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Dwindling Shriners find few to wear John Wayne’s hat

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Tacoma News Tribune

Dwindling Shriners find few to wear John Wayne’s hat

August 16th, 2006

I can picture John Wayne as movie marshal Rooster Cogburn wearing that battered dark gray 10-gallon cowboy hat.

I can’t picture him wearing a Shriners’ maroon fez with a gold tassle. But he did.

Wayne, arguably the No. 1 all-time cinema hero, bought into the most valuable tenets of the Shriners’ fun brand of freemasonry – friendship, morality and brotherly love.

Who wouldn’t want to join a fraternity with tenets like those? Apparently, a lot of us these days don’t.

In 1975, the same year Universal Pictures released “Rooster Cogburn,” the Shriners opened Afifi Shrine Temple next to the Scottish Rite Temple, on nearly 20 acres in Tacoma’s West End.

They needed more space to accommodate a growing membership that numbered roughly 8,700 Afifi Shriners plus their circus calliope, old clown jalopies, parade floats and Oriental band equipment.

Today, the two fraternal organizations have put their remaining 10 acres and two temples up for sale. Asking price: $7.6 million.

The state’s oldest Shriners organization, founded in 1889, has gotten old and irrelevant to younger generations.

With a few more than 1,000 members left – and no Oriental band – the demographic trend suggests Afifi Shrine will dwindle to fewer than 500 members in five years.

That’s too few to carry the financial obligations of maintaining such a large property and a meeting hall.

“Somehow, we’ve missed almost two generations of people,” said Barry Bede, in line to become Afifi’s illustrious potentate, the top ruler, next year.

“Our average age is over 70,” he said. “We have more members over 95 than under 45.”

The members of Afifi and Scottish Rite decided to sell their property together before either organization got desperate to sell.

“This isn’t a fire sale,” said Don Nau, an Afifi officer.

At $7.6 million, a buyer certainly wouldn’t consider it a fire sale. Each parcel measures 4.95 acres. The Pierce County assessor-treasurer has listed the 2007 assessed value at $2.1 million combined.

Bede says the organizations set the price by taking the assessed value plus the replacement costs of the buildings – even though a buyer probably wouldn’t keep the buildings.

The fraternal organizations sold part of their original property to the YMCA for construction of the Morgan Family branch in 1976. Around the fenced fraternal compound on a dead end stretch of Vassault Street, you’ll find Temple Beth El, the Jewish synagogue; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; and apartment complexes.

The Masonic properties could serve as a private school site or, more likely, apartments, Bede said. The Shrine and Scottish Rite will leave the neighborhood for something smaller that befits a smaller crowd.

Meanwhile, Bede, during his term as potentate, plans a membership drive aimed at attracting younger generations to what he calls “the greatest fraternity with the greatest philanthropy.”

Scottish Rite runs speech and hearing centers.

Shriners own and operate 22 hospitals in North America that provide free care – primarily orthopedic and burn treatment – for children. They raise money with a circus and an annual college football all-star game. The Afifis feature a traveling troupe of award-winning clowns.

“We don’t understand why someone wouldn’t want to be part of this philanthropy,” Nau said.

In an upper room at the temple, you’ll see old black-and-white panoramic photos featuring hundreds of Shriners gathered at woodland picnics in the late 1800s and clad in Oriental-themed uniforms at civic parades in the 1920s and 1930s.

Shriners and Scottish Rites also maintain the rituals, passwords and gradual advancement to higher and higher Masonic degrees.

Perhaps the slow, progressive nature of that advancement turns off younger generations interested in more instant gratification and quick leadership opportunities.

Before Bede could become a Shriner, for example, he first had to join the Scottish Rite and advance to what’s called the 32nd degree. That rule changed, however, in 2000 when Shriners started accepted third-degree master masons as a way to make membership easier.

It hasn’t attracted enough new recruits in Tacoma to hang onto the 31-year-old temple.

“This isn’t unique to Shriners,” Nau said. “All fraternal organizations are experiencing it. … Young people today just don’t want to be joiners.”

Will the local Masonic organizations regain the prestige that once made them the must-join organizations of Tacoma? I don’t know.

Perhaps a lesson from John Wayne, master mason, will help. In 1964, The Duke’s six-pack-a-day cigarette habit led to lung cancer. The future looked bleak – and possibly short. Doctors removed one lung and two ribs.

“Tomorrow is the most important thing in life,” Wayne said. “Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.”

He stopped smoking. Five years later, he achieved the film industry’s highest honor – winning his only best actor Oscar for portraying Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit.”

Dan Voelpel: 253-597-8785


Further Reading:

The Royal Order of Jesters - The Shriners Secret Society Secret Society - 'Mirth is King'

The Shriners - The 'Krafty' Klowns