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Time Takes a Toll : Fraternal Lodges Face a Bleak Future as Members Grow Older

January 13, 1994|PANCHO DOLL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If baldness weren't enough to remind the men of Oxnard Masonic Lodge No. 341 that their membership is rapidly aging, two of the newest inductees make the point. They're both morticians.

Members joke about the occasional hearse parked in the back of the lodge, in the same way as they kid one another about hair loss.

Eighty years of life has left Harold Colen with no more than a fringe of hair surrounding his dome. For this his brother Masons call him "Curly."

"I just got a haircut yesterday," Colen said, defending against yet another bald joke. "It cost me $10."

"That's because the barber has to spend so much time hunting for hair to cut," retorted the jokester.

Aging membership is not entirely a laughing matter. Many fraternal orders such as Masons, Elks and others are facing declines that threaten the existence of the lodges, many of which have been integral parts of their communities for most of the century.

"I'd say we were within two or three months of closing," said Wayne Spitzer, manager of the Oxnard Elks Lodge. Spitzer staved off the shut-down recently by renting out an adjacent building the lodge owns, but he sees the handwriting on the wall.

"I don't think there will be such a thing as fraternal organizations in 15 years," he said.

Ventura County has more than two dozen lodges representing six different fraternal orders, from the well-known Elks to the low-profile Eagles. As many as 12,000 people belong to these clubs. The Masons have five temples here while the less well-attended Odd Fellows have halls in Ventura and Santa Paula.

What is at risk is more than just a place for men to enjoy lunch and a game of cards. Their benefit barbecues pay for Little League uniforms, steak dinners fund health screenings for children and bingo games buy food for the needy during the holidays.

"There was a time in Oxnard that if you didn't belong to the Elks, you were missing out on a big part of the community," said former Oxnard Mayor A. Elliot Stoll. "They had programs to distribute food at Christmas, supported youth bands and baseball teams."

The Oxnard Elks still distribute Christmas baskets as they have for more than 60 years, although the service is not without difficulties.

"I ran a request for food donations in 'The Moo.' That's the club newsletter," Spitzer said. "We got maybe three cans of corn and a can of peas." In lieu of donations, bingo proceeds bought food for the holiday baskets.

Membership shortfalls are not so easily resolved.

Walk into any of these lodges and the smell of Barbasol is unmistakable. These are the men who fought The War, and if you have to ask which war you are clearly not one of them. Their forearms are tattooed with eagles, anchors and American flags (the one with 48 stars).

For decades, the Oxnard Elks numbered around 1,200. But 10 years ago, membership began to decline while the median age crept upward. Membership currently stands at just over 700 and the median age is 69. Therein lies the problem.

The National Center for Health Statistics calculates that a group of men with an average age of 69 has a mortality rate of 3% per year. Not surprisingly, many lodges composed of men in their 60s are declining at about 3% a year.

Time, tobacco and red meat has apparently caught up with many of them. Spitzer suddenly lost several friends in the last two years.

"They just wake up in the morning dead," he lamented.

From a Different Era

"The men who built these organizations were products of World War I and World War II, both episodes in our history when there was a lot of bonding among men," said USC sociologist Vern Bengston. "Baby boomers haven't had that sort of generational, fraternal experience."

And the ones who have don't seem anxious to reconstruct the camaraderie of wartime. Vietnam veterans, for example, have comparatively low membership in the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, according to the national offices.

The decline that's now cutting into the Elks and putting cracks through the Masons is an intensification of a trend that felled such groups as the Woodmen of the World and caused the Redmen to pale into oblivion. The Knights of Pythias, which had 1.8 million members at the turn of the century, now numbers only 76,000.

Back then, just about any town with a population over 5,000 had at least one lodge, its atmosphere redolent of tobacco smoke, fried food and fellowship.

All the lodges shared a taste for ritual and bombastic titles that are occasionally lampooned even in modern media. Howard Cunningham of television's "Happy Days" was offended when anyone ridiculed the "grand pooh-bah," leader of the fictitious Leopard Lodge.

Even Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble periodically recited the cacophonous password for their lodge, the Loyal Order of Water Buffalos.

Bengston said the founders of many fraternal groups were poking fun at the elaborate ritual of the venerable Masons when they established ceremonies for their own lodges.

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