Saturday, August 25, 2007

A Grand Gathering, but One With a Solemn Note

This Land
The New York Times
August 26, 2007


As with most matters of Odd Fellowship, nearly every aspect of the annual convention of the Sovereign Grand Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows must adhere to protocol. The dais for the officers’ banquet, for example, must be two-tiered and able to accommodate 50 people, important on the bottom, really important on the top.

Seats for the sovereign grand master, the deputy sovereign grand master, the sovereign grand warden, the sovereign grand secretary and the sovereign grand treasurer. Seats for the leaders of the two uniformed branches, the Patriarchs Militant and its Ladies Auxiliaries. A seat for the president of the International Association of Rebekah Assemblies, established when the Odd Fellows long ago recognized “the need for a woman’s touch.”

Here they are now, the officers and their escorts, proceeding solemnly through the grand ballroom of the Adam’s Mark Hotel as the sovereign grand musician plays “Pride and Gallantry” on the piano. Six hundred people rise to their feet, more than a few with some difficulty.

Robert Robbins, the soft-spoken sovereign grand master whose yearlong tenure ends with this convention, takes his honored place. His black tuxedo is adorned with an eye-catching medallion of merit and the grand master medal he will soon relinquish. His jewelry is modest, given the glint of Odd Fellows bling in the room.

Gazing out upon this gathering of Odd Fellows and Rebekahs, all about to dine on small portions of beef or salmon, he sees a bobbing sea of gray and white. In this crowd he is practically a stripling, at 69.

Since his installation as top Odd Fellow, Mr. Robbins has warned that this order, dedicated to caring for the widowed, the orphaned and the needy, is in a “state of crisis.” Members are dying by the thousands, local lodges are closing by the dozens, and actual participation among the 289,000 members is dropping. If the people sitting before him do not heed his call to replenish the ranks, they will be the Odd Men and Women Out — defunct, extinct, done.

“Unless we can do something to turn the membership losses into significant gains in the next couple of years,” he says later, “we may be at a point where we can’t recover.”

Once we were a nation of joiners, and so many joined the Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization whose name stems from an English journalist’s observation in 1745. He found it “odd” to see “fellows,” rather than the aristocracy, helping widows, orphans and one another. The name stuck, oddly.

In many communities, you can still find an old I.O.O.F. building, a place of some mystery, where the rituals would include acting out the story of the Good Samaritan. Members were to apply that story to real life by aiding their brothers and sisters, chipping in to pay burial costs, for example. You merely had to express belief in one Creator to be eligible; atheists and pantheists need not apply.

Odd Fellows tended to frown on alcohol, loved bestowing medals on one another, and reveled in seeing their sword-carrying, uniformed brothers, the chevaliers of the Patriarchs Militant, march in Main Street parades. In their small worlds, Odd Fellows mattered.

Then came social changes to dull the appeal of fraternal organizations. Tighter government regulations forced the Odd Fellows out of their signature cause, orphanages, while baby boomers found all the pomp and secrecy to be, um, silly. Several years ago, after contentious debate, the Odd Fellows allowed women (!) into their ranks, but that has done little to stem the decline.

It’s gotten so bad that many members of the Patriarchs Militant are too old to march anymore. “Because a lot of them can’t even walk,” explains one chevalier, who includes himself among the nonparading ranks.

Still, here the Odd Fellows are, in Denver, 1,000 strong and not so, coming together from many states and a few countries on an expansive hotel concourse with many large meeting rooms, thus accommodating those using wheelchairs and walkers and cutting down on the chance for escalator mishaps.

At times the concourse is still, as private meetings focus on bylaw changes and membership crises, the protocols of medals and the worthiness of certain charities. Rituals have their occasional glitches, as when the Mardi Gras music of a Rebekahs gathering in one room filters into a memorial service being held by the uniformed branches in another.

But when those meetings break, the floor becomes awash with color, much of it radiating from the distinctive dress of the Ladies Auxiliaries: white nurse dresses, white shoes and white gloves, offset by purple-and-gold capes, purple -and-gold sashes, and purple-gold-and-white yachting caps. You know them when you see them.

Facing his brothers and sisters at this night’s banquet, the grand sovereign master cannot help but wonder what will become of his beloved order. Here is Hank Dupray, 63, a former sovereign grand master from North Carolina who guided the order into establishing an orphanage in Cambodia. Here, too, is Harrell Shoultz, 84, a retired farmer from Indiana who, with his wife, LaVern, just pledged $50,000 to that orphanage.

And here is Mike Easley, 64, who arranged this convention with his wife, Linda. His mother became seriously ill in the early 1950s, leaving him and his three brothers to spend years in a fine Odd Fellows orphanage. He says that he is simply giving back now and mentions in passing that his mother lives today in an Odd Fellows retirement home.

A toast then, to all national leaders of the world, as is Odd Fellows custom. Another toast, to all fraternal leaders of the world. Dinner, remarks, benediction, recessional to the strains of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Odd Fellows and Rebekahs everywhere, good night.


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