"I believe that people are good if you give them half a chance and that good is more powerful than evil.
The world seems to me excruciatingly, almost painfully beautiful at times, and the goodness and kindness of people often exceed that which even I expect."
- Lois Burnham Wilson
Lois Wilson, co-founder of The Al-Anon Family Groups and wife of Bill Wilson, was born Lois Burnham on March 4, 1891 at 182 Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights, New York. Her father, Clark Burnham, was a gynecologist and surgeon and her mother, Matilda Spelman, was a young woman of refinement.
Lois was the eldest of six children also including Barbara, Katherine, and two boys, Rogers and Lyman. The youngest child, a girl named Matilda, died at one year old. In her memoir, Lois Remembers, published by Al-Anon, Lois recalls her childhood as "idyllic", and it seems that this is an accurate assessment.
The children were respected and deeply loved by their parents and were brought up to be loving and thoughtful. They were given excellent educations and sent to college, with Lois graduating from The Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn. All of the children went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn which was one of the first U.S. schools to have a new type of preschool started in Germany called "Kindergarten". Later, they were enrolled in the Quakers' Friends School.
Lois' primary interests were mostly artistic - from fine art to interior design. She took drawing classes at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art.
The Burnhams taught their children to be thoughtful and caring toward others and to be of use in the world. The impressions of her home life are ones of excitement and lots of fun. Lois was particularly adventuresome, and did not always care a great deal about getting dressed up. She even referred to herself as a bit of a tomboy.
This aspect of her personality was given its fullest expression during the Burnhams' long sojourns in southern Vermont where her father could care for his New York patients summering in the state. Her parents were part of the upper-class social life there and were friends with many well-known people of the day including Abraham Lincoln's son, whose children were among the younger Burnhams' playmates.
One of the children the Burnhams (especially Rogers) played with was a boy who came each summer with his prominent family from Albany, New York. His name was Edwin or "Ebby", and he would also become a close friend of Lois' future husband, Bill Wilson, and be instrumental in Bill's getting sober.
LOIS MEETS BILL
Rogers also found a pal in Bill Wilson, and in 1913 introduced him to his sister. Lois was more than four years older than Bill and did not regard him as anything other than her brother's friend. But as the summers went on, she and Bill eventually found many common interests and gradually fell in love. The couple became secretly engaged in 1915 and married on January 24, 1918, before young officer Wilson shipped off to Europe in the First World War.
When Lois married Bill, she wed an upstanding young man of good character filled with exciting ideas about his future. She knew he experienced some depression, however Lois could not foresee that he would become a drinker. She knew that he had taken his first drink early on in his military career, but it was a great shock to Lois some months later when, visiting her husband in his New Bedford, Massachusetts station, his soldier friends told her about Bill getting so drunk one night that they had to carry him back to the barracks.
When Bill left for England, Lois participated in an accelerated program to become an occupational therapist as they were in high demand during the war. She found work in this field both at Walter Reed Hospital in DC and in Brooklyn. occupational therapist. (For more detail on Lois work during the World War I, click here. )As an educated woman, Lois believed in being independent and making her own living. She worked at the YWCA and was promoted several times within the organization leaving in 1917 to assist at a school her aunt had established in Short Hills, New Jersey. She left that position to marry Bill.
AFTER THE WAR
When Bill returned from the war, Lois hoped to start the family she always wanted. However, a series of ectopic pregnancies made childbearing impossible. This was devastating to Lois and she knew that Bill also desperately wanted children. She and Bill tried to adopt, but they were unsuccessful. She later found out why - agencies performing routine background checks would eventually be told about Bill's drinking, which had been increasing heavily since they married.
Bill's drinking alarmed Lois very much. At first, she tried not to be concerned, but his drinking progressed during the early years of their marriage to the point where he would see all his ambitions dashed and his wonderful opportunities for employment and advancement shattered. He became a broken man who eventually had to seek refuge with his wife in the house of his in-laws.
EARLY EFFORTS AT SOBRIETY
Lois employed many tactics over the years to help Bill get sober. She really believed she could help him stop drinking, but years later she realized how futile this was. Bill did stop in 1934, but it was not due to the efforts of his wife. (See Bill's Story).
In 1939, Bill and Lois were forced to leave the Burnhams' house. Her father had left the house to them several years earlier, but they couldn't make the payments and the house was eventually foreclosed upon. For a while they rented the house from the bank, as the Depression was on and no one was buying. When the house was sold in 1939, the Wilsons could not afford to go anywhere except to the homes of various friends, which they did for the following two years. Over the years Lois had been the breadwinner, bringing in a modest income from her work in department stores as a decorator and also from her consultations with private clients. While working at Macy's she wrote an article on veneered furniture that was published by the popular House and Garden magazine. Living like nomads was difficult for Lois. She did her best and maintained her dignity throughout the ordeal but sometimes despaired that they might be homeless for a very long time.
But in 1941 an extraordinary thing happened. A generous offer was made by an acquaintance for the Wilsons to purchase a home in Westchester County, New York. Due to this magnanimous gesture, the Wilsons moved into their first and real home--Stepping Stones in Bedford Hills, New York. It took 23 years, but they finally had a home of their own.
AL-ANON FAMILY GROUPS (AFG) TAKES SHAPE
In 1951, Lois followed the suggestion made by her husband who had crafted the 12 steps of recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous to create a similar 12-step program for the family and friends of alcoholics. There had been several family groups or meetings around the country that Bill had become aware of and Anne Smith, wife of A.A. cofounder Dr. Bob, had been involved in working with wives and families from the very beginning, but a formal structure, literature or informational clearninghouse did not exist.
Bill thought the groups could be consolidated and that Lois should be the one to take it on. (Anne Smith had died in 1949.) Lois was reluctant, not because she did not recognize the need, but because she was 60 and wanted to enjoy life at Stepping Stones tending her garden and involving herself in artistic projects. But Lois' strong sense of service prevailed, and at the end of the 1951 A.A. General Service Conference, she gathered the delegates' wives and local family groups' members at Stepping Stones to discuss going forward with a formal organization.
Working from Lois' upstairs desk at Stepping Stones, Lois and Anne B., a nearby friend whose husband was in A.A., wrote to 87 non-alcoholics who had written to A.A. asking for information about alcoholism. The letters had come from the U.S., Canada, Ireland, Australia and South Africa. Forty-eight people wrote back and eventually the organization known as the Al-Anon Family Groups was formed. It now has over 29,000 groups worldwide and a membership of over 387,000.
LATER LIFE AND THE FOUNDING OF STEPPING STONES FOUNDATION
Lois founded the Stepping Stones Foundation in 1979 and served as its first President. Other Trustees included Nell Wing. This non-profit, tax-exempt organization continues today to carry out the mission she set forth and welcomes visitors for tours of Stepping Stones and to learn about the legacy of Bill and Lois in the field of recovery from alcoholism.
Lois died on October 5, 1988 at 97 years old. She was present and energetic throughout her latter years and enjoyed good health for most of them. She traveled extensively and spoke at conferences, round-ups and groups around the world. She wanted to live to be 100 and almost did.
Lois Wilson was one of the 20th century's most important women. Her life has been somewhat overshadowed by that of her husband, but, in recent years, she has emerged more visible than before for her unique contribution to humanity. Her tireless efforts and vision made Al-Anon the strong organization it is today and are the reason why it continues to attract members through its message of hope and renewal. Please visit the Al-Anon Family Groups website at www.al-anon.alateen.org.
For more information on Lois Wilson, please visit the Stepping Stones gift shop where we offer her memoir, Lois Remembers, and other educational books.
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