Fraternal Reorder

Rather than face a slippery slide toward extinction, local Elks are growing the herd by welcoming women and minorities

Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton got their manly fill at the Royal Raccoon Lodge (while Alice and Trixie waited in their Brooklyn tenements).

Archie Bunker, Barney, and Munson ingratiated themselves at the Knights of Columbus Lodge (while Jefferson went to a club for his "own kind").

Fred Flintstone and Barney woofed it up at the Water Buffaloes' Lodge (while Wilma and Betty stayed home tending to Pebbles and Bamm Bamm).

Secret handshakes. Cornball headgear. The obligatory acts of charity that justify getting drunk and carrying on with your pals -- white, God-fearing, true-blue Americans. For many, the television image of fraternal organizations remains. The Moose, the Elks, the American Legion, the Masons. Card-carrying members enjoyed nonprofit prices at the lodge bar -- the cornerstone of the organizations.

Fact is, for years millions of American men looked to them for social, business, and charitable activities. But today, memberships at fraternal organizations are way down, on the wane for the last fifteen years. Prospective new members have been lost to the changing nature of leisure time. Daddy doesn't have hours to kill every night at the lodge; he's sharing household and child-rearing duties. And if he's single, he may be into self-improvement: working out at the gym or working overtime in his career. A nation of joiners has become a nation too busy and self-absorbed to participate, and dwindling membership dues have shut down lodges across the country.

While some clubs are going down without a fight, accepting their demise as the natural concomitant of the death of a generation, the Elks are making an effort to recruit new members, even nontraditional, long-excluded members: minorities and women. The attempt to diversify the Elks, the nation's largest fraternal organization with 1.3 million members, has slowed the decline in memberships. (The head count in Florida's 128 lodges fell from 93,000 in 1990 to 80,000 in 1996.)

One local lodge in particular exemplifies the new progressive outlook. Coral Gables Lodge No. 1676, located on Giralda Avenue behind the Hyatt Hotel, boasts one of the first women Elks in the nation (and the first Elk to bear a child), as well as relatively young minorities and nontraditional members -- a Latin, a Jew, a woman, and a black (the only one in the eight lodges in South Florida) -- in the top four officer positions. The numbers since 1992 show a steady increase, from 310 members to 389; the lodge maintained between 700 and 1000 members from its founding in 1945 until the early Eighties.

The Elks remain an important institution in the community as a friendly haven and charitable center, insists "Jack" Bradford De Vine, an exuberant 58-year-old lodge member who is affectionately called "Mr. Elk." De Vine, a former TV spokesman for Ocean Cadillac, joined seven years ago and is now chairman of the club's trustees. Venerable lodge rituals are still observed today, like saluting the flag (the Elks created Flag Day), singing "God Bless America," praying, and toasting to members alive and dead at 11:00 p.m. But the bar is now closed for lunch (it opens at 5:30 p.m.), and the salty vocabulary used by some has been curtailed since women were accepted as members in November 1995. Bingo night has given way to Scrabble night, and square dancing to tango, but they still sponsor blood drives and host spaghetti dinners to raise charitable funds. And the Elks are particularly proud of the money they raise for college scholarships, their youth summer camp that can accommodate 189 kids, and the 100-bed Florida Elks Crippled Children's Hospital in Umatilla, north of Orlando. All together, the lodge raised about $7000 last year for charities.

Their core traditions of friendship and generosity to the community are as much a reason as ever for joining, says De Vine, adding that with a few adjustments the old institution will survive.

"When I walked in I thought I was going to die. A bunch of old-fart drunks at the bar, and the place was dark and smelly and dank," remembers Marcie Diehl. She said to the friend who had invited her to the lodge: "You've got to be kidding. Get me out of here."

That was 1991. Diehl left the Coral Gables Elks lodge after a few games of table shuffleboard. An independent TV producer, she returned to the lodge in 1995 to shoot a commercial for the Gold-Diggers, a women's charitable organization that she still belongs to. What she saw then didn't make her grimace. The lodge, founded in 1945, had been renovated since her last visit because of Hurricane Andrew. It was now clean and cozy. "He did a beautiful job," Diehl says of De Vine, who is also in the business of restoring antique houses.

She surveys the lodge and gestures with an open hand toward improvements: light wood panel walls and red tile floors, pool and shuffleboard tables, a dining room, and a huge square wooden bar dominate the first floor. Everything's old-timey and comfortable. Festooned over the bar are flirty Valentine's Day decorations and plastic plants in white plastic pots. The second floor has a large hardwood dance floor, a small meeting room, and photographs of the lodge's past exalted rulers.

Diehl recalls getting a call from De Vine, who said, "We need young blood, we need doers. We need new people with talent and skills." Diehl immediately accepted the invitation and became one of the first women Elks in history in November 1995. Next month she will become the lodge's first female Lecturing Knight, responsible for lecturing about, ironically, "brotherly" love during initiations. It's a position fourth in line from the supreme Exalted Ruler.

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