Bill Wilson and Ebby Thacher
ALBANY COUNTY — The best known Thacher family legacy sits atop the distinctive Helderberg Escarpment in New Scotland.
Thousands of people visit the John Boyd Thacher Park every year to enjoy the view, hike the trails or just have a picnic. Three Thachers were mayors of Albany: George Thacher, his grandson John Boyd Thacher, the park’s namesake, and his nephew, John Boyd Thacher II.
Then there was Ebby, as he was known, or, more properly, Edwin Throckmorton Thacher. He was John Boyd Thacher II’s brother.
Ebby Thacher was born in 1896, and wasted no time becoming the family’s black sheep. The man just could not stay sober, according to historical accounts, and spent his entire life in an endless cycle of drying out and soaking in a bottle, only to repeat the cycle again and again.
With the help of what was known as the Oxford Group, Thacher did get a stretch of sobriety based that organization’s fundamental formula for living: honesty, purity, unselfishness and love.
Drinking to oblivion has no place in those four behavioral characteristics, so it became a lifestyle that helped Thacher stayed sober, even though the group’s purpose was not designed with alcoholism in mind.
One day, in November 1934, shortly after Thacher found a God could help him stay sober, his longtime drinking buddy Bill Wilson was on an epic bender that would eventually land him back to a hospital or sanatorium and Thacher was, uncharacteristically, on the wagon and in good health and spirits.
At the end of any bender, health and outlook are at their low points.
Wilson, after the initial upset about his drinking partner not joining in his misery, was intrigued as to why Thacher was so happy without a drink in him. And more importantly, how?
Thacher told him about the Oxford Group and the four principles that would become the bedrock of Alcoholics Anonymous.
In the Akron, Ohio hospital, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, himself a chronic alcoholic, began formulating the structure of a peer mentoring group with the sole purpose of helping other alcoholics stay sober.
At that time, according to the AA General Services Office in New York City, there were two members.
In 2017, there were more than two million but, admittedly, it is difficult to keep an accurate count because an expectation of membership is, as the name implies, anonymity.
What is known as the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous was published in 1939 by Wilson and Smith, or as they were known for years simply Bill W. and Dr. Bob.
It expounds on the Oxford Group’s teachings in a number of ways, but one Bill W. credits as the key to long term sobriety — helping other alcoholics get and stay sober.
Prior to his program, Bill W. is described as craving the center of attention.
But as per the tradition of anonymity, he refused an honorary degree from Yale and did not allow his photo to be taken, even from the back, when Time magazine named him one of the “Top 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century.”
The AA program has since been modified and applied to a number of addictions and disorders such as narcotics, gambling and eating, but the fundamental 12 steps remain unchanged, and while there are critics of the program, it has worked for millions of people around the world.
And that is not including the countless millions who have their lives impacted by the active addict.
Indeed, that number encompasses society as a whole.
When Ebby Thacher died in 1966, and buried at the family plot in the Menands Rural Cemetery, he was, it is believed, sober.
But, while Bill W. and Dr. Bob did not touch another drop from 1934 to their deaths in 1971 and 1950, respectively, Thacher kept spinning in the revolving door of sobriety and active alcoholism.
To this day, while AA and its founders are widely known, only those interested in AA history know about Ebby Thacher’s critical role in its formation. Wilson, until his own death, referred to Thacher as his “sponsor,” according to a number of accounts.
His inability to live a truly sober life, to this day, serves as a reminder of how chronic alcoholism is, and how a deadened compulsion can rekindle with unbridled fury after just one sip.