Fraternal reorder: Clubs, lodges face dwindling membership in modern world

The interior of the former Lawrence Freemasons site, the Scottish Rite Temple, 1001 Mass., is shown in this Journal-World file photo. The Lawrence Freemasons moved from the downtown location to a new site at 1601 W. 23rd St. in 2005, saying the new site would be easier to maintain.

Ask any member of the millennial generation – accustomed to fraternizing on Facebook, Twitter and smart phone apps – what Masons, Eagles and Knights of Columbus are, and he’s likely to answer, “Some random bands on MySpace?”

That’s just one of the problems facing local fraternal organizations whose very existence is being threatened by irrelevance in a modern world.

“Most American fraternal organizations reached a peak in membership in the early 1950s,” explains Howard Duncan of the Lawrence Freemasons, part of an international club established “for mutual help and fellowship.”

“It has been declining since then, Masonry among them.”

“A lot of people got out of the military service in World War II and joined Masons and other fraternal groups – which is why it reached a boom. People who joined at that time are, like me, quite old and appearing in obituary columns.”

Nationwide, membership in the Masons fell from more than 4 million in 1963 to about 1.6 million in 2005. That year, the average age was 62. Duncan says there are currently around 600 members in all of the Masonic groups in Lawrence, which is down considerably from decades past, although he wouldn’t venture an estimate.

“Recently we’ve been pretty good about new members coming in, but membership right now is a lot lower than it was 10 years, 20 or 50 years ago.”

Another challenge for the Masons is their ban on proactive, formalized recruiting.

“The Masons have a long-standing tradition that you do not recruit,” Duncan explains. “One of the vows you take when you join the Masons was that you were not solicited. You joined of your own free will and accord.”

From left, Dana Laudick and her parents, Doris Bateson and LeRoy Bateson, pose in the foyer of the Eagles Lodge, 1803 W. Sixth St. Like other local fraternal organizations, the Eagles have seen dwindling participation as younger generations fail to refill the membership ranks.

Youthful unenthusiasm

Lacking a glitzy “This is not your grandfather’s lodge” marketing campaign, what’s a centuries-old men’s club to do?

Duncan says, “We have to wait until someone expresses an interest, then go ahead and tell them about it.”

The Knights of Columbus, a fraternal organization exclusive to practicing Catholic men, 18 years and older, recently retained a volunteer membership director who uses lists of new parishioners from St. John the Evangelist Church and word-of-mouth to find new blood.

Even so, member Joe Laframboise says his club’s membership skews to the over-40 set. He blames a societal shift for the younger generation’s lack of interest.

“When I was growing up – and I’m over 50 – we just had regular TV, for example,” he points out. “There wasn’t cable TV, the VCR and DVD hadn’t come around yet. There are just so many other distractions, if you wish. You can do a lot of different things different ways – by yourself, in a group.”

Laframboise cites the book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” written by Robert Putnam in 2000, who reported that the number of Americans attending club meetings has declined by 58 percent in just one generation. Two-parent working families and increased options for free-time activities are to blame, according to the author.

“People are just doing things by themselves on their computers, and they’re not interested in belonging to a group,” Laframboise says.

Doris Bateson, who with her husband, Leroy, has been active in the local Fraternal Order of Eagles since the ’70s, says she is particularly disturbed by how the “Bowling Alone” problem affects Generation Y.

“The reason young people aren’t getting involved is because they’re not fraternally oriented. We’re going to have to figure out a way to change that if we’re going to survive,” she says.

Bateson, who is a Past International President of FOE, believes the way to do that is to emphasize community service.

“Recently at (Aerie) 309, we’ve gotten more involved in community projects like the St. Patricks’ Day parade and the Boys and Girls Club. The younger generation is joining because they want to be involved in community projects, and that’s a good thing.”

Still, Eagles membership is down – approximately 20 percent for women and 50 percent for men – since the Batesons helped build the current Eagles Lodge at 1803 W. Sixth St. The smoking ban, which went into effect in 2004, didn’t help either.

“We lost 200 members with the smoking ban,” says Leroy Bateson. “And bingo attendance dropped, too.”

Mysteries revealed

Dana Laudick, 57, daughter of Leroy and Doris and FOE member, sees another reason for the organization’s degeneration.

“Young people are more than willing to help, and they’re great at participating in charitable fundraisers. But – and my mother will disagree with me because she’s 80 and a charter member – the rituals that some of these organizations adhere to – the stuff that goes on at the meetings – these kids aren’t at all interested in that. It’s boring to them. It’s dated. You’ve got a 15-20 minute ritual that they perform just to open a meeting. They’re not going to sit through that.”

She said her 22-year-old son recently joined the lodge, primarily to use the lounge where liquor prices are lower than bars around town.

“We may have to start doing things a little differently than we did 100 years ago in order to get the involvement and do good things for the community,” Laudick says.

The rituals, which are often elaborate and shrouded in secrecy (although the Internet has forced some secret ceremonies out of the closet), have proven to be a double-edged sword, at least for the Masons.

Duncan says, “The mysteries of Masonry have been amplified far beyond what they are in movies – ‘National Treasure,’ for instance – and, of course, in Dan Brown’s recent book, ‘The Lost Symbol.’ (The book) in fact, has sparked some interest.”

“There’s not a lot of mystery,” he adds. “What’s secret is the means by which we recognize one another, in case unusual help is to be requested. To that extent, it’s secret. But some of our meetings are open – installations and award ceremonies are open to the public.”

Future shock

So, what does the future look like for local lodges?

Leroy Bateson worries about the Eagles but doesn’t think the organization is looking at extinction anytime soon.

“I won’t go as far as to say it won’t be around at all because in places like California and Ohio, it’s going strong. But in the state of Kansas, we had 43 aeries in 1992, and now we’re down to 30.”

Laframboise says, “Knights are here to serve, not to be served, and that’s what we will continue to do.”

“There is not even the slightest seed of a doubt in my mind that Masonry will survive,” Duncan asserts. “It has done so for more than a millennium. I do not worry about the survival of Masons in Lawrence or the rest of Kansas, even though continuance will necessitate changes.”