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Women Feeling at Home on Elk Range

Service clubs: At national gathering today in Anaheim, the group will discuss how to maintain traditions while broadening appeal.


Like the Moose, the Shriners and other clubs known for good works and bad hats, the 130-year-old Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks--one of America's oldest and largest private fraternal organizations--was long a guy thing.

But since the Elks agreed to let women into the clubhouse three years ago, something interesting has happened. Women have joined, and more swiftly and smoothly than a buck might have imagined. And some have even made it to leader of the local herd.

Not that it didn't require pounding at some lodge doors with legal briefs.

In Tacoma, Wash., home of the country's largest Elks lodge, 250 women have been initiated into the order. Orange County has its first female Elk officer, Billie Villa. A half-dozen women throughout the country have ascended to exalted ruler, or CEO of their lodges. And in what may become the first Elk-to-Elk marriage, a pair of Mission Viejo members got engaged this year during a lodge meeting.

"He was on the microphone and said, 'Now we have one more order of business,' " Elk Sara Franko, 44, recalled of the meeting at which her fiance, on bended knee, proposed.

"Who would have thought the Elks was a place to fall in love . . . with another Elk?" said Paul Bafford, 38, about his engagement.

As about 13,000 Elks gather in Anaheim today for their national convention, they will be addressing how the 1.25-million-member order can retain its traditions--from patriotic rituals and secret salute to $63 million in annual community service programs--while broadening its appeal.

Like other fraternal orders born generations ago, the Elks are aging and dying. Slightly more than 2% of Elks pass away each year, and membership is down about 23% from its 1980 peak of 1.65 million. It is part of a national drop in fraternal and civic club participation by those who have grown up with television, two-income parents and fathers expected to do more with the family than with cronies at the lodge.

So to avoid becoming an endangered species, the Elks must bring in new blood. And women, Elks officials say, appear to be a potential transfusion, though the terms they use to describe them sometimes verge on the politically incorrect.

"Two more women joined last night," Joe Urban, 68, said Wednesday of his Mission Viejo Elks lodge, which has 607 members. "So we have seven now. . . . And we have a lady officer. She's a high-class lady and she's a darn good officer."

The Mission Viejo Elks lodge is the first Orange County lodge in a generation to expand its den, offering arcade games for children, outdoor barbecue facilities and live dance entertainment on Friday nights. It has its share of the stereotype--paunchy older gents nursing highballs at the bar--but also athletic 20-something members and a diverse mix of profession and race.

In the rich tradition of bus driver and Raccoon lodge member Ralph Kramden of "The Honeymooners" fame, one of the Mission Viejo lodge's past leaders works as a diesel mechanic for the county transit authority. One of the first African American members of the lodge was the late Superior Court Judge Marvin G. Weeks, presiding judge of Orange County Superior Court before he retired.

Image of White Establishment Lingers

The Elks leaders say they have no data on membership gender or race because they don't ask such questions on applications. Scattered lawsuits by women rejected for membership persist.

And despite the Elks' admittance of nonwhites in 1973, the image still lingers for some of a white establishment club of community fathers. The results of a "grand forum"--Elkdom's highest court--at the Burbank lodge last year did not help. An Elks lodge leader was found not guilty of conduct unbecoming an Elk after he "jokingly" used a racial epithet twice in conversation with a newly admitted African American member.

But past Grand Exalted Ruler Frank Garland, whose title means national president, says the Elks are trying to weed out such dinosaurs, and his best guess is that the Elks have at least 5,000 women members. Other Elk leaders say the number is at least twice that, since 2,000 joined in the first year after the national leadership OKd women and a majority of more than 2,150 Elks lodges ratified the vote.

If such estimates are accurate, women are still only 2% of the Elk population, which is about the same percentage of Elks who are dying each year.

"In 20 years there won't be any Elks left" if the organization does not add members, said Garland, an easygoing retired owner of a glass company who remains on the national advisory committee. "It's one thing to keep members from quitting, but not so easy if they're dead."

The estimate of about 2% female membership holds true at Garland's 900-member Centralia-Chehalis lodge in Washington, where there are 25 or 30 women members. Baby-sitters are provided at some lodges and playground equipment has been installed on the grounds, signs he says that the Elks are changing.

But not all that change has come easily.

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