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The Pioneers of Family Recovery

Alcoholism: Beverly O'Neill is mayor of Long Beach, but some know her better as the daughter of Flossie Lewis, who started the group that became Al-Anon.

September 02, 1997|DOUGLAS P. SHUIT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Her father was the town drunk. At least that is how her mother often described him. And he carried his alcoholism from South Dakota to Long Beach, where he moved in the 1920s, drinking 39-cent muscatel until he saw bugs crawling out of the woodwork.

When his only child was a teenager, she said she would rather run away from home than risk the shame of him showing up drunk at her wedding.

But by the time Beverly Lewis was ready to get married and become Beverly O'Neill less than five years later, her father, Clarence, had gotten sober and was able to walk his daughter down the aisle.

Clarence Lewis owed that proud day in no small part to his wife, Flossie, who started what is believed to be the first formal group for families of alcoholics--the forerunner of Al-Anon--and was fast becoming a legend in Long Beach for her work with alcoholics.

And Beverly O'Neill, who had grown up shuttered behind the shame of her father's drinking, had a multitude of new friends, many of them from Alcoholics Anonymous.

She would later become mayor of Long Beach.

"My mom and I had been such recluses all our lives--not talking to anybody about [her father's drinking], not inviting anyone to the house," O'Neill said. "There were just the two of us.

"Then, when I got married, one estimate was that there were 800 people there. We didn't know that many people our whole lives. But all the AAs came, and they all cried."

Flossie Lewis and Beverly O'Neill, as they blazed important trails in Long Beach, came to view their bout with alcoholism as a blessing.

"Who would have thought that out of the heck of a life we had that something good could come of it?" Flossie Lewis once told a group of friends.

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Lewis was a country girl from South Dakota with red hair, freckles and an infectious sense of humor. She never outgrew her folksy ways, even into her 80s. She once described how she would listen to songs with lyrics like, "I'll be glad when you're dead, you rascal you," and think dark thoughts about her husband. But then she would quickly add: "I'm so glad my prayers weren't answered. I'm so thankful that I married an alcoholic because I found myself."

O'Neill said, "I'm glad I went through it, that I know what I know."

But she adds: "I wouldn't want to do it again."

The emergence of the two women as important figures in Long Beach parallels the explosive growth of self-help programs in the 1950s and '60s built around the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and the belief that alcoholics and their families could help themselves recover by sharing their experiences, strength and hope.

Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935, but Flossie Lewis found little support for family members of alcoholics when she needed it in the 1940s. So she took things into her own hands, helping organize other wives of alcoholics. It was to prove historic.

"The first family group is thought to have formed in Long Beach," says the Al-Anon history, "First Steps," referring to the pioneering group Flossie Lewis organized. Others were getting underway in several other cities.

Today Al-Anon has 31,527 groups registered in the United States and Canada with more than 600,000 members.

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Lewis, a teetotaler all her life, was also called the "mother of AA" in Long Beach because she started the city's first 24-hour hotline for alcoholics in 1948 and ran it for five years out of her living room with the help of her husband, who had his last drink in 1947.

These were the days before the widespread availability of recovery houses, so she set up cots in her garage for drunks to sleep off benders. She also filled garages with free clothes for down and out alcoholics.

In the early years, Beverly was often at her side. Later, her constant companion was Beverly's daughter, Teresa O'Neill.

When she rode with her grandmother, Teresa would sit on piles of giveaway clothes stacked so high she couldn't see the seat or floorboard below her.

"I remember once driving past this man who needed pants," said Teresa, now a 39-year-old Los Angeles television scriptwriter. "She stopped the car and got out. Here was my grandmother out on the street measuring some strange man's inseam. Every day was a miracle. That is what she would always say."

When she accompanied her grandmother to AA meetings, Teresa O'Neill said, "I have never seen so many people drink so much coffee, smoke so many cigarettes and eat so many doughnuts."

Then, in a description that would seem to fit her own family, she added: "These were people grateful to be alive. They hit bottom and came back."

Elsa M., a plucky 76-year-old Cerritos woman who has been active in Al-Anon for nearly 50 years said: "Flossie loved alcoholics. I mean she loved alcoholics. She would do anything for them. She believed in them. She knew they were sick and could get better."

The alcoholics never forgot.

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When Flossie Lewis died in 1989 at the age of 87, hundreds showed up to mourn her.

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