RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's time again for a trip series to the cemetery.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: It's our summer road trip to unusual cemeteries and grave sites around the country. Today we're visiting a place important to millions. Alcoholics Anonymous has long been known for the anonymity of its members. But there are two key figures in AA's history whose names are known, the co-founders Bill Wilson, known as Bill W., and Dr. Bob Smith. Beginning in the 1930s, the two began helping alcoholics overcome their addiction as a way of maintaining their own n sobriety. Bill Wilson's simple grave in Vermont makes no mention of his work.
That doesn't stop people from visiting it, as Vermont Public Radio's Steve Zind discovered recently on the annual Bill W. Day.
STEVE ZIND, BYLINE: All year long, people seek out Wilson's grave in a small cemetery near his birthplace in East Dorset, Vermont. Dick, nearly everyone in AA is known only by a first name, helps tend the grave, collecting the notes left there.
DICK: Dear Bill, 27 years ago, I gave life to my son, MJS. Just over a year ago, the program you founded brought him back to life. Signed, a grateful mom.
ZIND: Besides notes, Dick says people leave their sobriety chips at Wilson's grave. The medallions show how long someone has been continuously sober. There will be a lot of new chips left on the headstone on this annual Bill W. Day, which Dick helps organize.
It's the first Sunday in June, when hundreds descend on the small village to visit Wilson's grave.
DENNIS: Ma'am, you can park down here at the fire department on the right, or up here at the white sign at the town hall.
ZIND: Dennis has driven over from Maine to help direct traffic.
DENNIS: Thank you. Great day to be alive.
ZIND: The license plate on Dennis' pickup truck reads IHadNuff. He's been coming to Bill W. Day for more than 15 years.
DENNIS: I have great respect for Bill and everything he's done for our lives. It's not just not drinking; it's about living a different life, becoming a different human being.
ZIND: The cemetery where Wilson's grave is occupies a grassy hillside just outside of the village.
More than 200 people gather around Wilson's small marble headstone, which simply bears his name and the years 1895 and 1971.
LIZ: Hi, everyone. My name is Liz and I am an alcoholic.
CROWD: Hi, Liz.
ZIND: The ceremony includes a recital of AA's 12 steps and the Serenity Prayer, which has been fixture at meetings since the 1940s.
CROWD: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.
ZIND: And although this isn't an actual AA meeting there's time for a few personal testimonials.
BRIAN: The State of Vermont gave me a driver's license on May 15, 1966. I got picked up for my first DWI on May 15, 1966.
ZIND: This man, Brian, was 16 when he met Bill Wilson after a court ordered him to attend AA. Brian never saw Wilson after he got sober. His visit to the grave is his way of saying thanks.
After the ceremony, back in the village, a 63-year-old woman named Cindy says she's been going to AA meetings for eight years, but sobriety has been elusive.
CINDY: This time around, I've got a month. I'm going to get it right, this time, right?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.
ZIND: Cindy hopes being here will help her stay sober.
For those in AA, that's the power of visiting a simple grave marker in East Dorset, Vermont on the first Sunday in June.
For NPR News, I'm Steve Zind.
MONTAGNE: And this past weekend, AA members also gathered in Akron, Ohio, at the grave of the other founder of AA, Dr. Robert Smith, on the 77tha anniversary of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous.