It was 1967 and I was attending my first Southwest Wisconsin AA Conference. I saw him in the crowd and thought, What a weird-looking character. He had large soulful eyes and a haircut so short it made his head look shaved. If he’d been wearing a brown robe, he could have passed for a monk. He looked unusual but nodded and grinned as he passed me. I remember thinking, in my normal critical mode, “Well, it takes all kinds”
The main speaker at the conference was a bright, charming fellow who had a marvelous sense of humor and the gift of gab. He was a local attorney who told us he had just completed a year of sobriety after many years of AA exposure. He was one of those dynamic speakers who holds the audience in the palm of his hand. Even in my critical mode, I could find little or nothing to criticize about this individual. After his speech, I stood in a long line of recovering alcoholics to shake his hand and chat with him. I remember doing something usually foreign to me, complimenting him and expressing my gratitude for his message.
As we talked, the attorney looked out at the several hundred alcoholics in the auditorium and gesturing to them, he said, “There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m the most intelligent person in this building. I can recite the Big Book backwards and forwards. My problem is practicing what I’ve been able to memorize!” He said that after twenty years of exposure to the Twelve Steps, he had for the first time managed to stay sober for one year. He put his hand on my shoulder and suggested that if I was looking for a role model he was a poor one, although entertaining. It was then that he pointed to the guy with the goofy haircut and the soulful eyes and said, “There’s a much better role model for you to follow. He and I started in AA at the same time. The major difference is that he’s been sober for twenty years and I’ve only been sober for one.” He told me that the man was a sewer department foreman from Wausau. He was absolutely sure that he was more intelligent than this man. And he was equally sure that this man was far wiser than he could ever hope to be.
They had become friends over the past twenty years and no matter how many times the intelligent one tried to criticize or lecture the wise one, he tended to complicate things while the other kept things simple. My hero-worshipping was diminishing with this astonishing honesty–from an attorney yet! He took me over to the monkish fellow and introduced us. His name was Gib and he smiled and said, “It’s nice to see young people getting sober.” (I was 29.) He certainly wasn’t very impressive to me at first, yet over the next twenty-five years I grew to respect, love, and cherish his friendship and guidance.
Gib was the ultimate mentor who taught by example and lived the principles simply, as they surely were intended. He stuck to the first person in conversations, and in response to my ongoing cynicism and criticism of others, he would simply spread his arms, raise his eyes upward, and say, “What I do, Tom, is ask myself, am I doing the best I can? Am I living the program to the best of my ability? I leave the rest to my Higher Power.” It was the nicest way I’ve ever been told to mind my own business–to take my own inventory, change the things I could, and accept what I couldn’t change.
Sometimes as I drove to work, I saw Gib with a crew in the middle of the street. I’d honk to get his attention, spread my arms, raise my eyes skyward, and watch him grin and reply in kind. Many times it set the tone for the day: Keep it simple, keep the focus on myself.
Gib often told the story of early Wausau AA and how discouraging it was to rent a hotel room for a meeting, buy doughnuts, and have no one show up. On one such night he came home, slammed the bag of doughnuts on the kitchen counter, and when his wife asked how the meeting was, he said no one came. He asked her what good was renting the room and buying the doughnuts when it didn’t help anybody. She looked him straight in the eye and said, “What do you mean, it’s not helping anybody? It’s keeping you sober, isn’t it?” Gib never complained about attendance again.
My friend Gib died this year and I’m still grieving and feeling his loss. But I also feel very fortunate to have known him and been enriched by his friendship and wisdom. More than anyone else, Gib gave me the answer to the half-empty, half-full problem all alcoholics struggle with. So I miss you, old friend, but your memory continues to enrich my life and the lives of many others who practice the principles you lived by.