked, "Does the saddle and bridle come with it?"

In fact, the Myth of Perfection teaches us a major lesson about the spiritual life in general: we will fail to meet our highest goals over and over again.
For the myth of perfection tells us that in the spiritual life above all else, burdened with fallen human nature, we will fall and fall and fall again until "two days after we're dead"!
The goal of the twelve step program is progress, not perfection. In traditional theological language, growing spiritually, making real progress, is called becoming sanctified. Father Ralph makes a startling statement -- but remember, he's a good, trained theologian -- and he says "anyone who tries the best he can to do the will of God in all of his affairs -- day in and day out -- and keeps on trying in the face of repeated falls and failures" is fully sanctified -- is one of the saints in God's eyes -- because what God measures us by is not whether we perfectly succeeded, or even succeeded at all, but whether we tried.

With God's help, an alcoholic can avoid drinking, one day at a time -- this is about the only absolute in the program. With God's help, a drug addict can avoid using, one day at a time; someone with an eating disorder can avoid going on a food binge or whatever, and likewise for compulsive spenders and people who are driven into destructive sexual compulsions, and all the rest. That we can do.

Past that point, we do the footwork, and we turn our frailties over to God, and we let God do the healing at whatever speed God knows to be best. And we work on developing humility, because we are human beings, not gods. God loves us in our very humanness and frailness and fragility. As long as you don't forget that, and stick with the program, you're O.K. Your life will be blessed, and blessed beyond your present wildest imaginings.


CLICK HERE  For more on A.A. in Indianapolis

CLICK HERE  To return to the Indiana A.A. History home page

CLICK HERE  To return to the Hindsfoot Foundation home page