This Thanksgiving I will be giving thanks both for the blessings I have, but also for someone I am missing: my friend Bill.
Occasionally, if I meet someone I know is part of Alcoholics Anonymous, I’ll introduce myself with the well-known AA greeting - “I’m a friend of Bill.” Then l’ll add, “Not Bill W (the founder of AA) – but of Bill Dooner, and Bill is a friend of Bill.”
Bill Dooner died a few days ago, from a fast-growing and aggressive cancer.
He and I were friends for nearly 50 years. We met with our families at a guest ranch in Colorado. A bond immediately formed which has lasted these years.mmmm
We were born eight days apart but our beginnings were so different. Bill grew up in New York on the edge of Harlem. I grew up in a small Canadian city. His family was Irish Catholic. Mine were Protestant. His family seldom had enough. Ours had enough to be comfortable. We both grew up in troubled households.
When I was 14 I was said to be the youngest Youth for Christ director. When Bill was 14 he was the youngest member of AA. He started drinking when he was 5. Patrons in New York saloons would toss him a nickel so they could laugh and watch little Billy drink. By the time he turned 17 he he’d been in and out of Bellevue hospital a dozen times with grand mal seizures.
Bill’s life turned around in Chicago. Homeless, jobless, ready to jump out of a window, blood pouring from his ear after a fight, on the street he met a priest who pointed him to God and to hope. That night Bill had a vision of Jesus. He joined AA and that saved his life.
To me, Bill Dooner is a symbol of redemption. From that Chicago night he loved alcoholics and was devoted to newcomers. He became a successful entrepreneur in outdoor advertising, and both made a lot of money and lost some. He was passionate about justice and equality and was a young civil rights activist. He helped to start 14 minority businesses. In Oregon, he bought a rehab center that was falling apart, and invested money and time until it turned around. In his memory another treatment center will start in Memphis.
Our families became close. His lovely daughter Julie was our son Sandy’s first little girl friend. When Bill’s family moved to Ireland for two years they invited Sandy to spend an unforgettable summer with them.From the time Sandy died during heart surgery just after Thanksgiving 36 years ago, Julie always calls, and the family reaches out to us with love. This year it’s our turn. So I write this piece in honor of Bill, and I will speak words of honor and thanks at his service in Memphis.
BIll never forgot the priest who helped to turn his life around. When Father McDermott was in his 90s Bill took him to the Vatican for a private audience with the pope. It was exactly fifteen years to the day from that audience when Bill died and was received into the house of the Lord.
My first picture of Bill is of him at Lost Valley Ranch, an old shirt hanging over ragged blue jeans, hair tangled, a bucket of fish in his hand. My last memory is of him kneeling in the garden of Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina where we did a retreat together. I watched from a distance one afternoon as he buried something in the ground. Later he told me it was a letter he had written to his late father, a letter in which he told his father he forgave him.
That was the redeemed Bill Dooner.
Recently he reminded his wife Ellie that he had once flown my wife’s mother, Mother Graham, in his private plane, to her son Billy’s crusade. It was that night, he told Ellie, as the choir sang “Just As I Am” when he fully opened his heart to Jesus.
I loved Bill Dooner just as he was. Now I thank God for who he is, in God’s presence, as another old hymn says: ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.
A sign of God’s redeeming grace.
My friend. And God’s friend forever.
I think I can hear a voice from God’s throne calling: “Welcome, my son, William J. “Bill” Dooner. Enter in the joy of your Lord.”
Leighton Ford of Charlotte is a Presbyterian minister known internationally as preacher, writer and mentor.