If Sandy Beach had lived 10 weeks longer, then on Sunday he would have celebrated 50 years without taking a drink.
For the former fighter pilot, whom the Marine Corps once confined to what he called a “nut ward” in Northern Virginia for drunkenness, that record of sobriety was the most important fact of his life.
It was also an experience that he shared to great effect with tens of thousands of fellow alcoholics as one of the nation’s most sought-after speakers at conferences, retreats and other gatherings of Alcoholics Anonymous.
“Sandy B.,” as he was known, was especially popular in our area. He lived here for three decades and worked as a credit-union lobbyist before moving to Florida in the mid-1990s.
Beach’s Saturday morning talks on AA’s 12-step recovery program on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda routinely drew hundreds.
AA members who admired Beach alerted me to his passing in Tampa, at the age of 83. They said he had an unusual gift for explaining sobriety clearly, concisely and with abundant humor.
“The steps are a little hard for a lot of people to grasp,” said Marty T., 68, who lives in Cabin John, Md. “He just simplified them and made people want to work [through] them. He saved lives that way.”
Partly because AA members deliberately avoid publicity, The Washington Post did not hear of Beach’s Sept. 28 death until well after the newspaper’s four-week deadline for printing an obituary. Given his impact in our region and elsewhere, I thought he deserved a tribute.
Richard Beach, who went by Sandy, liked to poke fun at his own shortcomings. Noting that he had been divorced at least three times (some friends said four), he said listeners should take his advice only on sobriety, not romance. “There’s a bumper sticker out there — ‘Honk if you’ve been married to Sandy Beach,’ ” he said.
But he was serious about his message to adopt a spiritual outlook to deal with life’s challenges, rather than use alcohol to avoid them.
Saying AA was “the world’s largest lost-and-found department,” Beach urged newcomers to find a sponsor in the program.
“It’s not like the guides are totally enlightened,” Beach said. “It’s just that the half-blind are leading the totally blind.”
People traveled from places such as Australia, Iceland and Sweden to attend retreats where Beach spoke. AA members said people living in isolated places, who can’t get to AA meetings, stay sober by listening to recordings of Beach’s talks.
Mike H., 63, of Silver Spring said he heard Beach speak at NIH 40 or 50 times.
“He was an early part of the psychic change for me,” Mike said. “I was depressed, suicidal. . . . He was the poster child for that kind of happy, recovered alcoholic.”
Lauder G., 69, a longtime friend of Beach’s who lives in Bethesda, said, “Sandy’s genius was at 10 o’clock on a Saturday morning, when any self-respecting alcoholic is moaning in bed and crying for aspirin, or for a revolver and one round, he would have a meeting screaming in laughter.”
I am not publishing AA members’ surnames out of respect for an AA tradition that members should remain anonymous in the media. I’m using Beach’s full name because before he died he said that was permissible.
“Sandy believed very clearly that [anonymity] expired when you died,” said Chris B., 53, a close friend of Beach’s in Tampa and executor of his estate.
This was a sensitive issue for Beach. The fellowship does not want members identified publicly as a leader or spokesperson, partly for fear that the individual may drink again and harm the program’s reputation.
Beach became so well known, though, it was hard to keep his identity a secret. He spoke at nearly 1,000 conferences, Chris said. In recordings of Beach’s talks, which are easy to download from the Internet, he sometimes introduced himself by his full name.
“It was a weird line to walk,” Chris said. “The whole goal of AA is to eliminate your ego. . . . He hated the adoration aspect of it.”
With remarkable timing, Beach died of a heart attack during an evening AA meeting at a Presbyterian church in Tampa. He passed away with his head slumped atop a passage in an AA book describing the first step, in which the member admits powerlessness over alcohol.
Though once defeated by drink, Beach triumphed in life.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.