Don’t call him the “Grand Pooh-bah.”
Only his grandchildren get to call Edward J. Mahan that.
Mahan, head of the nation’s largest fraternal organization, is visiting Elks lodges in North Idaho this week. As grand exalted ruler, Mahan spends most of his time on the road. He’ll tour lodges in every state during his one-year term, and he’ll be back in three weeks for the Elks state convention in Spokane.
Mahan, a 65-year-old attorney from Framingham, Mass., presides over the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks at an interesting time. The group is fighting to retain members. And last fall, after a contentious convention battle and $1.3 million spent unsuccessfully fighting lawsuits, the order changed its constitution to allow female members.
“It was ‘tradition’ vs. ‘the time has come for change,”’ said Mahan.
The move hasn’t hurt membership much, he said.
“I’m sure there’s some redneck out there who tore his card up, but I’m not aware of any.”
The convention vote - with the change approved by two-thirds of the delegates - came 22 years after a struggle over removal of the word “Caucasian” from membership requirements. Until 1973, the Elks didn’t allow non-whites to join.
The Elks formed in 1868, from a group of 15 young New York actors known as “The Jolly Corks.” When one member died, leaving a widow, the group decided to embrace philanthropy. At that first meeting, the group voted 8 to 7 to rename themselves Elks. The alternative: “The Buffaloes.”
The Elks reached their highest membership - 1.5 million - about 15 years ago. Today, there are about 1.3 million members.
“It’s kind of a sign of the times with all organizations,” said past Grand Exalted Ruler James Damon, an Oregon businessman. “People just aren’t joiners. There’s more me-ism than there is us-ism.”
“Plus, you can stay at home and watch sitcoms,” said Mahan.
To combat that, the Elks are trying to attract families with sports and other events, he said.
“The strong lodges, the ones that are growing, are deeply involved in families,” said Mahan.
Also, Mahan said, Elk members - the average age is late 50s - hope to tap into the aging baby-boomer generation.
“They’re getting a little old for the old bowling alley,” he chuckled.
The Elks have changed over the years to discourage rowdy ceremonies and hazing. When Damon joined in the 1950s, for example, he was blindfolded for his initiation.
“That’s all passe,” he said. “What we’re orienting ourselves to now is a family organization.”
A faction within the organization also wants to change the grand exalted ruler’s title to “national president.”
“There’s no secret handshakes,” said Mahan. “There are rituals of initiation, rituals for Mother’s Day, rituals for inducting officers. But not in the depth that the Masons do it.”
Still, he occasionally gets needled. When Mahan was installed as grand exalted ruler last July, his grandchildren showed up wearing “My Grandfather is the Grand Pooh-bah” T-shirts. The grand pooh-bah was head of a fictional lodge in “The Flintstones” cartoons.
To change such images, Mahan said, the Elks are more likely today to tout the group’s extensive volunteer and philanthropic work. The Elks have a $200 million perpetual fund, the interest from which pays for hospitals, veterans’ programs, disaster aid, anti-drug programs and scholarships. Idaho Elks fund a Boise children’s hospital, plus many local projects.
Last year, the foundation disbursed more than $11 million.
“Everyone thinks the Elks is the place you go down the street to drink. They don’t realize that every flag in the street came from the Elks, or that the ballfield came from the Elks,” Mahan said.
“The biggest thing we have to offer is the mechanism for you to help someone else.”
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