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[whitespace] Room at the Lodge

Changing times and lifestyles have apparently deflated membership for local fraternal groups

Los Gatos--In the middle of the room, there's an altar with a Bible on top. To the left sit a handful of men, dressed in brightly colored jackets, facing the altar. To the right is another man who acts as a chaplain, and behind him are several rows of men in sport coats. The room is dominated by a moose's head, which towers over the audience.

Is it a religious ceremony? A men's club? Initiation rites? No, it's a regular meeting of the Los Gatos Moose Lodge, one of several fraternal organizations in Santa Clara County.

The Moose, along with the Elks, the Masons, the Knights of Columbus and the Odd Fellows, are classified separate from service clubs such as the Rotary and Lions clubs.

According to Los Gatos Mason Bud Ramsey, 54, who is the master of the lodge, fraternal organizations emphasize "fellowship and brotherhood and the social aspect." While fraternal orders can and often do, focus on community service, the Lions' and Rotarians' main goal is service.

Some believe that fraternal organizations are outdated, secret societies with mystical, perhaps irrelevant, rituals. Although members admit that overall membership is on the decline, they dispute certain perceptions about lodge life.

"We are not a religion. We are not a substitute for any religion," says Los Gatos Mason Lowell Johnson, 59. In fact, each Mason must believe in God, though he doesn't necessarily participate in a church.

Most of the fraternal organizations are centuries old and do have members-only meetings that include traditional ceremonies. They do, however, claim to have beginnings rooted in a desire to do good and continue to contribute time and money for community services.

In the old days of the Moose International, members were required to don black robes and powdered wigs for the meetings. Ranked members wore a hat called a taj (pronounced "tah"), and women were only allowed in the lodge if their husbands were members.

Today, the Moose have a women's counterpart, and members can dress in casual attire. Recently, the Women of the Moose were given permission to wear slacks and even shorts to their meetings; in the 1970s, women were required to wear floor-length formals each time.

What's also changed is that it's becoming more and more difficult to keep the organizations thriving because new members are hard to come by.

"Every organization has those problems today," says John Boitano, 79, charter member of the Los Gatos Elks Club. Boitano is also a member of the Lions Club and sees the same struggle there.

Elk Dave Fletcher, 67, says, "In the last 15 years or so, membership has dwindled." The Los Gatos Elks, chartered in 1952, was in top form in the 1970s with 650 members. Now, Fletcher says, there are 276 members from Los Gatos, Saratoga and San Jose.

In Saratoga, the Odd Fellows Lodge has fewer than 30 members. The lodge has been around since 1912 and had about 200 members in the 1920s and 1930s; the number decreased to approximately 70 in the 1960s.

"The Depression and the war took its toll," says 62-year-old Odd Fellow Werner Springer. "We have a hard time, like other organizations, trying to attract younger members." Most of the Saratoga lodge members are over 50 years old.

"It's not their fault. It's not the leadership's fault. It's just the times," Boitano says. "It's the condition of the times."

"The times" seems to be a common reason for why the fraternal organizations are having such a hard time growing these days.

Springer's take on the dilemma is that expanded government has replaced the necessity of fraternal organizations. In the early days, Springer says, the Odd Fellows offered programs that cared for the sick and unemployed. The organization has since shifted its focus to retirees and children. The California Odd Fellows operates a children's facility and two nursing homes, one of which is in Saratoga.

"The services that these organizations once provided--social welfare, insurance--have been taken over by institutions," says University of Alabama history professor David Beito. Beito authored the book, From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967.

According to Beito, the fact that most jobs now provide medical insurance eliminates the need for people to seek out insurance from voluntary organizations, such as fraternal orders, as they did in the past. Orphanages run by the societies are no longer as common because the government has foster care and other parallel services.

The largest orphanage in the United States is Mooseheart, a Moose-run facility in Illinois, Beito says. While Moose International grew in members, the number of children going to Mooseheart decreased. In the 1930s, Mooseheart had more than 1,000 children. Now it's at a few hundred, and the organization is loosening the entry requirements to increase the number.

Another example, Beito says, is that the lodges used to contract with doctors to provide medical care to its members and their families. The lodges paid a flat fee--something $1 per member per year--to the doctor, who would then take care of basic services, such as house calls and minor surgeries.

"It was a way for young doctors to get a practice built up and for older doctors to go into semi-retirement," Beito says.

Medical associations, however, frowned upon what they called "lodge practice evil," since it competed with the doctors who ran fee-for-service practices. The medical associations used the tactics of boycotting the lodge-practicing doctors, denying those doctors and patients hospital service, and even trying to revoke the medical licenses of some of the doctors.

The social impact of the fraternal groups just isn't there anymore, Beito says. In the first half of the century, immigrants relied on immigrants' fraternal orders to learn English, find jobs and become more Americanized. The working classes used the groups as the center of life: "It was the social infrastructure of poor neighborhoods," Beito says.

The Civil Rights movement had its roots in both churches and fraternal organizations. African-Americans had their own version of the Masons--known as the Prince Hall Masons--and the Odd Fellows. In fact, Beito says, up until a few decades ago, almost every single prominent African-American leader belonged to a fraternal order.

Former Los Gatos Elks Exalter Ruler Dave Fletcher speculates that the high cost of living is a factor in the decline of fraternal orders; people often have to work more than one job, and most Bay Area families require two incomes. As a result, nobody has the time to commit to weekly meetings.

Fletcher says that today's society has changed its emphasis. Instead of committing themselves to a single organization, most people do a variety of activities in addition to community service.

Johnson gives four reasons for the decline in the numbers of the orders. Members either die, move, or are suspended--which happens very rarely. Lastly, membership gains have not kept up with losses.

The anti-establishment attitude of the hippies in the 1960s and 1970s has not changed with the yuppies, according to Johnson. "It's tough to get kids to come in, with this garbage on television," Johnson says. "It's hard to teach them moral standards." Young people, he says, have as role models people who only care about the almighty buck.

The point of the Masons, according to Johnson, is: "To take a good man. To give him enough knowledge and wherewithal to make him a better man." Johnson believes that this kind of thinking is absent in present-day society.

Johnson also says that fraternal organizations flourish better in more rural areas, citing Modesto, Fresno and Bakersfield as examples. "In their communities, the Masonic Lodge is a bigger entity," Johnson says. Also, the lodge social events are the center of social life in the community, he says.

Most groups can't actively recruit members. A list of the organizations that the Moose supports--including Boy and Girl Scouts, veterans' affairs services and youth sports--comes with a disclaimer that says, "Membership in the Order is by invitation only. This is not a solicitation for membership."

Similarly, recruitment for the Odd Fellows is only done through word of mouth and inviting friends and acquaintances.

"We don't get a lot of PR," Ramsey says of the Masons. Not only do the Masons not recruit for new members, they can't even invite people to join. Instead, people must express interest in the Masons on their own.

But once people find out what the organizations do, they are eager to join, says Moose Administrator Jim Abbott, 63.

While membership for the Los Gatos Moose Lodge has gone up--from 190 members in 1990 to 365 in May--the number of people involved has not necessarily kept pace. "If you can get 10 percent of your membership coming to a meeting, it's fantastic," Abbott says.

"It's like any organization," says Beverly Weal, 57, current senior regent (the highest officer rank) of the Women of the Moose. "You've got your key people and others just donating money." The problem is, there aren't that many key people, she says.

And, Abbott adds, Santa Clara County has too many Moose lodges too close together, along with a large selection of clubs to choose from.

"The people who turn out are infinitesimal compared to the membership," says Saratogan Jim Balanesi, 70, an Elks trustee. "It's like pulling teeth to get anybody to do anything."

So where are the fraternal orders drawing their strength from? Alternative groups, many say.

The women's version of the Odd Fellows, the Rebekahs, have more than twice the membership that the Odd Fellows do--about 70 members come to each meeting, Springer says. The Rebekahs members average about the same age as the men in the Odd Fellows.

Eight Mason-related groups meet under the roof of the Los Gatos Masonic Lodge. There's the Eastern Star, which is geared toward women. There's Demolay, for young men between the ages of 12 and 21. There are two organizations for girls from 11 to 20: Job's Daughters and Rainbow for Girls.

The youth orders develop leadership skills and maturity in the members, Ramsey says. They also demonstrate to other youth that it's possible to have fun and do community service at the same time.

As for the downward trend in membership for fraternal organizations, Balanesi says that the "those are for the old folks" viewpoint may not go away. "It's kind of a shame," Balanesi says.
Gloria I. Wang

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Web extra to the July 26-August 1, 2001 issue of Metro.

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