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Fraternal Reorder

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.

Her initiation was soul-stirring, she says, one she is honor-bound not to specifically discuss with nonmembers. It included formal instruction, through parables, of the club's four principles: charity, brotherly love, justice, and fidelity. The officers conducting the ceremony didn't wear outrageous garb, just medallions symbolizing one of the principles. She's serious about her "Elkdom" and has recruited other women to join. But some people just don't understand her motivation, she says. She quotes the wife of an Elk who, minutes before her initiation, asked her, "'So honey, you coming here to meet a husband?' I fell on the floor laughing."

Beth Heiman joined because she was surrounded by Elks and just fell into it. Her father was an Elk, as were her first husband and his father, and her second husband. Before becoming an Elk, she considered the lodge a "drinking hole. They met their friends there. It was like Cheers."

With her first Elk husband, eight years her senior, she began going to lodge dances and functions while in her mid-twenties. "It was all old people. I'm talking sixties, seventies, eighties," she recalls. "I would bring my girlfriend and we would sneak out and run across to the Hyatt next door." But Heiman began spending a lot of time at the lodge when she became its administrator eight years ago, keeping track of the lodge's books. "I got to know a lot about the Elks' business. Some of them had a hard time accepting me as a woman with that knowledge." Women had always been a part of the Elks as the "ladies auxiliary," doing work the men disdained, like cooking and decorating. Heiman says women weren't always welcome in the lodge.

"We are a community service group, and women are now doing a lot of the work," she says. Remarried and the mother of five children (her first husband died in a car accident), Heiman now calls members of the lodge her extended family. But like most families, it's not perfect. "It's going to take years and years for the lodges to accept a change from the good old boy hangout."

That transformation is already evident, however. Far from being an old boy, 28-year-old Clelia Carcases spends much of her free time at the lodge. "I'm here two, three times a week," she says. "This is definitely my social life."

Like many other new Elks, Carcases was recruited by De Vine. She met him in 1992 on a flight from Miami to Dallas, what she now calls the turning point in her life. "I've been introduced to a whole bunch of wonderful people through him," she says. "People who like me, support me, whose friendships I enjoy. People who accept me the way that I am. "

Carcases has congenital spina bifida, a crippling disease that rendered her legs limp. She is unusually short and hobbles about with crutches. Part of her volunteer work as an Elk has included a visit with the children at the Elks' hospital in Umatilla. She hopes to help children endure often-painful physical therapy with empathy and compassion engendered by her own early experiences. Unfortunately, she must continue to surmount physical impediments at the lodge itself, the home of an organization that prides itself on its charity to the handicapped. Particularly bothersome are the many steep steps from the street level to the building's entrance, and the stairway to the second floor. But those barriers are also vanishing. Since she became a member, the lodge has bought an elevator and added handrails in the men's bathroom -- the women's bathroom is next.

With her gleaming smile, Carcases is regarded by her fellow Elks as a dynamo because of her energy and participation in lodge events and projects. And when she needs personal assistance she turns to Elks. Recently she was shopping for a condominium and tells of one Elk, a lawyer, who went out of his way to help her with the sale. "I feel very comfortable here, very much like a family. There's a great sense of loyalty. When you need help it's there."  

Born in Venezuela of Chilean parents, Carcases had never heard of the Elks club before meeting De Vine. After a few visits to the lodge, she introduced De Vine to her parents, who were naturally curious about the organization -- "Elks? What's that?"

"The age difference has become invisible," notes Carcases, who is roughly half the age of the average Elk. "I have a better time with them than with people my own age. I don't have time to waste, and we don't waste time doing silly stuff. I've found something good to do and a place to do it."

A woman here to rehearse for the annual charity song-and-dance review at the Gusman Theater glides by and ruffles Carcases's brown hair. "See?" Carcases smiles. "Everybody knows me -- I'm very popular here!"

There was one other black Elk at the lodge before him, says Philip Bell, but he didn't last long. Bell and the other Elks are unsure why. "He ran into some trouble because of his race," he says. A 35-year-old security guard at the Turkey Point nuclear power plant and an ex-army man, Bell wanted to be an Elk largely for the camaraderie. And not just that of the bar; though he learned to drink in the army, he says he's cut down greatly. "I wanted a nice, relaxed, friendly place to go when I had nothing to do. And somewhere that I could give back to the community."

He expected opposition to his application in 1994. Though the Elks had been open to black applicants for twenty years, virtually none had joined. A 1974 Supreme Court decision that forbids organizations with discriminatory policies to obtain liquor licenses changed the Elks' racially restricted "white males only" policy to "males only", but the disposition against blacks persisted. Some of the older members admit this attitude existed until recently but decline to talk specifically about it.

Like other applicants, Bell faced the indoctrination committee, which he now chairs, and was also questioned for twenty minutes by the investigation committee. He learned the history and role of the club in society, and then explained his reasons for wanting to be an Elk. All went smoothly, and now he's been charged with recruiting more blacks. He says he's trying to recruit his cousin.

"This is the most unique lodge in the country. I know it for a fact because I'm part of it," Bell offers. "Since I've been here I've been treated like a brother Elk. They'd be proud to see more African Americans apply. We're all American citizens. One nation under God. It's a great place to gather and socialize."

Another nontraditional Elk who is re-creating the club with his membership is Manny Cuadrado, a 52-year-old Cuban-American lawyer. Until four years ago, when he was asked to join, he had not heard of the Elks. "I had no idea what the Elks did. I thought they were some kind of conservation group that took care of elks," says Cuadrado, a big mirthful man. He's not joking. Next month he will be crowned Exalted Ruler and will lead the club at meetings. "The social side is very appealing to me, and it's a tremendous charitable good. On the fraternal level, we give monetary aid to members in distress, people who are sick. If I have a mechanical problem with my car the first person I turn to is a brother. I'd do the same for them if they have legal problems. We just plain help each other out."

Including women members is one of the best things that has happened to the Elks, says Cuadrado. "It has added a lot of hard-working people with a different point of view. Fresh ideas and new ways of doing things. Adding women has also chased away some of the more dogmatic men in the group, a small but vocal minority."

National Elks leaders agreed in 1995 to start accepting women members after losing several costly court battles to a Michigan woman who sued the organization when they wouldn't let her join. A majority of the fraternity's 2230 autonomous lodges ratified the change. The vote in South Florida ranged from 75 to 90 percent in favor, says Albert Sandusky, a South Miami Elk and last year's Deputy Grand Exalted leader for South Florida. Women members improve the viability of the Elks, Sandusky says, but the organization remains a fraternity of 90 percent men.

Sandusky, age 65, joined the Elks when he was 31. "The people's needs are different than they used to be," he acknowledges. "It's hard to get the younger fellas in here because most of them are married with children and the wife's working. They don't have the time to devote to it. And it's not just to go down to the bar and drink. We don't want that. We want Elks, people with uncommitted money to put in the organization. We're looking for the 45- to 55-year-olds whose kids are grown up, who have more money and are established in their business, and whose thoughts can go to contributing something to the community."  

The organization didn't always have such altruistic goals. It began as a New York City drinking club in 1867 to circumvent blue laws that prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sunday. The gatherings grew from about eighteen men, mostly singers and actors, who brought food and drink and entertained themselves in the attic of a boarding house. They took the name Jolly Corks, the informal society that one of the group's founders had belonged to in London. After one of the original Corks died unexpectedly, leaving a wife and children bereft just before Christmas of 1867, the jovial group established a fund to support the family and other theatrical performers who might fall upon hard times. With this added purpose, the group changed its name in February 1868 to the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.

Charity was good, but the club's elixir was drink. New members herded to Elks lodges during Prohibition, cozy in the ready-made speakeasies; after repeal of the Volstead Act, the cheap drinks continued to lure members. Since the Elks' bar is not operated for profit, it can offer members cut-rate prices. Membership dues ($72 a year) and donations pay for the Elks' activities.

"We're holding our own," says Jim Cooney, a 53-year-old past Exalted Ruler of the lodge who works as a crane operator. "When I joined, it was in decline, probably about to fold. We worked hard at bringing it back to life. When the women came along, it seems it didn't hurt the lodge, though I didn't feel it was necessary to save the club."

One of the younger Elks, John Goran, a 32-year-old lawyer who defends insurance companies, says he's proud to be an Elk. "As a local lodge we're very sensitive to the changing face of society," he says. But he remembers several years ago when the lodge wasn't such a harmonious place. "There was a lot of bickering and infighting over petty stuff, leaders making a big deal that I was missing a meeting. A few squeaky wheels."

Goran moved to Coral Gables from Pittsburgh as an infant and considers himself a "very Coral Gables-oriented type person." He takes friends to the lodge, but many shy away from joining. "Everybody's afraid to make a commitment," he says. "I love it for the kids' [charities]. And I think it's neat to sit down with older guys, the stories they can tell about World War II and about street cars running up Bird Road -- I never knew that."

There are Elks more active than Goran, but likely few who get as much enjoyment from their membership. He's attracted to the hometown feel of the lodge, his familiarity with the members, the continuity: "Bruce Richard was a Coral Gables police officer who patrolled my neighborhood when I was a kid. I recognized him [at the lodge] and he remembered me as a little kid. He said, 'You lived on Paradiso. Your dad drove a Monte Carlo.' He told me about the stakeouts they had in the neighborhood. He said, 'No, we never had any trouble with you. You and your brother were good kids.'"

Some of the older Elks speak of the good old days, like back in the Seventies when drinking was more prevalent. Jeff Cox has fond memories of a packed lodge, the table shuffleboard jumping till 3:00 a.m. "Twenty years ago you couldn't get in here. Wall-to-wall people. Those days are over," says the retired Florida Power & Light lineman.

Cox was a Mason first, then a Moose, and finally joined the Elks when those organizations began to slide. Though the Elks isn't what it used to be, he says, at least it's still around. "It had to happen," Cox says of the Elks allowing women. "There won't be an organization going that won't have men and women. What the men can't think of, the women can. We had to join the Nineties." His thin smile is magnanimous.


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