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MIKE DOWNEY

Elks on Antlers of Dilemma

July 18, 1999|MIKE DOWNEY

Why would a woman want to be an Elk?

For the same reason men do.

Because it is a fine organization. Because for 131 years now, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks has been doing good deeds and enjoying the company of good friends.

Elks don't go to conventions, put on funny hats and drop water balloons out of windows, the way "lodge brothers" are often pictured in old TV shows and films.

At least not as far as I know.

Their national convention was held last Monday through Thursday, and there haven't been any reports out of Kansas City that the town was taken over by Elks run amok.

An estimated 10,000 attended the convention, out of the organization's membership of 1.3 million. They had a lot to be proud of, particularly $160 million raised by Elks in 1998 to give to charity.

Too bad that Dona Etienne couldn't celebrate with them. Too bad Georgia Bonacci couldn't either. Or that Mary Jo Harding couldn't. Or that several of their lodge sisters couldn't.

Because their lodge doesn't have any sisters.

Which is why Etienne and Bonacci flew to Kansas City, where everything was not up to date. The two women from Southern California carried placards outside the convention hall, protesting the exclusion of women from the Elks chapter in the ironically named city of Bellflower.

"NOT ALL ELKS HAVE ANTLERS," one sign read.

*

Our town was surrounded by proud organizations like these back when I was a boy. A chicken couldn't cross a road without bumping into a sign: Lions, Kiwanis, Knights of Columbus, Rotary, Moose. . . .

What went on in these clubs? Beats me. I had seen too much TV, laughing at Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton giving each other the secret Brotherhood of Raccoon salute, or at the Kingfish wanting a few words with the Exalted Mystic Ruler of the Sea.

My old man belonged to the American Legion and the VFW. What I remember mainly was that they supported worthy causes and threw a few good parties, always with the aid of a "ladies' auxiliary."

Dotty Jensen knows those days.

She was raised in the Midwest, same as me. Her husband, Wally, is originally from little Momence, Ill., a few miles from my hometown.

They even met at a club . . . the USO. Dotty and her twin sister had been dancers. (They were actually triplets, but a third sister didn't survive.) Like a lot of couples who first get acquainted at social clubs, the Jensens would eventually get married and join one.

It was 1976 when Wally first became an Elk. Living now in California and working in litho-photography--as was his wife--he was invited to apply at the all-male Bellflower lodge.

There was a membership screening process. Dorothy Jensen remembers being interviewed herself, even though she understood that women could be only auxiliary members.

For more than 22 years, Dotty has been one of the Lady Elks. Her husband served twice as the chapter's Exalted Ruler.

"If there was a funeral, we fed everybody. If there was a dignitary present, we fed everybody. We made people feel like a part of our Bellflower Elks family. I couldn't believe it when I found out that I wasn't part of that family myself."

She found out the hard way:

By hearing laughter behind her back.

On May 12, the Bellflower lodge brothers blackballed Jensen--as well as Etienne, Bonacci, Harding and other Lady Elks, most in their 60s or 70s--for the third time since their national organization began accepting women in 1995. (Literally blackballed . . . that's how Elks vote, a white ball for "yes," a black for "no.")

"They didn't even tell us in person," says Jensen, 77, who lives in Norwalk. "They let us find out we were blackballed by the uproar [of laughter and applause] in the lodge when we walked in to attend an Elks dinner made and served by the ladies at our monthly meeting of the auxiliary."

It hurt.

Etienne, a 10-year Bellflower auxiliary member, says, "We thought that if we helped the Elks, they would help us."

"I was happy to find out from the Grand Lodge that women could become members," adds Bonacci. "I was more enthused when I found a group of lady friends had already joined other Elk lodges. I applied for membership at the Bellflower lodge, only to be turned down for no specific reason other than that I am a woman."

*

These women might feel differently if they could find a single example of a man being rejected. They say three males were just accepted and initiated into the Bellflower lodge on June 30.

"They need new membership," Jensen says. "They need money. They need people with brains, and they turn us down?"

No blackballer is offering an explanation. Wally Jensen, partially paralyzed by a stroke, is in no position to help.

So maybe Dotty should drop it?

"There's something you should know about me," she says. "I don't quit till I get what I want."

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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