James W. Houck Sr., 100, engineer, sobriety advocate


James William Houck Sr., a retired electrical engineer and salesman who as a recovering alcoholic befriended the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and preached clean living throughout his life, died of complications related to old age Sunday at the College Manor nursing home in Lutherville. He was 100.

Born in Walkersville, he was a 1925 graduate of Frederick High School, where he played on a state championship basketball team and was an Eagle Scout.

Mr. Houck recounted for The Sun in 1999 that he had started drinking at age 5 "when I got into my mother's dandelion wine, and I drank all the way through high school and college."

On Dec. 11, 1934, on a friend's advice, he attended a meeting of the Oxford Group, a little-known British evangelical society and precursor of AA that advocated living by four principles: honesty, purity, unselfishness and love.

In media interviews over the years, Mr. Houck said he took stock of his life, pledged to change it and remained a member of the movement, later called Moral Rearmament, for the next seven decades. He said the first effect of his decision was that it saved his marriage.

In a Towson Times article published about a decade ago, Mr. Houck said that as part of his moral recovery, he confessed that he had stolen supplies over the course of several years from his former boss, who owned an electrical supply store. He offered to make restitution.

"It was at those Oxford Group meetings that Houck befriended Bill Wilson, aka Bill W., a chronic drinker who would go on to co-found Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) in 1939," a 2004 Time magazine profile of Mr. Houck said. "Houck joined the Oxford Group and became sober on Dec. 12, one day after Wilson did."

Mr. Houck was the last living person to have attended Oxford Group meetings with Mr. Wilson, who died in 1971.

"He believed that people were of higher value than they ever thought they were," said a grandson, James William Houck III of Towson. "He was the kind of man who drove until he was 97 and was counseling people until the very end. He carried that message until the very end of his life."

After becoming sober and working as an electrical engineer for Potomac Edison Co., he moved to Towson and became a buyer for Bendix Radio Corp. He later founded JH Electronic Sales in Towson and sold electrical components to government contractors. Mr. Houck retired about 30 years ago.

In 1971, he started working with area longshoremen to promote sobriety and clean living. He also traveled throughout the country to lecture on 12-step sobriety programs.

Mr. Houck was an active member of the Hunt Valley Rotary and received numerous awards from the group.

A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Lemmon Funeral Home, 10 W. Padonia Road. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Aug. 19 at Towson United Methodist Church, 501 Hampton Lane, where he was a member and former chairman of its building committee.

In addition to his grandson, survivors include two sons, James W. Houck Jr. of Lutherville and Frank W. Houck of Sedona, Ariz.; a daughter, Bet-C Sammis of Timonium; 10 grandchildren; and 17 great-grandchildren. His wife of 58 years, the former Mary E. "Betty" Brinley, died in 1988.


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