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SOUTH BAY / COVER STORY : A Gray Matter : Lifestyle Changes, Aging Members Have Cut Numbers in Once-Strong Fraternal Groups Such as Kiwanis Club

October 06, 1994|JAMES BENNING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is nearly business as usual at an Inglewood Kiwanis Club weekly meeting: A dozen gray-haired members munch on fish and chips in a Motel 6 meeting room as the club's president announces the death of a longtime member and distributes a brochure on a retirement home.

But this time, after a video presentation, a raffle and the final pleasantries, the 69-year-old club adjourned for the last time.

Its members, whose average age had risen to 74, voted recently to retire the blue-and-yellow Kiwanis banner and brass bell and disband, after membership plummeted and a last-ditch effort to recruit younger members failed.

Much had changed since the 1950s, when the club drew more than 100 of Inglewood's movers and shakers, young judges and doctors who each week motored their Studebakers and Cadillacs to the Inglewood Country Club for lunch overlooking the 18th green.

"We've gotten a lot older, as has the world," President John Nicosia told the small group before they walked out of the meeting for the last time.

They're not alone. Although new clubs form from time to time, membership at decades-old South Bay fraternal lodges and service clubs--from the Carson Moose to the Manhattan Beach Soroptimist--has dropped off dramatically in recent years.

Members are graying, and many old-timers have died or retired and moved away. Young, enthusiastic upstarts, who build the baked-potato booth for the local fair or organize the annual pumpkin-sale fund-raiser, no longer join in the numbers they once did.

At stake is a world of weekly lunches and evening dances that, over the years, has brought together thousands of men and women to socialize, exchange business cards and raise thousands of dollars for charity.

The Inglewood Kiwanis contributed to the Inglewood YMCA, the Salvation Army and a local senior citizen's club. And for many years, members gave scholarships to outstanding students at Inglewood High School.

"The older generation was more compassionate," said Rusty Napolitano, 49, a regional Kiwanis representative who lamented that club membership has fallen 50% in much of Southern California in the past decade. "People would rather shoot someone than help them these days."

It's not that people don't care, sociologists say. But many agree that transformations in the way people live are responsible for the decline: More people commute out of their hometowns to work these days, diminishing community ties; the ethnic mix of many communities has changed, and a century-long shift from collectivism toward individualism has left many less inclined toward group activities.

In addition, people have more leisure activities and charities to choose from now than ever before.

"Every time I go to my mailbox, I'm constantly solicited for donations and involvement in the local chapter of anything," said sociologist Bob Harootyan, a senior researcher with the Washington-based American Assn. of Retired Persons. "You pick and choose."

That's not the world these clubs were born into. Most service and fraternal organizations were formed in the late 1800s and early 1900s out of a need for camaraderie and community service. All-male fraternal lodges like the Elks and Moose focused on brotherhood, while men's clubs like the Rotary and women's service groups like the Soroptimist raised money for charity as members quietly swapped business cards.

As clubs and lodges grew, many took on increasingly significant and visible roles in communities, welcoming new teachers, buying library books and sometimes even constructing city buildings. Politicians and police chiefs were expected to join.

"We used to say the Rotary owns the town, the Kiwanis run the town, and the Lions, they just have fun," said former Inglewood Kiwanis Club member Walter Haskell, 84.

Business leaders saw club membership as a way to share their success with others in the community.

"When you were in business and you took out of the community, it was your responsibility to put something back," recalled Bette Deziel, 68, who joined the women-only Manhattan Beach Soroptomist Club in 1952 after her husband, Don, bought a jewelry store in the city. He joined the local Kiwanis club several years later.

Each Monday at noon, Bette Deziel grabbed her purse from under a desk and strolled down Manhattan Beach Boulevard to a meeting hall near the base of the city pier to plan the next fund-raiser with the club's 30 members. "I didn't want to join a social club--a knife-and-fork club--I wanted to do service," she said.

Over the years, Deziel served punch and cookies at monthly dances, raised money to erect a flagpole in front of City Hall and worked to build a swimming pool at a local school.

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