My father was a member of Elks Lodge No. 0879 on Summer Street in Claremont. The lodge is housed in an old brick building on the corner, with an elk statue on the lawn protecting the building. My father used to play poker there, and I grew up believing that the principal activity of the B.P.O.E. (Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks) was to hold poker games. But the Elks actually have a somewhat broader mission, which is to support V.A. hospitals and disabled veterans, fund youth programs and scholarships, and promote Americanism.
Founded in 1868, and with over a million members in more than 2,100 lodges, the Elks is one of the largest and most active such organizations in the United States. Its lengthy motto is, “The faults of our brothers and sisters we write upon the sand, Their virtues upon the tablets of love and memory.”
Not too long ago I represented someone in a case involving an Elks lodge. That made me think about my father, of course, and I learned quite a bit about the organization, including the good works. I should have known there was more to it than five-card stud. My father was a charitable person.
Back in his day the admission rules were different, but the B.P.O.E. has moved with the times and eliminated most of its restrictive rules. Now, to qualify to become a member, you need to be at least 21, an American citizen, and believe in God.
As an Elk, my father was in good company. President Harding, for whom my father voted in 1920, was a member, and so were Presidents Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Ford. Other well-known members include Babe Ruth, Harry Houdini, Lawrence Welk, and Clint Eastwood, not to mention George Babbitt, the fictional character created by Sinclair Lewis. In one of Robert Heinlein’s novels, the principal character goes to the Elks Club to play pinochle. I think he got the wrong card game. And in an episode of “West Wing,” a character says, “My dad’s an Elk.” So, I’m not alone.
I’ve never considered applying for membership in the Elks, or the Eagles or the Moose for that matter, but I recently came across a reference to the Elks that made me smile. A man named Ethan Zuckerman invented that bane of the Internet, the pop-up ad, and now regrets it. To make amends, he has become the Director of a new research center at University of Massachusetts called “The Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure.” Its mission is to turn the Internet from a private profit marketplace into a digital place for public good.
And he cites the Elks as a model. According to Zuckerman, “Elks Club meetings were what gave us experience in democracy. We learned how to … handle disagreement [and] how to be civilized people who don’t storm out of an argument.”
I never thought of the Elks that way, but those words aptly describe my father the Elk. He rarely got into arguments, and I doubt he ever stormed out of one. It would not have been in his nature since he was always the calmest person in the room.
Of course, I wasn’t there during those late-night poker games, but he never had any reason to storm out of the room. As I recall, he usually won. And when he didn’t, he always reported, “I broke even.”
In the tradition of Elkdom, his virtues are inscribed upon the tablets of my love and memory.