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Closing doors

g and compass

Fort Worth Star Telegram

Closing doors

Dec. 20, 2004

To generations of children who received nurturing and education at the behest of Freemasons for the past century, the closure of the Masonic Home and School in Fort Worth is the sad end of an era.

When viewed through the broad lens of history, the home's demise is one of myriad events that symbolize the significant social change in America that Robert Putnam identified in his thought-provoking book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

Eligible men just aren't joining the fraternal organization as they once did. That has to affect the level of enthusiasm for continuing as demanding an operation as a public school.

Texas Masons voted this month to close the 105-year-old residential facility in south central Fort Worth, citing concerns about lawsuits and the cost of education.

The home for displaced children will operate until the school year ends in May, officials said.

So many failures of charitable organizations have to do with a lack of financial resources. This is not the case with the Texas Masons, who will have the campus property and roughly $50 million in school reserves after the home closes.

Civic and fraternal organizations of all stripes are struggling to remain relevant, although one could argue that groups that marry their desire for fellowship with a desire for service to others are as necessary today as ever.

Putnam's book, which sprang from an article he prepared for the Journal of Democracy in 1995, looked at the dramatic membership declines in organizations as diverse as the NAACP and weekly bridge clubs.

"Somehow in the last several decades of the twentieth century all these community groups and tens of thousands like them across America began to fade," Putnam wrote. "It wasn't so much that older members dropped out -- at least not any more rapidly than age and the accidents of life had always meant. But community organizations were no longer continuously revitalized, as they had been in the past, by freshets of new members."

Masons nationwide have been trying to turn around their dwindling ranks for years, not in small part because fewer numbers mean diminished significance within the community.

"Consequences, beyond financial, result from the serious decline in number of members, including the fact that our organizations are less influential with ever fewer local and national business, professional, educational and governmental leaders listed in our roles," wrote E. Arthur Haglund, past grand master of the Grand Lodge of California in a piece for California Freemasonry online.

The same sentence could be written about Rotarians and Kiwanians, Optimists and Lions, Junior Leaguers and Boy Scouts.

The Texas Masons' decision to close the school might have been inevitable even if the organization's membership wasn't decreasing in number. But Putnam's observation about the changes in society must be factored in:

"Television, two-career families, suburban sprawl, generational changes in values -- these and other changes in American society have meant that fewer and fewer of us find that the League of Women Voters, or the United Way, or the Shriners, or the monthly bridge club, or even a Sunday picnic with friends fits the way we have come to live. Our growing social-capital deficit threatens educational performance, safe neighborhoods, equitable tax collection, democratic responsiveness, everyday honesty, and even our health and happiness."

The Masonic Home and School in Fort Worth can provide instruction even in its closing.

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