The Fantastic Forgotten Communicator

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Many are familiar with the early beginnings of AA and the start of the little office in New York. Bill W. and Ruth Hock became the heart and soul of the AA Headquarters, which later became the General Service Office (GSO).  During this pioneering time, there was a third significant contributor in that office. Bill W. twelve-stepped her on September 24, 1940.  Soon afterward she joined the small staff on Vesey St.  Her first name was Margaret, but everybody knew her as “Bobbie.” She would later become the National Secretary after Ruth was married and resigned in April of 1942.

There is evidence that Bobbie Burger may have been present at the HQ at the time the Jack Alexander Saturday Evening Post article was published in March 1941.  Bobbie likely was one of the individuals, along with Lois W., that helped Ruth Hock and possibly others to answer the unprecedented number of requests for help that had followed. There is another account of where Bobbie was present around the time the Serenity Prayer was first read at the AA HQ office from a New York Herald Tribune obituary. One source has indicated that Bobbie may have helped circulate that prayer throughout the fellowship.

Upon becoming National Secretary, she immediately began to respond to a wide variety of correspondence written by the fellowship in what Bill W. has referred to as “AA’s adolescent period.” Keep in mind that according to multiple sources, Bill was in the office at most two days of the week when he wasn’t traveling and in some periods he traveled extensively. Bobbie was left in charge of responding to the vast numbers of letters, often without any supervision, though she knew some could only be answered by Bill.

During this period of the first half of the 1940’s, of course, there were no AA Traditions. Quite a few angry and unhappy, and sometimes insulting, letters were written to Bill but replied to by Bobbie. Bill was to write later that it “was chiefly from this correspondence, and from our mounting public relations activity, that the basic ideas for the Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous came.” Bobbie practiced “restraint of tongue and pen” long before that phrase became part of the wisdom of AA. Some of these problems, according to Bill W., were “frightening beyond description.” She may not have liked the anger, frustration, and accusations made by some of the correspondents, but she is not known ever to have responded to them in kind. She always wrote responses as if the yet-to-be-written Traditions were posted right in front of her typewriter. She knew her job was to reply to these requests by conveying the decisions already made by others. She knew she had no business in attempting to set AA policy on anything.  

Did she ever respond! No one knows at the time how many letters she wrote. The number must be in the many thousands over roughly six years. Nobody knows how many letters she might have written in a day or how many days she worked in a row to answer the voluminous number of incoming requests. She once wrote about being two weeks behind in her responses and of the pressures of attempting to live up to the responsibilities placed on her. Despite the pressures and the long hours on the job, Bill W. wrote that Bobbie never ceased to provide written examples filled with “never-failing sympathy, tolerance and understanding.”

She was at the forefront of a wide variety of issues facing the emerging fellowship in a period described by Bill W. as being a time when the continued existence of the Alcoholics Anonymous was in jeopardy. Bobbie squarely addressed the issues of race and gender as a pioneer simply by responding with what she had learned through her correspondence with the fellowship and her acquired wisdom from the co-founders. She made the announcement that due to the requirements of the War Production Board that the size and weight of the Big Book were going to be reduced. She took on the role of sponsoring many men through the exchange of letters without ever having met them – Dave B. was one of them as appears on Page 196 of the American Fourth Edition. She helped keep nearly 300 soldiers serving in the Armed Forces connected to the fellowship and begged to learn the addresses of more of them. She got Big Books to Australia and New Zealand at a time when almost the only material reaching those countries from the United States was military-related. No wonder that when one reads the history of how AA arrived in those two countries, Bobbie became the one that was considered worthy to be honored for her efforts! Who knows how many other AA fellowships in other countries were assisted by her?

Bobbie wrote at the end of 1945 that “doctors took Bill away from active work about a year and a half ago and he seldom comes into the office.” While Bobbie wrote or called Bill on important matters, there was no question that most often she was the one responding to most of the correspondence and functioning, as Nell Wing observed, as a “fantastic communicator.” Bobbie had informed the fellowship in May of 1945 that “Bill hopes to be with Bob [at the 10th-anniversary celebration of AA] if his health permits . . . The doctors have advised Bill not to do any traveling or Group-visiting for some time to come.”  Bobbie’s role was truly that of a trusted servant to represent Bill in such a way. No wonder Nell Wing wrote later that “I can’t tell you the number of people – all over the world who owe their sobriety to that woman.” If we might consider the sponsorship chains of all those people who Bobbie helped, her legacy may include tens of thousands of sober alcoholics that are in her debt today and probably don’t know it. Is it any wonder that the 1944 Christmas Greetings to the fellowship written by Bill was signed as being from the Trustees, Bill, Lois, and Bobbie?

In 1945 the budget for the AA Headquarters was around $9,000 for a six month period and there were only six full-time employees. The budget of the HQ was to quadruple in just four short years as the workload rapidly grew. An assistant by the name of Charlotte L. was hired in 1946 to help with the enormous amount of correspondence.  But by 1949, neither Bobbie nor Charlotte remained there.

How can it be that this devoted, hard-working contributor has been almost completely forgotten? Around May of 1948, her characteristic signature disappeared from secretarial communications. Though a likeness of her signature continued to appear, probably signed by somebody else, until May of 1949, her individual name was replaced sometimes by as many as four signatures or by the words “The Secretarial Staff.”

Both Bobbie and her assistant Charlotte experienced “alcoholic slips” according to Bob P.’s Alcoholics Anonymous World History.  According to Nell Wing and Ann M., their relapses “were partly caused by the enormous workload combined with the confusion of the early office . . . that poor woman (Bobbie) was just overwhelmed. The AA staff worked long hours all week and then sometimes went out to speak or to AA weekends, where they were ‘Mrs. AA’ and people showered them with affection and admiration. That ego inflation was hard to handle when they’d been sober just a few years . . . and they were exhausted too. Bobbie and Charlotte were apparently both on pills for some time before they returned to drinking.”  Her office was declared vacant in the July 25, 1949, Trustees meeting and she was provided with severance pay.

She then dropped out of sight. Very little is known about Bobbie until Bill W. wrote of her February 17, 1953, death from “a heart ailment.” In Bill’s brief memorial written in the March 1953 Grapevine, he wrote, “. . . upon our traditions her devoted labor set a mark which will endure as long as God will have our society last. Her pioneering work has proved an inspiring precedent for every intergroup and Foundation secretary, and her departure creates in the heart of each of her friends a void which can only be filled by the memory of what she left us and the assurance that her destiny is happy and secure.”

Bobbie may have had just an alcoholic slip. Others say “a complete physical and emotional collapse,” or a “nervous breakdown” or worse. Regardless, the many valuable contributions Bobbie made for the good of Alcoholics Anonymous today appear all but forgotten by all but the most familiar with the enigmatic and often ignored AA history of the 1940’s. Note how other slippers, such as Hank P. and Ebby T., have been remembered and honored by the fellowship for their undeniable contributions.  Bobbie’s picture deserves a place of honor across the AA world just as it is displayed today at Stepping Stones.  Let us renew Bill W.’s pledge that her memory “will endure as long as God will have our society last.” Let her full story be assembled as appropriate so that this huge, as of yet, almost entirely untold story can see the light of day and this forgotten fantastic communicator be remembered, as she should be, for her sacrifices so that others could live. I don’t believe any one person or group can accomplish this full task without a group conscience convincing our Trustees that, once and for all, this heartfelt story must be told.

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