March 9, 2005

More on early Indianapolis A.A.

It was Indiana which invented
A.A. anniversary chips

There was a tradition in Indianapolis that they were the A.A. people who first started giving chips or tokens to A.A. members on their anniversaries, in 1942, and that Doherty Sheerin was the one who came up with the idea. Their understanding was that, once they started doing it in Indy, A.A. groups in other parts of the country heard about their practice, decided they would start doing it too, and the custom began spreading everywhere.

Indianapolis A.A. archivist Neil S. (Fishers IN) says that someone from the Indianapolis group contacted New York later on, and asked if this was in fact true, and the New York office replied that, to the best of their knowledge, the A.A. group in Indy had in fact been the first group in the country to hand out chips or tokens on A.A. anniversaries. So it looks like this is an Indiana "first" that we can justifiably claim.

Doherty Sheerin and the 1939
Liberty magazine article

Dohr first found out about A.A. through a magazine article. A writer named Morris Markey wrote a piece about A.A. entitled "Alcoholics and God." Fulton Oursler, the editor of Liberty magazine, agreed to run it in his September 30, 1939, issue. It was not as effective in bringing A.A. to national notice as the Jack Alexander article which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post a year and a half later (on March 1, 1941), but it did produce the sale of several hundred copies of the Big Book, and as we see below, brought Doherty Sheerin into the A.A. program.

(For more on the Liberty magazine article and its context in A.A. history, see 'Pass It On' -- The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A.A. Message Reached the World, pp. 223-4.)

Material found in the
Indiana A.A. archives

Some of this information comes from a small but important document in the Indiana A.A. archives, written on three sheets of paper. The material on the last two sheets is given verbatim below.

(The first sheet, which will not be reproduced here, was typed on an old manual typewriter, and outlines the earliest history of Indianapolis A.A. It records the death of Doherty "Dohr" Sheerin on January 27, 1953 and quotes from the letter J. D. Holmes wrote to Dean Barnhardt around 1953 or 1954, which we already cited earlier in this article. The account is basically a personal tribute to Dohr, written probably not too many years after his death.)
The historical account given on the other two sheets -- SEE BELOW -- must have been composed on a word processor (because it uses both regular and boldface type) at some point after January 1986 (and probably no more than a year or two later). A short section at the end (probably done on an electric typewriter) was then added in 1991:  the reviser painted out the number given for the number of A.A. meetings "we now have" every week and put in an updated figure, and then added some material on the Anniversary Banquet.


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.


Information concerning the growth of A.A. in the 1940's is scarce. We do know, however, that Doherty Sheerin started having meetings in his own home and as membership grew, it required them to seek larger meeting places. Of the groups born of the mid-40's, only four remain in existence today. They are the 20-40 Group, the Home Group, the Speedway Group and the Meyerson Group.

The breakfast meeting at the Warren Hotel was one meeting that was attended by everyone. Information from New York states that the chip system, or tokens we receive for our anniversaries, was started here in Indianapolis by Doherty Sheerin in 1942. History tells us the chip system which started in Indianapolis was as follows:

white chip       beginners
red chip       three months
blue chip       six months
Note:  these were poker chips. There always seemed to be a short supply of white chips.

The one-year token was the rectangle pin with the A.A. on one side and your sobriety date and sponsor's initials engraved on the back, very much as the pin we still use today.

The meeting at the Warren Hotel was the only place anyone would receive their chip. In the beginning a token was only received for one's first year of sobriety and that was the only one you received. The breakfast meeting ceased to exist in 1971.


We do not have enough information to know when and where the anniversary banquets began. However we do have information on the banquet as far back as 1958, thanks to sharing of some of our members who recall a few of the places the celebration was held in the past. They are as follows:  Antlers Hotel, Severin Hotel, Butler University, Indiana State Fairgrounds, Claypool Hotel, Pilgrim Hotel (now Ramada Inn S.). The present meeting (1991) at the Murat Egyptian Room is the sixth year we have been here for our anniversary.


Article by Bill T. (Indianapolis)
in the October 1946 Grapevine

Bruce C. (Muncie IN) discovered this nice little note from Bill T. when he was doing research in the early A.A. Grapevines. This is from the Mail Call column in the October 1946 issue:


From Indianapolis

The way some A.A. members go about the business of recruiting prospects, they come pretty close to sounding like combination reformer-evangelists. In their defense, one should say that it is only their great enthusiasm for the wonderful thing they have discovered that leads them to excesses in trying to spread A.A.

But, because of the damage this kind of behavior can cause to A.A. as a whole and to the very individuals being "recruited" I think we should be reminded every now and then that A.A. is not something you sell. It's not a patent medicine or a new kind of insurance or anything else that calls for salesmanship. A.A. is a way of life which one must first of all want himself before he has any chance of getting it. You can't sell it to him; he has to earn it. You can't wrap it up in a package and hand it to him. That isn't the way you get A.A.

What's worst of all is that usually the prospect runs the other way, sooner or later, when worked on by the salesman type.

--Bill T.

The Indiana Home

  The Indiana Home in Indianapolis, an alcoholism treatment center started in 1945, was an important institution in the spreading of A.A. through the rest of the state. Alcoholics would come there for treatment, and Dohr Sheerin and other Indianapolis A.A. people would do twelfth step work with them. Dohr would stay in contact with them after they went back home, and keep encouraging them, not only to work their programs and remain sober, but also to get A.A. groups started where they lived.

The Indiana Home was later renamed the Fairbanks Hospital (after a major donor) but is still in operation in Indianapolis today. In 1995 they held a celebration of their fiftieth anniversary, which Frank N. (Syracuse IN) and other Indiana A.A. people attended. The following information comes from the Fairbanks Hospital website at http:// and the historical section of this website at http://

  The Fairbanks addictions treatment center is located on the northeast side of Indianapolis, at 8102 Clearvista Parkway, Indianapolis, IN 46256. Offering a full continuum of addiction services is our specialty and our focus. Founded in 1945, Fairbanks, a non-profit organization, has been recognized as a leader in addictions treatment in the midwest region.

Though substance abuse was as old as alcohol itself, treatment centers were unheard of in 1945, at least in Indiana. Dr. Robert Nevitt and Mr. William Brady saw the devastating effects that alcoholism had on good men, and decided to do something about it.

It was into this scenario that the seeds of Fairbanks were planted. These men's work formed the Indiana Home, a 12-bed men's detoxification unit. The program began in a house in downtown Indianapolis, on North Alabama Street, and moved several places before settling into 2054 North Delaware St.

A community-wide fund raising effort worked toward a new, larger facility in the late 1960's, one that could provide services for men and women. A $250,000 grant from the Cornelia Cole Fairbanks Trust Fund, along with many other donations large and small, gave birth to the new Fairbanks Hospital at 1575 Northwestern Ave. in May of 1970.

In 1976, Fairbanks' new administrator, Robert H. Wagner, and a number of new planning committees determined a need for more services than the hospital could provide. Plans and fund-raising began for a new, 96 bed facility to offer treatment for adolescents, treatment for individuals addicted to drugs in addition to alcohol, and expanded family and outpatient services. That dream was realized in 1982, when Fairbanks opened its doors at its present location, 8102 Clearvista Parkway, Indianapolis.

  There is an article in the A.A. Grapevine for June 1945 which refers to the Indiana Home, but locates it in Muncie, Indiana, instead of Indianapolis. Bruce C. (Muncie) in his account of early A.A. in Muncie believes that there was also an alcoholism treatment center which was started at that time in Muncie in the building which had been the old Home Hospital. Other Indiana A.A. archivists believe that the people in New York who put the Grapevine together made a mistake, and that the Indiana Home referred to in their notice was the well-known alcoholism treatment center in Indianapolis. Glenn C. (South Bend IN) has checked the old Grapevines and the passage does say Muncie and not Indianapolis. So people can make their own judgment on this, the account in the June 1945 Grapevine runs as follows:  

  Indiana's latest A.A. venture, a clinic for alcoholics, also appears to be headed for success. The newly instituted Indiana Home, in Muncie, with an 18-bed capacity, had 6 patients during its first week of operation. Managed by A.A., the clinic not only gives alcoholics a six-day treatment but, like the Knickerbocker Hospital in New York, serves as a focal point for A.A. members to do 12th-step work, via visits to the patients who are being relieved of the jitters, and interesting them in the philosophy of A.A.  


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