The St. Joseph River Valley Region


February 22, 1943

  The St. Joseph river valley region covers a broad portion of north central and northwestern Indiana, along with the adjoining parts of southwestern Michigan. The St. Joseph river runs southward out of Michigan into Indiana and then turns back northward again (South Bend, as the city's name indicates, is located at the place where the river turns back to the north once more). It continues northward until it empties into Lake Michigan, where the lakeshore almost to Chicago must also be included in this region, in terms of the connections between the early A.A. groups.  

  At the center of the region is South Bend, along with the river cities upstream:  Mishawaka, Elkhart, and Goshen.

This became the fourth A.A. center established in Indiana when the first A.A. group was started in South Bend on February 22, 1943, by Ken M. and Soo C.

  Kenneth G. Merrill was born on July 9, 1891 in St. Paul, Minnesota, and lived most of his youth in Chicago, but had by the 1940's become president and co-owner of the M. B. Skinner Company in South Bend, which manufactured industrial pipe fittings which were sold around the world. The factory building stands at 3502 W. Sample St., where until fairly recently one could still see the bronze plaque at the entrance with the M. B. Skinner name and the remains of the rock garden which Ken constructed. Ken and his wife Helen and their three children lived in a large, beautiful house at 2705 S. Marine, a few blocks off of Miami St., on the south side of South Bend. He died in South Bend with twenty years of sobriety on August 15, 1963.

Joseph Soulard "Soo" Cates was a mechanical engineer who got sober in A.A. for a short while in Buffalo, New York, but then moved to South Bend in September 1942 to work in sales for Ball-Band. He and his wife Henrietta lived in an apartment in the building which still stands at 128 S. Scott, just around the corner from the Studebaker mansion in South Bend. With no A.A. group in South Bend, Soo quickly fell back into drinking again.

He and Ken both went to the same psychiatrist, Dr. Grant E. Metcalfe, who apparently read the Jack Alexander article on A.A. which had appeared in the March 1, 1941, issue of the Saturday Evening Post, and encouraged the two men to try forming an A.A. group for themselves. In typical alcoholic fashion, Soo and Ken met in a bar and drank heavily the evening of February 21, 1943, discussing how they were going to start an A.A. group the next morning -- but unlike many alcoholics, they actually did it. Soo's apartment at 128 S. Scott in South Bend was the official contact address given to the New York office, but Soo died during the summer of 1944, and Ken M. became the principal leader of the A.A. movement in the South Bend area from that point. Even in that brief period however, the A.A. group had already grown to substantial size (Ken gave the figure of 45 members at the end of 1944).

Further south, Indianapolis (the great capital city) tended to dominate most of the rest of the state. Throughout this area many A.A. groups were started after people had gone to Indianapolis, either for treatment or to see how a working A.A. group actually functioned, and then returned and started groups in their own home towns.

In the St. Joseph river valley region, however, it was South Bend which was the major center. People traveled long distances to that city to attend A.A. meetings and A.A. beginners lessons if they wanted to see how strong A.A. groups functioned, and then eventually used that as a model to start A.A. groups back in their own home towns.


So in Elkhart, for example, the railroad lawyer Chester Willard started attending A.A. meetings in South Bend, and eventually used what he learned there to start the first group back home in Elkhart. There was a tragedy here, because after a number of years, Chester himself went back out and started drinking again. He was a sad figure by the end of his life. But he did manage to get a good group started before he himself went back out. Another important early leader in Elkhart A.A. was Charles F. "Chuck" Keller (of Whitcomb & Keller real estate), who later married Soo Cates' widow Henrietta. Dr. Jack Swihart and Ray G. were also among the Elkhart people who came with Chester W. to the South Bend meetings before they started their own Elkhart group. Ellen Lantz and the railroad conductor Ed Pike also came into the Elkhart group at a very early date.


People from Goshen who had begun by going to meetings in Elkhart, then started a group in their own town. Mac McCaffery and George Mills were two early members, and Dean Barnhardt also participated in the early Goshen group.


The people from Mishawaka attended the South Bend meetings for three years, but a large number of them then became angry over something, as is clear from the tone of the letter they wrote to the New York office dated January 17, 1946, announcing the formation of an Independent Mishawaka Group. They even set up their own separate post office box number. John Henderson (one of the first twenty members in the South Bend group) was one of the twelve original members of this new group.

After a period of time, feelings cooled off, and the Mishawaka and South Bend people made peace with one another. At the present time, the two cities share a common A.A. Central Service Office, and work together on A.A. projects like dances and picnics.

Kenneth G. Merrill

Founder of South Bend A.A.

Ken's 1944 Christmas
Eve Broadcast

EDITOR'S NOTE:  Ken Merrill made a series of Christmas Eve broadcasts over radio station WSBT in South Bend during the early years of the A.A. movement there. We have the texts of nine of the little talks he gave, running from 1944 to 1953 (only the text of the 1951 talk is missing).

In the first of these radio talks, Ken tells how his own drinking had gotten totally out of control and how Alcoholics Anonymous had turned his life around. It was broadcast on December 23, 1944, and a transcript of Ken's message was printed in the next day's edition of the South Bend Tribune. In this broadcast he took pains to stress the point that A.A. was NOT part of the prohibitionist movement because F. A. Miller, the president and editor of the Tribune (which also owned radio station WSBT) was widely known as a prominent crusader in the prohibition movement. The following is the newspaper version:

South Bend Tribune, December 24, 1944

  What liquor can do to a human being was told over WSBT, The Tribune's broadcasting station, last evening at 5:30 o'clock by a man who has been through the terrible battle and feels that he has won and largely through the good offices of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Introducing him the announcer said that "he is a man of high education, of excellent talents, of strong will and of definite standing in the community." The announcer vouched for the truth of the speaker's story because they are old time friends and the previous habits of the speaker are well known to his introducer. Here is the speaker's story as he told it over WSBT.

"This is an anonymous talk and the reason I am not giving my name will be explained a little further on. But I can't help but feel that someone out there in the radio audience is going to be interested in the story I have to tell.

"Two years ago, the day before Christmas, at 1 o'clock in the afternoon my wife gave me $10 to go out and get a Christmas tree and some presents for our little children. Now I want you to understand that I had been trying for several days to be good. You know what I mean; to lay off the liquor. Each of the past five Christmases had been a total blank as far as I was concerned; and you know that isn't right when a man has children. I knew it myself but I couldn't do much about it, it seemed.

"I'd been thinking a lot about it. I figured that I was going to stay dry that Christmas or bust. So, as I say, for maybe three days I hadn't been drinking anything and I had my mind really made up that I wasn't going to spoil my kids' fun this time. In fact I told my wife about it and she felt pretty happy and pitched in to get the various things ready.

"Well, as I say, I had $10 in my pocket. I jumped into the old jalopy and started down to a shopping center about a mile from our house here in South Bend. When I got down there I said to myself that I could probably pick out a lot better tree if I had just one drink under my belt for a little harmless Christmas cheer, so I went into a tavern and ordered one.

"Now listen. I'm not talking about the kind of drinks that ordinary people take. When a man has built up to better than a quart of whisky a day he's not satisfied with these panty-waist highballs. What I called a drink two years ago was half a water tumbler full of gin with a twist of lemon peel and some soda water in it. So I had one and with an alcoholic's wonderful logic decided I'd have another; couldn't go out on one leg.

Then Another Tavern

"I got out in the street and decided that it wasn't fair to give all my business to one tavern when there was another just three doors down so I went in there and had two more. By this time it was becoming very clear to me that I ought to go on downtown and tell a bartender friend of mine the wonderful news that I hadn't had a drink for three days, so I did.

"I don't have to tell you what happened. It wasn't long before the $10 was gone. As a matter of fact I didn't really come to for three or four days. I wasn't even home on Christmas. Another total blank for me. Another ruined Christmas for my children. Another bitter, tragic and heartbreaking disillusionment for my wife. I don't have to tell anyone who has observed alcoholics that they always get drunk at the wrong time. Always at the time which will hurt them, their families or their careers the most. Like the guy in the funnies says, 'They'll do it every time.'

"For some time after this experience I kept saying to myself why? why? why? Why does a guy with good intentions start out like this and then fall into exactly the same trap again? Why can't he handle his liquor like other people? The reason why I couldn't understand this was that I didn't at the time understand alcoholics. Today, in sincerity, in honesty and in deep humility I think I can say that I do understand alcoholics.

"In February, 1943, I joined that wonderful society here in South Bend known as Alcoholics Anonymous. Last Christmas eve, instead of being in the back room of a tavern I was up on a stepladder trimming our family Christmas tree. Tomorrow night I shall be doing the same thing. For 22 months I have been dry.

"For 18 months I have been rejoicing in the reawakened affections and confidence of my family. For 18 months I have been restoring myself financially and regaining the lost respect of my fellow men. At the present moment there are 45 members of this society in South Bend, all of whom are doing the same thing.

Sympathy, Not Preaching

"The funny thing about it is that Alcoholics Anonymous has no antagonism towards liquor as such. We are not crusaders and we are not reformers and we are not prohibitionists. We know that only one man in 200 has that strange allergy which makes of him an alcoholic. This man is just as unpopular with bartenders as he is with the general public. In truth he is a desperately sick man and until Alcoholics Anonymous appeared on the scene there was very little hope for him.

"Alcoholics Anonymous, founded some 10 years ago now has untold thousands of members with 300 chapters all over the United States. It has no organization, no by-laws, no officers, no dues, no racket of any kind. It is simply an anonymous society of former drunks banded for the purpose of helping each other stay dry; and it works.

"We are anonymous because, in certain professions, a member's very livelihood depends upon our respecting his privacy and for no other reason.

"With all our activities we have only one rule -- any candidate for membership must admit himself that he can't handle liquor and wants personally to stop. The inquiry must originate with the patient himself. A postal card addressed to post office box 1342, South Bend, will bring futher particulars at once. If you know that you should stop drinking and can't quit, write us and we'll show you how. Alcoholics Anonymous is truly the way out."

EDITOR'S NOTE:  Ken's 1944 radio message was cast in a fairly light-hearted fashion, designed to hold people's interest and attract a few people into perhaps attending an A.A. meeting. There is another document in which we get a much franker view of the unbearable alcoholic anguish which was pulling him under when he first came into Alcoholics Anonymous. It is a double-spaced typewritten manuscript a little over two pages long, written after Ken had been sober for nineteen years, therefore around 1962. He died the next year (on August 15, 1963) at the age of 72, still sober.


Being in a Squirrel Cage

  As co-founder of the South Bend chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, as one who has "handled" some 2,000 cases of alcoholism, I have been asked to comment on the state of deep alcoholism -- what we alkies call "being in the squirrel cage." It is marked by three overwhelming manifestations.

1. No matter what a man's character may be, how properly brought up he may have been, his sense of right and wrong vanishes. Example: I, brought up in a strait-laced New England household, have stolen whiskey with no attendant emotion beyond a childish sense of triumph that I (in spite of my drinking) was smarter than the man I stole it from. Any moral consideration which interfered with or threatened my supply of whiskey was pushed down into a dark area of my consciousness, a place of limbo where conscience was kept in a state of anesthetized paralysis. Alcohol is an anesthetic.

2. A suspension of one's sense of personal responsibility. This is not ordinary "weakness of character" or moral dereliction. It goes right back, in what dim recognition one has of responsibility in the alcoholic state -- to the same root as mentioned above. Responsibility threatens one's supply of liquor, i.e. paying the grocer means that much less money for booze and "without booze (and ever-present, unremitting terror) I shall die. No! No! No! I must not think of responsibility today. I'll think of it tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow." For nearly two years this writer could not have told you what day of the week it was -- during many periods what month of the year it was. Responsibility becomes a thing never to be met today, but, with the glow of the fifth drink, "hell, I don't have to worry -- I'll get at it tomorrow!" And tomorrow never comes.

3. Fear. This is the real keynote of the deep alcoholic state. It is no normal fear as known to normal people. It is an all-encompassing terror that no one who has not "been there" can even remotely imagine. No part of the alkie's life is spared. He senses that if the deep alcoholic state continues he is going to lose his family. He is going to lose his job. He is going to lose his home. Certain dodged obligations are going to catch up with him -- omissions that could destroy him. He knows that he is in no condition to stand and grapple with these terrible problems. He is "running scared." The thought of sobering up becomes ever more insuperable. If he allows the anesthesia of alcoholism to lapse, all these dreadful consequences of his drinking will fall upon him at once, and crush him -- a thought which brings with it the most excruciating fear of all -- Death. His dilemma is a thing of horror unspeakable. He cannot meet life, and he dare not meet death. He is absolutely in hell.

In the dim half-world of the alcoholic, unutterable anguish is the only reality. To him, as to the patient dying of cancer, nothing -- NOTHING -- matters but the numbing anodyne of anesthesia. To the one that means morphine, to the other alcohol, but there is little difference between the urgency and desperation of their respective states.

A little epilogue. I have been cold sober for nineteen years. Every once in a while I dream I am back in the "snake pit" -- every detail is recreated. And I awake trembling. I reach for my wife's hand, the trembling passes and I go back to sleep. Thank God. Thank God.

EDITOR'S NOTE:  When Alcoholics Anonymous first came to South Bend, Ken Merrill, the factory owner who was the group's co-founder, had a contact with radio station WSBT, and was allowed to give a two or three-minute broadcast about A.A. every Christmas Eve for a number of years to all of "Michiana" (the local name for the area centering on South Bend which includes parts of both Michigan and Indiana). This 1948 broadcast is a particularly good kind of statement to make to newcomers to the program, explaining in simple terms what A.A. offers and what they can expect to gain from joining the fellowship.

Ken's 1948 Christmas
Eve Broadcast

  This is the sixth annual Christmas Eve broadcast to be made over this station by Alcoholics Anonymous. When the first one was made, December 24th, 1943, we only had nine members. Today we have approximately 450 in this area. 450 men and women permanently insulated from alcohol. 450 people who had lost all hope and were resigned to death or institutional confinement -- for before Alcoholics Anonymous came along that choice was the only one open to alcoholics -- who are now leading normal, happy, busy lives. Sound, respected, useful citizens all.

450 people who look back upon their pasts without shame or guilt because they know that alcoholism is not a moral or religious matter but a tragic, desperate disease. 450 people whose faces reflect the particular joy which can only come to those who have had an incurable disease arrested, and been able to return to a full participation in the give and take of modern life.

Many a man -- or woman -- who has tried times without number to stop drinking and who, like ourselves, realizes his condition, has still been held back from joining Alcoholics Anonymous because of a completely erroneous picture of what we are like. He thinks of us as a bunch of shabby derelicts sitting around sadly admonishing each other, or as a group of blue-nosed reformers condemning alcohol.

Nothing could be further from the truth. We are far and away the happiest people in this city. And we are not crusaders. We have nothing against alcohol as such. We don't try to dry up other people because we can't drink ourselves. We're not fighting anything or anybody. We never preach, we never scold, we never make promises, vows or sign pledges. There isn't a single reformer or a professional do-gooder in the entire lot. We're just a bunch of drunks who don't drink anymore.

Every level of the city's life is represented. Doctors, car-washers, lawyers, bartenders, barbers, laborers, merchants, truck drivers, business executives, painters, salesmen, mechanics -- every profession or trade you can think of. Our meetings instead of being dreary drills in sobriety are actually more fun than anything we've ever done before in our lives. We laugh more than anyone else in South Bend. You simply don't know what fun is, until you come into Alcoholics Anonymous.

Listen. You men and women on the outside (if I can use the term) fighting your losing fight against alcoholism with that feeling we all have had of being utterly alone, friendless and abandoned; stop and consider what I have just said. How long since you have been happy?

Put it this way. How long since you have felt genuinely welcome, ANYWHERE. How long since anyone has said to you, "Gosh, Joe, I am glad to see you," and you felt he really meant it? How long since you've been with anyone who understood you and you knew it? The pattern of alcoholism is as precise as the symptoms of measles. We all know what you're going through because we've all been through it.

In A.A. you are surrounded by literally crowds of warm-hearted friends who greet you with real cordiality. Why, with our present membership we can't walk three blocks down Main Street or Michigan without being hailed by five or six fellow members.

You who have been so completely desolate just stop and think what it will mean to you to know again that hundreds of people genuinely like you, are always glad to see you -- any time, any place, anywhere -- and show it! It is impossible to describe the courage, the loyalty and the plain human warmth that go with an A.A. handshake. Let me repeat that word warmth. We who have felt so cast-off by human society -- so cold and dejected -- are almost overcome by the warmth, the radiating, healing warmth of A.A. companionship.

In A.A. we regain our self-respect, we regain the love of our families, we regain the confidence of our neighbors, we advance in our jobs beyond anything we would have imagined possible. And finally we capture that almost priceless thing in life -- peace of mind.

Three out of four who come to us can expect this. that is our record, that is the national record, and it is a magnificent record.

If compulsive drinking is ruining your life, we 450 people in Michiana are simply 450 proofs that there is a way out. Alcoholics Anonymous has no formal organization, no officers, no dues, no fees, no rules, no rackets. It is open to anyone who needs it. All you have to do is to drop us a line at one of the post office box addresses which will be given at the end of this message and you will get action. If you do this today -- no matter what the bottomless pit of your present misery, and incredible and impossible as it may sound, you will look back on this day in future years, and in the fullest sense, as a Merry Christmas after all.


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