This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.
Even for the troubled souls who filed into the weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Jerry Lee Albin looked like bad news. His days of riding with the Hell’s Angels were over, but he retained the biker’s thousand-yard grimace. When others spoke, he picked his fingernails with a pocketknife.
But Mr. Albin was no longer the hell-raiser he had once been. After a life of drugs, alcohol and prisons from California to Canada, he went sober in 1991. Functionally illiterate, he taught himself to read. He opened his own construction business, and in his spare time he visited prisons, where he led sessions for men recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.
“He was a violent man, there’s no other way to say it, until he got sober,” said Todd Vogel, his longtime sponsor. “Then he became the hugger of A.A.”
Mr. Albin died on April 1 in Warwick, N.Y., in Orange County. He was 75. His daughter, Victoria Albin, said the cause was complications of Covid-19. Mr. Albin’s wife, Sonja Albin, had died of cranial bleeding just ours before him.
Jerry Lee Albin was born on Aug. 11, 1945, in Warrensburg, Mo., about an hour east of Kansas City. His father, Leland Albin, was a carpenter, and his mother, Francis (Browning) Albin, worked in a restaurant.
They divorced in 1952; Mr. Albin’s mother cited “extreme cruelty and gross neglect of duty.” Mr. Albin said his father had once shot his dog to teach a lesson.
Jerry Lee left home at 15, after hitting his father with a shovel during a fight. He settled in Los Angeles and then served as a cook in the Army between 1962 and 1963.
After his discharge he began to drift. He lived without a home for stretches of time, and soon joined a branch of the Hell’s Angels. In 1965, a reporter and a photographer for Life magazine followed members of the branch around for several weeks for an article; Mr. Albin figures prominently in one of the photos that did not originally run with it in print but is now shown in an online archival version (he is in the foreground of a picture showing a boy seemingly fascinated by a motorcycle).
Mr. Albin moved to New York in 1967, where he worked in factories and drove a truck. That year he met a German immigrant named Sonja Kandaurow. They married in 1968.
Along with his daughter, he is survived by a grandson, Randy Lee Grey.
New York and a future wife did not mellow Mr. Albin. In 1967 he crossed into Canada illegally and was soon arrested after beating and robbing a man in Montreal, a crime for which he was sentenced to four months in prison.
A year later, after he and his wife moved to Paterson, N.J., he pulled a hunting knife on a man at a bowling alley; once again he went to prison.
He later told Mr. Vogel that he had been arrested more than 300 times, though that count included many nights while he was homeless when he persuaded the police to arrest him for vagrancy, so that he would have a place to sleep.
He hit bottom in 1991, when, in an alcohol-fueled rage, he hit his daughter — a line he had sworn he would never cross. Soon he was a regular at A.A. meetings. He and his wife later moved to West Milford, N.J., near the New York border.
Mr. Vogel encouraged him to join him in visiting prisons in New York and New Jersey to counsel inmates. It became his passion, helping to pull men out of the pit he had once occupied himself.
“He lived for going to help those guys,” Victoria, his daughter, said in an interview. “Even if they were murderers.”
After the pandemic hit, he continued to counsel incarcerated men via Zoom, right up until a few days before he went into the hospital.
“I’ve been drunk, and I’ve been sober,” he liked to tell them. “Sober is better.”