Renton, Washington, USA
A faded portrait
By OSCAR HALPERT, Editor
April 05, 2004
Fraternal clubs, like the Masons, Elks and Eagles, have seen significant membership declines since their heyday
In 1994, Ted Sorbello was appointed exalted ruler - or president in common parlance - of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks Renton Lodge 1809.
With its sweeping, expansive views of the city, the lodge, just off Benson Road near Renton Hill, had since 1951 served as the gathering point for what was once a thriving Elks membership.
Within months of his appointment, however, Sorbello and his fellow Elks came face to face with a harsh reality: Their dwindling membership could no longer sustain the lodge.
At its peak in 1969, the Elks had 2,200 members, according to Hobe Allwine, former exalted ruler. In October 1994, with a membership that had dropped to fewer than 500, the Elks sold the facility, which was converted into a 91,000-square-foot retirement community known as The Lodge at Eagle Ridge.
"The first of the month, they could figure on $5,000 going out the window," Sorbello said of the cost of keeping the lodge. "It got to the point where participation would not support keeping the lodge open."
Much has been written about Renton's 20th-century expansion as an industrial hub that really began to boom during World War II. The men and women who worked in those factories came together socially, for the most part, within fraternal organizations like the Elks, Eagles, Freemasons, Knights of Columbus and Odd Fellows, or their feminine counterparts.
Before the Rotary Club of Renton, the Greater Renton Chamber of Commerce and the Renton Community Foundation organized large-scale fund-raisers, these fraternal organizations were the primary social and networking engines for this city of immigrants and pioneers. Many of the city's founding fathers and their descendants were members and shaped Renton's philanthropic efforts.
Today, though several organizations are seeing a sudden resurgence of interest, the number of dues-paying men and women who take part in fraternal organizations has declined substantially since their post-WWII heyday.
That's not to say that involvement in civic organizations is a thing of the past. Without strong community support and a host of volunteers, the Renton IKEA Performing Arts Center and Renton Technical College's new Technology Resource Center likely would not have become realities.
But fewer men and women are drawn to fraternal organizations than they were 20 or 30 years ago. In their place, service clubs, like Kiwanis, Rotary and the Lions, have become focal points of community fund-raising and professional networking.
Fraternal organizations were a natural offshoot of the guilds of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Most were organized in the 18th and 19th centuries, though some claim a much more ancient heritage.
Freemasonry is said to date to the building of King Solomon's temple more than 2,500 years ago, but the modern Masonic order actually started in 1717 with the establishment of the Grand Lodge of England.
Fraternal clubs, with the lodges they built, were a place where immigrants to the New World could come and eat, be entertained and socialize with transplants from their native lands.
At a time when workers received no benefits and public charity was generally frowned upon, fraternal organizations provided dues-paying members with dependent support, health care and funerary coverage.
These organizations were, by definition, exclusive to white males, though so-called "sister" organizations, like the Eagles Auxiliary or the Odd Fellows' counterpart, the Rebekahs, which formed in Renton in 1899, also have been very active.
Over time, fraternal organizations began to admit minorities and females, and today it's not unheard of to find them in leadership positions.
A popular image of fraternal organizations, particularly Freemasonry, is of secret meetings and handshakes, but there's a good historical reason for it. Secrecy often protected members from retribution.
Though membership in the Freemasonry requires a belief in a single deity, there's no requirement that members follow the precepts of any religion. That didn't sit well with the Catholic Church, which persecuted Freemasons for centuries.
Renton's connection to Freemasonry began in 1881, 20 years before the city's founding, with St. Andrews Masonic Temple Lodge 35.
"A lot of the city fathers were members of this lodge," said Daryl Orseth, secretary of the lodge, which since 1968 has been at 505 Williams Ave. S.
"When I was active in the line in the late '50s and '60s, we were bringing in members at a rapid rate," said Orseth, who served as worshipful master, the equivalent of president, as a 30-year-old in 1963.
"Today, we have 160 members, and most are over 50 years old. I'd say we have maybe 10 or 15 members who are under 40."
The Independent Order of Odd Fellows had a long Renton history before its local organization succumbed to declining membership rolls in 2001.
Now 90, Harold Macklin lives with his wife in a Kent assisted-living facility. In a 2000 Renton Historical Society Quarterly newsletter article, Macklin said he held every office in Renton's Independent Order of Odd Fellows, which started in 1884.
In the same article, long-time resident Ethel Telban, whose father, Blase Telban, was an early Odd Fellow, recalled the annual Christmas celebrations the group held: "There was always a big Christmas tree in the hall, a program for the children and then each child was given a mesh stocking filled with Christmas goodies."
The tide reverses
In his 2000 book, "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community," Harvard Univer-sity professor Robert D. Putnam analyzed 20th-century community involvement.
His research showed that from 1900 to about 1968, "a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but only a few decades ago - silently, without warning - that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a dangerous rip current."
Putnam wrote that human networks, like those found within a fraternal organization, create "social capital." He argued that social capital is as important to a society as financial, human or political capital.
To Orseth and current St. Andrews Worshipful Master Richard Bish, changes in society are the reason for the decline in membership in fraternal organizations like Freemasonry. In an increasingly mobile society, in which many families have two working parents or a single working parent, finding time for fraternal activities is a stretch.
"Today, your kids are in soccer or Little League, and you're running around all the time, taking your kids to do something," Orseth said.
Freemasonry membership also has suffered because of a long-standing tradition of not actively recruiting new members. Instead, those who wanted to join a lodge had to ask an existing member.
Orseth, who is originally from Bryn Mawr, at one time lived in Redondo Beach, Calif., and was uninvolved in lodge activities for several years.
"I had the kind of job when I got there that required a lot more than eight hours a day," he said. "I didn't get involved in any lodge activities until I retired and came back home."
His son, David, is a member of St. Andrews and was an officer, but he dropped out this year because his company sent him out of town.
At the Masons' Grand Lodge in Tacoma, the state's Masonic headquarters, office manager Charlene Leigh has been a member since 1960. She's seen the membership ups and downs over the years and notes that between 1998 and 2002, state Masonic lodges experienced a net average loss of between 670 and 725 members each year.
"They're dying faster than they can get in," she said.
Some seeing gains
At Renton's Fraternal Order of Eagles Lodge 1722, Bud Bunger, secretary of the men's organization, called the Aerie, oversees the daily operations for the lodge, located at 316 S. Third St.
Bunger said the Eagles' membership has generally been dropping, though a recent push for dues renewals brought quite a few inactive members back into the fold.
"It was in a slump and it's starting to pick up," he said.
In 1982, the lodge celebrated its 75th anniversary in Renton. Membership jumped to a near-all-time high of 1,722. Today, there are 850 members, most of whom are in their 50s and 60s, Bunger said.
Because it has its own lodge, which includes a dining room and kitchen, along with a bar, the Eagles building is a popular site for the 21 Club, a social-service club like the Lions or Kiwanis that uses the lodge for its meetings.
Each year, the Eagles raise money through their foundation for firefighters, police and other emergency-management personnel. They also donate money to several charities, including the Anita Vista House, a support facility for cancer survivors.
The counterpart of the Aerie, the Eagles Auxiliary, has operated in Renton for 77 years. Janice O'Conner, its secretary, said membership rolls haven't changed as dramatically for her group. Most of the members are between the ages 40 and 70.
"We're having a hard time getting younger ladies," she said. "The young people have so many more things that they're doing."
The auxiliary had 716 members in June 2000 and now has 623. Finding new members is an ongoing obstacle, though she said 13 joined the auxiliary just last month. And O'Conner said she's particularly proud that the auxiliary managed to raise more than $10,000 for charities in 2003.
"It's a real challenge to us, I think, because there's so much more for people to do nowadays," she said. " People are so busy with other things."
Another fraternal organization that seems to be experiencing a bit of a rebound locally is the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization operating in Renton since the early 1950s.
Last year, a group, or council, based at St. Stephen the Martyr Parish, started in East Renton. While it meets at St. Stephen, another council, the Father Thomas Lane Council, meets at St. Anthony Parish.
"We are definitely on the upswing now," said Thomas Monahan, deputy grand knight and membership coordinator of the Thomas Lane Council.
Founded in New Haven, Conn., in the 1880s by Father Michael J. McGivney, the Knights' purpose is "to be a support mechanism for the church," Monahan said.
"It was mainly founded because the other fraternal organizations at the turn of the century were a lot more exclusive. Father McGivney saw that and thought he could do two things at once: Give Catholics something in which they could be faithful to the religion, and as a means of providing social benefits to widows and orphans."
One change has been a greater emphasis on outreach, he said.
"When I joined, there was a very small advertisement in the back of our newsletter at Sunday Mass. When I became membership director, I'd make a conscious effort, when there's coffee and doughnuts at St. Anthony Parish Hall, to be visible."
The effort has paid dividends. The St. Stephen council added 50 members last month and is actively recruiting men between 18 and 20, Monahan said.
Rise of service clubs
There is no bar, no dart board and no pull tabs - all common to fraternal lodges - when the Rotary Club of Renton meets regularly at Maplewood Golf Course. The nearly 100 dues-paying men and women of Rotary are generally younger as a group than any of the fraternal organizations in town.
"We certainly have a strong social element, but there's no question that our core mission is to primarily raise money to benefit the community," said Denis Law, Rotary president and a Renton City Council member.
He said membership has generally "vacillated" between 95 and 105 members.
"We've been fairly successful at keeping members," he said. "A lot of our turnover tends to be predominately corporate transfers, that sort of thing."
Rotary, like Kiwanis and Lions groups, among others, are identified as service clubs. Instead of building lodges, sponsoring entertainment and providing things like health care for their members, the primary aim of service clubs is to assist community events and causes.
Many service clubs, unlike most fraternal organizations, have seen their membership stay constant, if not increase.
"We've pretty much held steady at about 60 members a year," said Newt Jones, president of the Downtown Renton Lions Club, which has operated since 1941.
Today, the Elks' Sorbello is secretary of Lake Sammamish Lodge 1843 in Issaquah, which has incorporated members of other, now-defunct Elks lodges in the area. He said he remembers how different things were 20 or 30 years ago, when he was active in Renton Elks activities.
"It used to be that all week long, my wife and I would go out to the Elks Lodge. Today, that doesn't happen," he said.
Sorbello said Elks charitable contributions have held steady, even with the approximately 5 percent annual decline in membership statewide. The State Elks Association actively supports Children's Regional Hospital and Medical Center in Seattle, and the Issaquah lodge has a $1.25 million annual budget.
For members of fraternal organizations like Sorbello, the socializing with fellow members happens more often than not on weekends, not throughout the week. Yet despite declining membership, their influence in their communities - the social capital they provide - is not so easily diminished.
Oscar Halpert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (253) 437-6009.
Renton Reporter 2004