May 25, 2007

History of
Indianapolis AA

Neil S. (Fishers, Indiana)

May 25, 2007

  From several sources we have attempted to weave a new, but connected pattern of how AA was started here in Indianapolis and identify the critical people who constitute the threads.

Let me quote a description of Doherty Sheerin, the man who founded AA in Indianapolis. J. D. Holmes (who was one of the original AA group in Akron) said in a letter that Doherty Sheerin was:
" ... the boy who put AA on the Indiana map. I have always considered him the number 3 man in A.A., a statement I can boldly make after having been closely associated with Dr. Bob and Bill W. And there are others who think the same as I."
That is an extraordinary thing to say. Next to Dr. Bob and to Bill W. in his understanding of the AA program, Doherty Sheerin was the number three man in AA. Later I will read this letter in its entirety.

  [Editor's note: Dohr sponsored Ralph Pfau, who was the first Roman Catholic priest in AA, and the author (under the name "Father John Doe") of the Golden Books. Father Ralph, who would not have made such a statement lightly, said after Dohr's death that he believed that Dohr had been one of the saints, one of those extraordinary holy men and women who appear from time to time in the church's history.]  

  Who was this spectacular man who had such an affect on my life and on yours? No doubt AA would have found its way to Indianapolis. But the historical evidence seems to indicate this is how AA actually came together in Indianapolis.

Who was this man?

His name, as we have said, was Doherty Sheerin. Other names that you will hear are "J. D." who was James D. Holmes. He was AA # 8 and lived in Akron, Ohio. His wife was from Evansville, and J.D. and his wife eventually relocated to Evansville, where her family was still residing as this story unfolds. J. D. had started the first A.A. group in Indiana in Evansville on April 23, 1940.

The other essential man in this unfolding episode is Irwin M. from Cleveland. Irwin M. is sometimes referred to as Erwin or Irving. His last name was Meyerson. The long time Indianapolis Saturday Evening group still honors him. His final residence was on the West coast.

Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers (p. 259) gives the name as Irwin: "One of the most famous itinerants out of Cleveland was Irwin M., who sold venetian blinds to department stores in the Deep South. 'Irwin weighed 250 pounds and had energy and gusto,' Bill Wilson wrote, noting that 'the prospect of Irwin as a missionary scared us rather badly.' Still, in his territory there was a long list of prospects, which was reluctantly given to him even though he had 'broken all the rules of caution and discreet approach to newcomers.' He ran each and every one of them down, working day and night. In addition, he wrote them letters and got them writing each other. 'He had cracked the territory wide open,' wrote Bill, 'and had started or stimulated many an original group.'"
The central figure in early Cleveland A.A. was Clarence Snyder, the "Home Brewmeister" in the story in the Big Book (pp. 297-303 in the 3rd edition). He was the dynamo who pioneered the printed word -- pamphlets, advertisements and newspaper articles. Irwin Meyerson was one of Clarence Snyder's train of "pigeons" or sponcees. When Irwin came to Indianapolis and introduced himself to Dohr Sheerin, he simply said, "I am from Cleveland and I've come here to help you get to work."

Dean L. Barnhart, who made the first attempt at writing a history of AA in Indiana, gives one account of how Irving and Dohr got together. One copy of Dean's history is in the New York AA Archives, and another copy, which seems to be a slightly different version, is in the Indianapolis AA Archives. In the New York version, Dean says that in the Spring of 1940, in Indianapolis,
"... a man who had been sober on his own for almost three years read the Liberty Magazine article on A.A. and sent to New York for what information was available, but experienced little reaction from what he received. This man was the late, beloved Doherty S[heerin]. Later in the same year, Irvin S. M[eyerson] of the Cleveland group visited Mr. S[heerin] and took him and a Mr. Barr to Evansville to meet Mr. Holmes. Hope was revived in D[ohr]ís breast, he once told me, so that when he returned to Indianapolis, he soon interested another sufferer in the program on or about October 28, 1940, the date now marked as the founding of the movement in the capital city."
The impression given by Dean's account is that it was the Liberty Magazine article which got Dohr interested in A.A., and that after Dohr contacted New York and the Alcoholic Foundation, they passed this Twelfth Step opportunity on to Irwin M. in Cleveland, since he traveled to Indianapolis on business. Dean's account also gives the impression that Dohr had stayed sober for almost three years relying on just his own willpower.

However, Dohr Sheerin's niece Laura gave a different account, and said that her Uncle Dohr contacted Cleveland directly in response to one of the Home Brewmeister's advertisements. And Laura said that Dohr stayed sober during those years only because the family had obtained a court order which involuntarily committed him to Menningers for two years, and that he was only released from the asylum on condition that he be accompanied at all times by an attendant.

  [Editor's note: Dean Barnhart was an enthusiastic but not a totally reliable researcher. There is ample written evidence, for example, showing that his account of how AA got started in north central Indiana contains many statements which are garbled, misleading, or leave out essential parts of the story. As Dohr's niece, Laura knew what was going on at first hand, and gives all of the details of how events unfolded. Her version is almost certainly the correct one.]  

  On September 30, 1991, Mary K. Williams received and carefully logged here and in the World Wide Archives an eye-opening memoir sent by Laura, the daughter of Tom Sheerin. He was the older brother of Dohr Sheerin. As you read this narrative please reflect on all of the things that are said in Chapter 9 of our Big Book, "The Family After":  

Dohr's story from his niece Laura

This is the tale of two brothers: Tom, my father, and Doherty, my uncle Dohr. They grew up in a large Irish Catholic family. Tom was the oldest. Three sisters came along and then Doherty. He was followed by a little brother who died young and two little sisters.

Tom and Dohr were the brothers and, although there was an eight year difference in age, there was a strong bond between them. Their families were close too. For years my cousins and I spent almost as much time in each other's houses as we did in our own.

As an uncle, Dohr was affectionate, full of fun and steady as a rock. That's also the way he was with his own children, his brother and sisters and his many friends. It seems never to have occurred to anybody except his wife that Dohr had any problems.

Suddenly, in the spring of 1936, when his daughter and I were in our last year of boarding school, the blow fell. Uncle Dohr was seriously ill with a damaged liver. He had to stop drinking. His life depended upon it. He couldn't do it. He went to Menningers to be treated for alcoholism. He stayed a couple of months, but left without being discharged and resumed what was now clearly compulsive, destructive drinking.

Practically nobody was prepared for this. A devoutly religious, devoted family man, and a pillar of the community, Dohr was known to drink convivially, but his friends never saw him drunk. Some of them received the news of his illness with stark disbelief.

My father told me of one encounter with an old friend, who came up to him on the street and said, "Tom, please tell me, what is the matter with Dohr?" Father answered, "He's an alcoholic." The man gave him a filthy look, turned on his heel and walked away without a word. In telling me about this, my father said:
"I had decided that concealment was neither wise nor possible, but this came as a shock. Still, I had to understand it. Aunt Dorothy had been telling me for years that Dohr was drinking too much, but I just shrugged it off on the theory that all wives think their husbands drink too much. I was with him frequently, and I never saw the slightest evidence."
What to do? Since voluntary commitment had not worked, as a desperate last resort, the family obtained a court order declaring Uncle Dohr to be incompetent and placing him under guardianship. Father took the position that it was better for a man to feel anger and resentment toward his brother than toward his wife, a point of view aunt Dorothy gratefully accepted, and so Father became his guardian.

I missed most of this because I was away at college, but during my first Christmas vacation, Father left over New Year's to drive Uncle Dohr up to Sacred Heart Hospital in Milwaukee. When he got home, he said it was the hardest thing he had ever to do.

This time, Dohr stayed approximately two years. He was then released conditionally under the care of an attendant. They took up residence at the family's country place, "The Tangle" (on 116th St., in Carmel, Indiana). Dohr was able to occupy himself with a lot of physical work which he enjoyed. We all went out and spent time there as we always had. The attendant managed to keep almost out of sight, but the atmosphere was strained.

I went back to college in the fall, so I wasn't on hand for the next act in the drama. Dohr asked to be released from guardianship. Tom consulted the doctors who said "If you release your brother from guardianship he will be dead in six months." He therefore refused to grant the release, and Dohr took him to court. From what my aunts have told me, it was a dramatic, emotional confrontation. In the end the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiff, Dohr, at which point the two brothers walked across the courtroom and shook hands. This was on January 17, 1940, almost exactly three years after the guardianship had been established.

Dohr didn't die in six months. He lived for thirteen years. While in the hospital, he had seen an ad about a new organization in Cleveland called Alcoholics Anonymous. On the day of his release he wrote to them. A Mr. M. appeared at is front door and said "I'm from Cleveland. I've come to help you get to work."

That's how AA got started in Indianapolis.

It was slow difficult going. They began with one recruit, Fred. Uncle Dohr and Aunt Dorothy had Fred's whole family over for dinner time after time. Dohr worked unstintingly. As soon as there was an actual group in Indianapolis, he began branching out.

Dr. Bob and the Good Old Timers reports, "Doherty S. is responsible for more groups in Indiana than anybody. He'd get a lone wolf from one town together with another one for Sunday breakfast...." Two people were enough to constitute a group and to call in a speaker from Ohio. The Big Book was now available.

By June of 1940 , when I graduated from college and came back to Indianapolis to live, AA, though small, was a going concern. Uncle Dohr was busy and very much his old self. A few years after that, I remember my father saying, "Everything is all right, but there is still constraint between us -- because of the guardianship. I'm enormously proud of him, but I don't think he'll ever believe it."

Some years later, Father suffered a heart attack and spent three weeks in the hospital. No visitors were allowed except for my sister and me, but every single day produced another wonderful note from Dohr. I have always believed he never understood what a talented writer he was. The night that Father died, Uncle Dohr got to the hospital almost as soon as I did. The nurses greeted him with, "Oh, you're the one who wrote those notes. Every day I would read them to Mr. Sheerin and he would say, 'That's my brother. That's Doherty. He's the most useful man in town.'" Finally, Dohr knew how Tom felt about him.


  Charles Weldon Martin, the first Chairman of the Indianapolis Intergroup, received a letter postmarked October 28, 1955. Charlie presented this letter and the envelope to the Indianapolis Intergroup office and it has been treasured. It was sent by Dean L. Barnhart of the Indiana State Committee. This was the group that functioned to support and bridge our Indiana AA Delegate at that time. We now refer to it as the Area 23 Committee.

As I said at the beginning I was going to share the complete Dean Barnhart statement surrounding the quote with which I opened.

  Early in the spring of 1940, when a certain Indianapolis man was concluding almost three years of sobriety, brought about largely by what is believed to have been individual will power, there came to his attention an article in Liberty Magazine. That story dealt with an organization known as Alcoholics Anonymous and was the first national publicity given a group which had come into being in 1935, when two men met in Akron, Ohio.

Our fellow citizen was interested in what he read and sent to New York for literature which he learned was available. He read what he received, without much further interest, but later in the year was called upon personally by a gentleman who said he was Irwin S. Meyerson, a member of the Alcoholic group in Cleveland. Hope was revived in the breast of our friend and or about October 28, 1940, he interested another sufferer in the program. So was born Alcoholic Anonymous in Indianapolis. The group, which still meets on Saturday nights, was named in honor of the Cleveland man, who fanned into a blaze the smouldering fire of an honest and sincere desire to be happily sober.

Mr. Meyerson is now a resident on the west coast, but Mr. Sheerin ceased his earthly work on Jan 17, 1953 at the age of 62 years.

J. D. Holmes, who now resides in Akron, Ohio, where he made his original contact as the eighth man in AA and who was introduced to Mr. Sheerin by Mr. Meyerson, recently wrote an Indianapolis friend as follows:
"Sheerin and I corresponded weekly, often talked on the telephone and were of mutual help. However, the growth of AA in Indiana is due almost entirely to Sheerin. While a few groups in the tri-state area and elsewhere stem from Evansville, Sheerin is really the boy who put AA on the Indiana map. I have always considered him the number 3 man in AA, a statement I can boldly make after having been closely associated with Dr. Bob and Bill Wilson. And there are others, who think the same as I."
The start of more groups than here can be recorded, not only in Indiana but elsewhere, was due to the extensive and prolonged efforts of Mr. Sheerin. Included are those with an original impulse from the Indiana Home, an Indianapolis non-profit hospital for male alcoholics, in which he had a deep interest and where AA. influence is still strong.

  Dohr was instrumental in forming the Indiana Home. This is the forerunner to Fairbanks, now a facility on the campus of Community Hospital North. Significantly Doherty Sheerin's Indiana Home preceded the world renown Hazelton Facility in Minnesota.

To digress for a minute let me share some of the other firsts for Indianapolis AA.

Indianapolis had an Intergroup office before New York City.

We were the first in the nation to be incorporated. The attorney who affected this for us is still a very committed member of our Indianapolis Fellowship. Other Intergroups were able to follow our model.

We were the pioneer of using the Telephone Answering Service to extend our availability. It is an opportunity for those who reach out for help. They can do it here in Indianapolis 24/7 for 52 weeks every year. This was launched in January of 1943.

The introduction of Tokens or Medallions probably started here. Since I originally stated this opinion we now have the substantiating correspondence, over the signature of the Archivist of AA World Wide Services Office, stating that as far as New York knows, Indianapolis was the first AA group to give out tokens.

We might have been the second group to establish an A.A. meeting in a prison. Late in 1942 or early 1943 we initiated A.A. in the Putnamville Facility.

The first A.A. prison group seems to have been started at San Quentin in California under Warden Clinton Duffy in 1942 (see Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, p. 89). The A.A. prison group at Michigan City in northern Indiana was not started until 1944.
Back to Dohr Sheerin and Indianapolis. At the Indianapolis Intergroup office there is a two page typed copy of a "Brief History of A. A. in Indiana" stored in the Archives of A.A. World Services in NYC. It references a talk given at Turkey Run State Park (halfway between Lafayette and Terre Haute) in late 1954 or early 1955.

This document says that AA was first started in Indiana in Evansville. J. D. Holmes was AA # 8 and joined our program in October 1938. He and Mrs. Holmes visited her family in Evansville. They then moved to Evansville from Akron. Later they relocated back to Akron. These geographical moves are pertinent.

  [Editor's note: With the aid of material recently discovered by A.A. historian Bob E. in Evansville we can fill in a number of the details here. Among other documents, Bob located the obituary which appeared in the Evansville Press at the time of J. D.'s death, which gives us some of the important dates in his life. James D. "J. D." Holmes, the founder of A.A. in Indiana, was born c. 1895, a native of Graves County, Kentucky. He eventually ended up working on a newspaper in Akron, Ohio. He got sober there in September 1936, where he was A.A. No. 10 (the eighth person to get sober after Bill W. and Dr. Bob), a member of the original Akron group, which centered around Dr. Bob's house in Akron. After the newspaper J. D. worked for in Akron was sold, he moved to Evansville, Indiana, on May 30, 1938, where his wife Rhoda's family lived, and got a job selling advertising for a newspaper there. He started the first A.A. meeting in Indiana in Evansville on April 23, 1940. (This group, now called the Tri-State Group, still meets every Tuesday night to this day.) Around 1951, he returned to Akron, where he was a writer for the Akron Beacon-Journal. J. D. died at his home in Akron at the age of 66 on Saturday, May 27, 1961, with 24 years of sobriety, shortly after the twenty-first anniversary of the founding of A.A. in Indiana.]  

  The first AA meeting in Indiana was in Evansville at 420 South Denby Street, J.D.'s home, on April 23, 1940. This History references that following the release of the Liberty Magazine article in the Spring of 1940 someone who was probably Dohr Sheerin contacted N. Y. for information but " ..... experienced little reaction." Later in 1940 Irwin Meyerson visited Dohr. He took Dohr to Evansville to meet J. D. Holmes. "Hope was revived in Doherty's breast ... he soon interested another sufferer in the program on or about October 28, 1940." This was the first AA meeting in Indianapolis.

The short document in the Indianapolis AA Archives continues with some other data and statistics, such as from 1940 the two original Indiana meetings had expanded to four cities, that each of these cities had several groups, and by 1955 Indiana had 116 groups and three loners. Total members were 1582. Presently we have over 400 meetings just in the Greater Indianapolis Area alone.

Another early meeting site was at the Raub ("Rah") Memorial Library. It was razed and became the site of our Children's Museum at 30th Street between Meridian and Illinois Street. Ralph Pfau ("Father John Doe"), the first declared Catholic Priest in AA, who later became the prolific writer, went to his first meeting at the Raub Memorial Library, which was yet another AA meeting started by Dohr Sheerin and his successfully recovered alcoholics.

But that is another story and another History.


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