IT WAS ON A COLD DAY in 1934 that James Houck hit bottom. Newly wedded and living in Frederick, Md., he was getting drunk every weekend--and sometimes even during the week--on home brew. He had recently been in a drunken-driving accident in his employer's car, and his drinking had estranged him from his wife Betty. "We were not married a month," Houck says, "before I told her I was sorry I ever saw her." Houck had begun drinking early, at age 5, when he would sneak sips from his mother's bottle of dandelion wine, then make up the difference with water. Although he grew up in the middle of Prohibition, his drinking problem only got worse as the years passed.
On Dec. 11, a friend who thought Houck needed to make some changes took him to a meeting at the local YMCA of the Oxford Group, an evangelical society founded in Britain by Frank Buchman that was prominent in the 1920s. Houck was immediately drawn to the group's teachings, which were based on four principles: honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. He was especially moved by the concept of "two-way" prayer: the group taught that if you spent quiet time every day listening to God, he would provide guidance. You were also encouraged to make restitution, to "put right what's wrong in your life," says Houck.
It was at those Oxford Group meetings that Houck befriended Bill Wilson, a.k.a. Bill W., a chronic drinker who would go on to co-found Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) in 1939. Houck joined the Oxford Group and became sober on Dec. 12, one day after Wilson did. Today, at 98, Houck is the only living person to have attended Oxford Group meetings with Wilson, who died in 1971.
Houck remembers Wilson well, and after a 40-year career as an electrical engineer and salesman, he has made it his mission to bring the Oxford Group's teachings to a new generation of recovering alcoholics. In the early 1970s, he started working with longshoremen on the Baltimore docks, and until recently, he traveled every six weeks or so, giving talks to members of 12-step programs, including A.A., around the country. Houck continues to provide counsel to recovering addicts who telephone from around the world. He still appears at meetings held within driving distance of his home in Towson, Md., and shares the inspirational story of his recovery and the early days of the Oxford Group with out-of-town gatherings via teleconferencing.
Houck wants to restore the old methods the Oxford Group used, in particular its spiritual aspects, which he believes are stronger and more effective than the ones currently practiced in A.A. The principles of the group live on in the Back to Basics organization, which follows a 12-step program similar to that originally used by A.A. Houck has been trying to apply Back to Basics techniques in federal and state prisons and is working directly with 300 prisoners in the Henrico County Jail East, in Richmond, Va.