It was 1976 and Bill Smith had been drinking heavily since his four-year tour in the Navy ended. He felt lots of hurt and displayed considerable belligerence, which was causing him problems at home and on the job at Honeywell, where he was an electrician.
He checked into St. Mary’s Hospital, and then went on to Turning Point, a new halfway house on the North Side of Minneapolis, the Upper Midwest’s first residential Afro-centric program for recovering alcoholics.
Eight months later, Smith became Turning Point’s first graduate. He stayed sober for more than 41 years, carrying the message that there was a solution. Friends say he helped generations of people achieve and maintain sobriety.
“Anyone who gets into alcoholism isn’t a stellar person in the community,” recalls his friend John Bergren of Waconia. But he said Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) made Smith a changed man. “He was the kindest, gentlest man I ever knew, and he didn’t get that way without working the program.”
Smith, 75, died of lung cancer on June 18.
For decades, he and other AA members visited the state correctional institutions at Stillwater and Lino Lakes to hold AA meetings for inmates.
“He was very comfortable in those meetings,” said Patrick Higgins, a retired mental health counselor in the state corrections system and a friend of Smith’s. “Bill was a warm, genuine guy that a lot of people connected to.”
Smith befriended many recovering alcoholics. “He organized annual holiday dinners for African-Americans in recovery and for their families and supporters,” said his wife, Susan. In 2015, he was named Turning Point’s first client of the year. “We are trying to have as many Bill Smiths come through our program that we can,” said Peter Hayden, co-founder and CEO of Turning Point. Since Smith’s graduation, Turning Point has helped some 28,000 people with drug and alcohol addictions, including some with mental health issues, he said.
“Today our program isn’t all black or white,” he said, but “more culturally based than color-based,” with counselors who understand people’s cultural preferences in music, clothing and conversation.
William Henry Smith was born in Cochran, Ga., and graduated from Cochran High School in 1961. He served in the Navy on an oil tanker during the Vietnam War.
As a youngster, Bill had been fascinated with electronics, said his brother, Edward K. Smith, of St. Augustine, Fla. “My brother was determined to be an electrician.”
He attended Dunwoody Institute and Anoka Technical Institute and worked at Honeywell for 33 years, advancing to facilities manager at the company’s Golden Valley plant.
In a video interview produced for Turning Point, he credited Honeywell and Teamsters Local 1145, the union that represented the workers there, for their support in helping him get the alcohol treatment that turned his life around.
Besides his passion for helping recovering alcoholics, Smith cared deeply about his north Minneapolis neighborhood and would not move out of it, his wife said. “He didn’t believe in leaving when things got tough because a few knuckleheads were acting out,” she said. He had served as block club leader, looking out for neighbors, and helped coordinate the National Night Out gatherings on his block.
Besides his wife and brother, he is survived by a daughter, Erika Harding of Grayson, Ga., and brothers Ralph of Jacksonville, Fla., Lacey Jr. of Memphis, Tenn., and a sister, Linda of Jacksonville, Fla. Services have been held.