Willard Richardson and the Rockefeller People

By Bob K.

As Bill Wilson progressed through his third year of sobriety, his personal finances remained a struggle. He was forced by the compelling arguments of the “group conscience” to decline a very appealing offer from Charles Towns to practice as a “lay therapist” at the upscale, but declining facility. But if he couldn’t work for Towns, perhaps he could BE the next Towns.

“Bill knew all about the lucrative enterprise Towns had been in the boom days of the twenties, when wealthy actors such as John Barrymore and equally famous playboys had been willing to pour thousands of dollars a week into Charlie’s till for a little discreet drying out.”  (Bill W., Robert Thomsen, p. 232) It was Towns’ prescient hunch “that this AA business of yours is someday going to fill Madison Square Gardens”. (Not-God, Ernest Kurtz, p. 64)

Spurred on by Hank Parkhurst, “the greatest high-pressure salesman Bill had ever known… the two of them immediately set to work approaching every rich man and every charitable foundation in Manhattan… and although many professed their sympathy, they saw no real reason to help drunks, who after all had brought their problems upon themselves… After six weeks of such talk, not one cent was raised”. (Thomsen, p. 245)

“Angry and depressed, Wilson vented his spleen to his brother-in-law, Dr. Leonard V. Strong, in a ‘diatribe about the stinginess and short-sightedness of the rich.’ Bill had chosen his listener well and perhaps craftily.” (Not-God, p. 65) Leonard was acquainted with Rev. Willard Richardson, a man connected with the philanthropies of the Rockefellers.

The Baptist Pastor

Willard S. Richardson (1866—1952), was an alumni of the International YMCA Training School, now called Springfield College, graduating in 1891.

Richardson was born in Painesville, Ohio and attended Denison University for two years. He also studied at the University of Rochester, worked at Springfield College, worked at Columbia University, and received his B.D. from the Union Theological Seminary in 1897. From 1894-1909, he worked as the assistant pastor at a Baptist church in New York City. He later joined the advisory staff to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and was secretary for the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial in New York City. Richardson served on the Board of Trustees at Springfield College and the American Institute of Christian Philosophy.

In 1938, Springfield College presented him the Tarbell Medallion, an award for alumni who have demonstrated varied outstanding service to their alma mater. (Springfield College Digital Collections)

Pink Cloud # 17

Strong called Richardson, and was well-remembered and graciously received. The clergyman, at the time in his early seventies, agreed to meet with Bill the very next day. Strong, in true “old school” gentlemanly fashion, provided a letter of introduction. The date of the letter, Oct. 26, 1937, shows that Wilson and Parkhurst were seeking funding for projects at least two months before the Akron “group conscience” vote giving approval to their grand schemes.

Richardson was favorably impressed with Bill’s ideas, and after consulting other colleagues, set up a luncheon meeting with himself, Leonard and Bill. Out of this meeting came Richardson’s offer of a meeting in John D. Rockefeller’s private boardroom.

“Getting so close to Rockefeller money was a staggering notion, and as Bill remembered it, ‘We were riding high on pink cloud number 17.’” (Pass It On, p. 184) Dr. Bob and Paul S. came to New York for the meeting. A group of reliable New York alcoholics was gathered.

“The meeting… got off to an awkward start until somebody suggested that each alcoholic in the room tell his own story. After… Albert Scott declared, ‘Why this is first-century Christianity!’ Then he asked ‘What can we do to help?’”(Pass It On, p. 184)

Scott was “head of an engineering firm and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Riverside Church in New York.” (AA Comes of Age, p. 15) Following Bill’s presentation re: hospital chains, paid missionaries, and literature, “Mr. Scott… asked an important question: ‘Won’t money spoil this thing?’ …The meeting ended, however, on what Bill considered to be a favorable note: Frank Amos offered to make an investigation of the tiny Fellowship.” (Pass It On, p. 185)

The Amos Report

The advertising man, and close friend of John D. Jr., was impressed with Dr. Bob and the work going on in Akron. He wrote a report on his trip for Mr. Rockefeller.

“Bill’s version of Amos’s recommendations varies strikingly from what the report actually said. As Bill told the story… Amos said that an initial sum of fifty thousand dollars was needed. The money was to be used in building either a hospital for alcoholics or a ‘recuperating home… Amos’s report, which was submitted… (and) endorsed by Richardson, Scott, and (A Leroy) Chipman, suggested that Rockefeller provide a total of $10,000., $5,000 a year for two years, and it makes no mention of hospitals or recuperating homes.” (Bill W., Francis Hartigan, p. 106)

In the end, the “world’s richest man” cut this in half. The reformed drunks were crushingly disappointed with the $5,000. “In AA’s case he felt so strongly that the fellowship must become self-supporting that, in agreeing to provide half of the ten thousand dollars Amos was requesting, he told his associates not to ask him again for money on its behalf.” (Hartigan p. 107)

The Rockefellers were strict Baptists, allowing neither drinking nor smoking in their home, and this faith had a direct bearing on the interest in AA. John D. elected to assist the nascent organization, but on his own terms.

Dreams Never Die, Just the Dreamer

The most ambitious of the dreams for hospitals, and paid missionaries had vaporized, and with them Bill Wilson’s dream of becoming “Recovery CEO”. In the end, John D. Rockefeller may have saved AA from the ambitions of its own members.

“Uncle Dick Richardson was definitely disappointed, and so were friends Amos, Chipman, and Strong. Seeing that they were not in complete agreement with Mr. Rockefeller, we renewed our pleas for aid. Maybe they knew other men of wealth who might be solicited with more success. To our delight all four thought this possible, and we held frequent meetings to talk about it.” (AACOA, p. 151)

These discussions led to the formation of the Alcoholic Foundation.

The Alcoholic Foundation

“On August 11, 1938, with the help of John Wood, a young lawyer, they established a tax-exempt, charitable entity called the Alcoholic Foundation. The foundation had little money, but it gave the movement a legally formed, New York-based center.” (Getting Better, Nan Robertson, p. 68) The five members of the board of trustees were Dr. Bob, Bill R. of New York, and the nonalcoholic majority of Willard Richardson, Frank Amos, and John Wood.

“The trust agreement stipulated that an alcoholic trustee would have to resign immediately if he got drunk. (This actually happened in the case of the New York member, and he was replaced forthwith.)” (Pass It On, p. 188)

The Name “Alcoholics Anonymous”

There has been much debate, and some misinformation, regarding the first use of the name “Alcoholics Anonymous”. The book thumpers like to say that the fellowship is named after the book, and came after the book.

“There is some dispute about who first thought up this title; most thought it was Joe W., a New Yorker writer who remained sober only ‘on and off.’ …The first documented use of the name in the AA archives is in a letter from Bill to Willard Richardson dated July 15, 1938…. (in) an invitation to… (members of) the Rockefeller Foundation to come to any of the Clinton Street meetings, Bill wrote, ‘we shall gladly waive the heavy drinking that has qualified us for Alcoholics Anonymous.’ …There, the name is used in such a way that Richardson was already familiar with it.” (Pass It On, p. 202)

At this point in time, only two book chapters had been written, and the members’ decision regarding the name of the book was some six months away. “‘One Hundred Men’ was still the working title in a letter from Frank Amos to the Rockefeller associates dated January 6, 1939. But ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ headlined the letter, indicating that this had by now become an informal way, at least in New York, of identifying the movement.” (Pass It On, p. 202)

The claim that the fellowship is named after the book has serious problems.

Steeee-Rike Two

“In 1940, John D. Rockefeller Jr. gave a dinner for AA. Although Rockefeller had stayed in the background, he had continued to follow AA’s progress with real interest. Willard Richardson, by now ‘Uncle Dick’ to Bill, announced the proposed dinner at a trustee meeting. Bill was elated; he again started to think in millions…

Rockefeller Invite“The dinner was held on February 8, at Manhattan’s exclusive Union Club. Of the 400 prominent and influential people invited, 75 accepted.” (Pass It On, p. 232) All went well until a young Nelson Rockefeller, standing in for his unwell father, declared to the assembled captains of industry that “it is our belief that Alcoholics Anonymous should be self-supporting so far as money is concerned. It needs only our goodwill.” (Pass It On, p. 233)

“It is as marvelous as Bill told it… It has come down as a key scene in AA’s oral history. But that is not quite what happened. The minutes of the after-dinner remarks show that Nelson Rockefeller did not speak at all…. The two accounts… illustrate perfectly Bill’s life-long penchant for embroidering the facts while accurately summarizing the gist of an event.” (Robertson, pp. 77-78)

Again, dreams of millions were quashed, and possibly also the disastrous problems that a great influx of capital may have generated. AA did get a few thousand, a mailing list, and a tremendous headline – “Rockefeller Dines Former Tosspots”.  The Rockefellers would again assist Richardson and the Alcoholic Foundation with a loan to redeem the outstanding Works Publishing shares. It would be the mid-40s before AA became self-supporting.


Willard Richardson had provided the access to the Rockefeller millions that may have led to the very downfall of Alcoholics Anonymous. Wiser heads prevailed, and the great Rockefeller gift to AA was credibility. Additionally, the Rockefeller people established, and served on the Alcoholic Foundation. Legal services were provided by a Rockefeller man.

In 1951, AA lost William Silkworth, “the little doctor who loved drunks”, and in 1952, they lost another treasured friend, longtime trustee and staunch supporter, “Uncle Dick” Richardson. “These two died happily confident that AA was at last secure and on its way.” (AACOA, p. 219)

Indeed it was.

Key-Players-Front-Cover1-e1422583040318About the Author, Bob K

Bob K. lives in the Metropolitan Toronto area, and has been a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 24 years, and an out-of-the-closet atheist for that entire time. He has been a regular contributor to the AAAgnostica website for almost 5 years, and in January, 2015, published “Key Players in AA History” In 2013, he cofounded the Whitby Freethinkers meeting.

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Walt Williams
Walt Williams
1 year ago

 Does anyone know who or what the author Bob. K.’s higher power is? Just curious because it has always perplexed me when another real alcoholic who is an agnostic gets sober. question from a administrator of a AA website

Bob K
Bob K
1 year ago
Reply to  Walt Williams

Step 2: Alcoholics Anonymous has helped millions of people. Maybe it can help me.
Step 3: Decided to give AA and the 12-Steps a sincere effort, albeit making modifications where necessary.
“Higher Power” = none; “higher power” sort of.

Kent V
Kent V
5 years ago

A great article. Thanks Bob.

Bob K.
Bob K.
5 years ago

I apologize for an error noticed only today. I incorrectly refer to John D. Jr. as Nelson Rockefeller’s uncle. He was in fact Nelson’s father. Nelson was a rare drinker among a family of abstainers.

John S
5 years ago
Reply to  Bob K.

It’s now been corrected.

5 years ago

Bob, thanks for this.

I continue to be amazed at all the instances where Bill wilson would embellish the facts or simply make stuff up, most grave example i have come upon so far with Jim burwell finding gideon’s bible

Makes one wonder about the white light experience. i could just see Bill’s wheels spinning. Hmm, now that wall street is shot, how can i make the most of this? Hmm, a religious movement might be a good racket…..

Bob K.
Bob K.
5 years ago
Reply to  life-j

As I’ve become more and more familiar with the events lying beneath the stories, more do I become convinced that AA history is the friend of the secularist. Many, many of the treasured claims of the fundamentalists and the starry-eyed, are not confirmed by an investigation of the accounts of the events. There are several possibilities as to exactly what did or didn’t happen to Bill Wilson in his hospital room. Did the Creator of all things really come a’callin’? The many possibilities include a drug-induced hallucination, or, as Joe C. and life-j suggest, maybe he just made the whole thing up.… Read more »

Jon S
5 years ago

“The claim that the fellowship is named after the book has serious problems.” Thank you for that. I must have shared 1,000 times that the fellowship is named after the book, as an argument for the primacy of the program. It’s amazing how folk lore can out do facts.