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Dr. Bob’s Home, Part III: Creating a Fellowship of Historians

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Last fall I described the process through which a team of graduate students from the University of Michigan researched and wrote the nomination for Dr. Bob’s Home, the residence of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Dr. Bob Smith and his wife Anne, to be a National Historic Landmark (NHL).  This week we completed the next step in the process, the formal presentation of the nomination to the Landmarks Committee of the National Park Service.   Like our trip from Ann Arbor to Akron to see Dr. Bob’s Home for ourselves, which I recounted in previous posts, this step required a literal journey, as we drove from Michigan to Washington, D.C. for the presentation.  It has been a journey in other ways as well, as we have learned even more about collaboration, about fellowship, and about the many ways that history matters.

After months of research and writing a lengthy and detailed document, the students were charged with compressing their argument about the significance of Dr. Bob’s Home into a ten-minute presentation, following the protocol of the Landmarks Committee meeting.  Dr. Bob’s Home was one of approximately a dozen properties presented there over two days.  The meeting itself was a fascinating mix of procedural formality and impassioned statements about the power of historic places.  We were joined in Washington by a representative of the Founders’ Foundation, the non-profit organization that has restored and now maintains Dr. Bob’s Home as a museum—the same person who had served as our host when we visited Akron and who has partnered with us through this process.  Sharing this experience with him and his family deepened our appreciation of the importance of fellowship and the power of history.

The students and I have observed many times that this project has been the most collaborative endeavor of our professional lives.  This trip, including hours spent together in a minivan and a cozier-than-expected lodging arrangement when a reservation fell through, has moved us beyond collegial relationships into something else, a form of true fellowship.  We have been able to see this transformation more clearly, I think, because of the time spent with the Founders’ Foundation representative and the connection we feel with him.  The night before our presentation, we enjoyed dinner with him and his family.  Comparing notes about previous trips to Washington, sharing stories about our families and hometowns, laughing heartily together, we felt a sense of kinship and common purpose, even though we had come to this project for different reasons and from very different perspectives.

The next morning we arrived at the Landmarks Committee meeting.  Our format followed the same model as did many other properties: the “preparer” who had written the nomination spoke first, summarizing the reasons for the property’s significance, and then someone more personally connected with the site also spoke about its importance.  In our case, one student represented the group and gave the presentation.  While it was enlivened by the dramatic story of the meeting between Dr. Bob and Bill W. and their subsequent efforts, aided by Anne Smith, to convert their own experience into a program that could help others, this presentation, by necessity, followed a specific template and had to convey the argument as concisely as possible.  Then, the representative from the Founders’ Foundation spoke.  Although we had enjoyed the intellectual challenge of preparing the nomination, his remarks reminded us that this was not just an academic exercise, given that Dr. Bob’s Home is meaningful to millions of people around the world today.  Following his eloquent and moving comments, which brought me close to tears, the committee had the opportunity to ask questions.  Given our usual milieu, the students and I were braced for an academic-style interrogation that might verge on the confrontational.  Instead, the committee seemed curious primarily about the role of the Smith children in the early years of the fellowship.   Once those questions were answered, the committee chair called for a motion.  The formal procedures at this point lent considerable solemnity to the event, creating, I realize now, a structure and style that could contain both the academic tone and the emotional intensity of the presentations.  As the motion was made, then seconded, and the chair called for the vote, I felt myself on the edge of my seat.  To our delight, the motion passed unanimously.  Some of us exchanged tearful embraces, feeling a mix of relief, happiness, and accomplishment.  To me at least, the tears felt like a fitting counterpoint to our laughter over dinner the night before.

Just as Dr. Bob and Bill Wilson established AA in partnership, so too have their homes been linked in this commemorative process.  Stepping Stones, where Bill and Lois Wilson lived in upstate New York, was recommended for designation by the Landmarks Committee as a National Historic Landmark this past fall.   Fittingly, the two properties now will go forward together to the next level of review, that of the Advisory Board of the National Park Service, and ultimately to the Secretary of the Interior for his consideration.  Other sites associated with AA history have not been so fortunate.  We recently learned that the King School building in Akron, where early AA meetings were held, has now been demolished.  There are plans for bricks from the school to be incorporated into the landscaping at Dr. Bob’s Home, and the meetings, of course, go on, just in different locations.  The buildings are not required for the AA message to endure.

Still, tangible places such as Stepping Stones and Dr. Bob’s Home are important.  They commemorate and perpetuate the AA story, as they embody the history of the fellowship and demonstrate its continuing importance in the present day.  Working through the nomination process with the Founders’ Foundation and participating in the Landmarks Committee meeting has taught us that there are many different ways to experience and to convey the significance of historic places.  Since various approaches can sometimes speak past each other or misunderstand one another, we need to develop vocabularies and methods that can incorporate a variety of perspectives.  Whether we acknowledge it or not, our understanding of the past and its relationship with the present is always informed by both our intellect and our emotions.  Dr. Bob’s Home has shown me that past and present, head and heart, can sometimes exist in graceful equilibrium.

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