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Fraternal Flame

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The dwindling populations of the fraternal orders of the Eagle, the Moose and the Elk

By Cecily Barnes

Seventy-eight-year-old Peter Giammona wears a blue bowling shirt with the word "Pete" inscribed on the left breast pocket and a symbol of the Eagles order on the right. He has thinning white hair and a stocky body. At 11am on a recent Tuesday morning, he is the only member at the lodge, a two-room building decorated with Eagle paraphernalia, paintings of the founding fathers and multicolored brown, orange and yellow shades. Occasionally, other older Eagles will drop in just to hang out, but not much anymore, he says. There was a time when the Eagles used to march in all the parades, but it's hard to get around these days. And the charities, well, they still contribute, just not as much as they used to. So what exactly do they do?

"We have our meetings once a month, and we hold spaghetti feeds, Fourth of July picnics and a few other events," Giammona says. "And we support charities up to the hilt. Matter of fact, we just gave $2,000 to the Crippled Children's Society of Santa Clara County."

Still, Giammona admits, it's not like it used to be. In the 1940s, the order was 5,400 people strong, and members were provided with medical care, sick benefits and a lodge dedicated to philanthropy.

"We had doctors that took care of our people and the lodge paid sick benefits," Giammona says. "If you had an illness for a week, you would get a stipend. It wasn't a lot, but it could put bread on the table."

Things are not much livelier over at the Elks, where a man in a La-Z-Boy chair sleeps in the lobby. But when 86-year-old Joe DiSalvo was a younger man, he lunched at the Elks lodge almost every day of the week, and the place was packed. Men would bring their clients, business associates and out-of-town guests, and in the evening, a card game was always being played.

"I would go to lunch every day. I would go by myself, or if a merchant salesman came in, I would take them," recalls DiSalvo, the 25-year owner of DiSalvo Appliances on Lincoln Avenue and an Elks member since 1937. "I would also use the swimming pool and the steam room and sauna."

But the club was more than just a place to socialize. Like other service clubs, the Elks devoted themselves to supporting local charities, with great attention paid to fundraising and weekly meetings to determine how the funds should be spent. "We are the largest nonprofit organization granting scholarships, second only to the U.S. government," says Elks historian Dick Bartels. "We support little league, veterans, drug awareness programs."

In the past 20 years, membership has dropped steeply in nearly every fraternal order in San Jose and across the nation. Nationally, Lions membership has dropped by 12 percent, the Elks by 18 percent and the Masons by 39 percent. Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam theorizes that this decline stems from the decay of communities in America.

"Many major civic organizations have experienced a sudden, substantial and nearly simultaneous decline in membership over the last decade or two," Putnam writes, citing the little-known fact that even league bowling has declined by 40 percent in the same period. Of course the fact that more people are bowling alone hardly measures up to political activism, Putnam acknowledges, but the greater significance "lies in the social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that solo bowlers forgo."

These days, the Eagles conduct business at a smaller location, where the secretary does the cooking. The Elks Lodge stopped serving lunch and now leases out its kitchen and main assembly room. The lodge's Olympic-size swimming pool is a favorite place to bring the grandkids.

"We get out and ask people if they want to join, and a lot of people say they don't have time, that they pertain themselves more to home," says Giammona of the Fraternal Order of Eagles No. 8. "These are the answers we get."

Television, computers and just the changing times have been offered as reasons why lodge membership continues to drop. People are inundated with ways to spend their free time, and joining a fraternal order has slipped further and further down the priority list.

"If I can watch TV at home with my can of beer, why go anywhere?" Elks secretary Ray Monette asks rhetorically, holding up his arms.

And then there's the other explanation, clung to by the old, generation after generation. "These young people," Giammona says, "they're a different breed, I tell you."

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From the March 26-April 1, 1998 issue of Metro.

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