September 24, 1995

[Washington Post]
LIFE IN THE FEZ LANE
America’s biggest fraternity faces old age

By Danny Hakim and Luke Mitchell, Special to the Washington Post

BURLINGTON, Vt. The Freemasons – the ancient fraternity whose members once included presidents and tycoons, whose arcane symbols adorn the very coin of the realm, whose leaders have been demonized as tyrants and lionized as humanitarians – are intent on raising some holy heck. The Shriners of Canada and the Northeastern United States, which is kind of a superstar Masons organization, have been arriving here for days. Now they are poised for their march down Main Street of this trendy college town on this crisp September afternoon. They are here to strut their stuff, to show that they are still formidable, vital, their message universal: that despite their dwindling numbers, they remain engaged, relevant, hip.

So far, everything is hunky-dory.

Here they come! They are coming the way they have always come, in fezzes and costumes, some in powdered wigs. The spectacularly ancient among them ride in huge convertibles, Delta 88s and Eldorados mostly, 1970s-era behemoth boatmobiles with commodious seats and fatted upholstery benevolent to bursitis. The merely old promenade themselves, some with canes; some have wigs and muskets; a phalanx of men with chowdery Boston accents are dressed in turbans, with scimitars, their faces painted a garish swarthy brown. The real whippersnappers – men in their fifties and sixties – ride on tiny go-karts, knees tucked under chins, executing spirited figure-eights in vehicles festooned to look like little boats and dwarf Model T’s and weensy monster trucks. A brass band of Masons plays “Hello, Dolly!” Men with kilts squeeze bagpipes. Men wear odd ceremonial aprons. Men wear plaid cutaway tuxes that are, to be frank, lost somewhat between spiffy and snazzy. Spazzy, let’s say.

Amid all this aggressive fuddy-duddyism, joy reigns. It is only on the fringes of this happy homage to goodwill and bad taste that one detects a subtle unraveling. The streets are not lined as they used to be, during the heyday of Masonry. There was adequate advance publicity, but the crowd is a little disappointing, just one or two deep in places; half seem to be children, beguiled by the spectacle, the other half oldsters who one suspects are friends and spouses of the marchers.

Heading into the millennium, Freemasonry is undeniably in decline. Other fraternal orders – Moose, Odd Fellows, Elks – are in decline, too: casualties, it is said, of an American society at war with no-longer-fashionable notions of community and fellowship. But for the Freemasons, the fall seems more precipitous. Once, they were so powerful that a major national political party arose simply to oppose them. They were second on Hitler’s hit list, after Jews and before Catholics.

Masons still do fine and worthy things. They raise big money for good causes. They finance children’s hospitals and burn-injury clinics. They have been hemorrhaging membership, but are still almost 2 1/2 million strong. Still, the fear among the Mason elite is that the organization’s days are numbered, that to much of America they seem silly, secretive, hidebound, exclusionary, obsolete – a modern-day version of the sorry group of losers lampooned in Preston Jones’s “The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia.” In that devastating 1973 play, a Southern fraternal lodge very much like the Masons comes face to face with modernity and its own seedy irrelevance.

The Masons are struggling fitfully to face difficult questions about themselves. The marchers here today are unnervingly homogeneous – all white, all men, mostly superannuated. Some of the informational placards they carry are open invitations to new recruits, but even these are oddly off-putting: “Shriners Are Masons,” declares one, mystifyingly. “Kora’s Past Potentates,” reads another. “The Shrine of North America has 191 Temples With Approximately 190,000 Members,” boasts a third.

Temples? Potentates? Approximately?

On the reviewing stand, a bearded young man tentatively approaches Shriner Richard Cornwell. Cornwell, 61, is a manufacturer’s rep. He wears a fez declaring him to be the Grand Rabban of the Aleppo Temple in Wilmington, Mass. He is a big shot.

The stranger looks to be in his thirties. He is in black jeans and a T-shirt. He looks earnest.

A possible recruit.

A possible young recruit.

The stranger asks what Shriners are, and Cornwell proudly explains that it is the top rung of a steep climb. Before you get there, he says, you must have attained a certain degree in the York Rite or Scottish Rite Masons. And before that you have to reach a certain degree in a Blue Lodge, and to do that you’ve got to go through all sorts of degrees and tests.

What sort of tests, the man asks, reasonably.

Cornwell gets a little squinty-eyed.

It’s a secret, he says.

Ah, the stranger says.

Can’t exactly tell ya, Cornwell says.

Ah, the stranger says.

“Do I have to have money?” he asks. “I’m on welfare.”

“That’d be a problem,” Cornwell says.

The man turns to leave.

“Start putting a few bucks aside,” Cornwell suggests.

But the would-be recruit is already shambling away into the indifferent crowd.

THE CONSULTANT

The Freemasons in 1995 are bedeviled by a fundamental paradox. The very things that have made them historically strong – their elitism, their predilection for secrecy, their corny theosophy, their reverence for tradition and ritual – now threaten to destroy them. Times are changing.

That’s the message that Dudley Davis is trying to give 35 top Masons in this hearing room in a hotel in Tempe, Ariz. It is October 1994, and on this day, the Masonic Renewal Committee of the Free and Accepted Masons of North America are all business. No fezzes, no aprons. Davis is pacing in front of the lectern. His Baltimore-based management consulting firm, Davis Consulting Group, was hired to help the Masons figure out why no one is joining their fraternity.

They have lost 1.6 million members in North America in the last four decades, mostly through attrition. New members are joining faster than old members are quitting, but old members are dying faster than new members are joining. A lot faster. The average Mason is 67 years old. That’s the average. Statistically, for every 45-year-old, there is an 89-year-old. Or two 78-year-olds. Any way you slice it, these are not good numbers.

At a ruddy and trim 60, Davis looks to be one of the younger men in the room. He strides to an easel and draws three circles in the shape of a leaning snowman. His marker squeaks as he writes “89%” inside the largest one. “Eighty-nine percent of Freemasons haven’t been to their lodge in three years,” he says, leveling a Socratic gaze on his fellow Masons. He asks why this is.

“They’re in nursing homes!” someone shouts.

The room convulses in laughter.

Davis is not amused. He has been at this now for six years, and it is a tough sell. Masons are joyful people, mindful of their problem but seemingly not consumed by it. Being Masons, they are consumed with having fun.

To an image doctor, they can seem aggressively self-defeating – like aging spinsters who want very much to look youthful but will not stop dying their hair blue.

Davis gathers up his papers and affixes the group with a steady, serious gaze. “In evolutionary terms,” he says, “the choice, starkly put, is to adapt or to become irrelevant.”

Davis began this crusade as a paid consultant only, but eventually joined the Masons, he says, because of their selflessness. He is urging the Masons to unite the financial and intellectual resources of 2.4 million men behind a single, high-profile campaign: a basic reading program for children nationwide, with a goal of universal American literacy. But Davis’s primary concern in Tempe is more immediate. Without members, he warns them, there will be no money for such things, and no people to accomplish them. The Masons, he says, must improve their recruitment. Get new blood. He brandishes a company newsletter from the Nordstrom department store chain.

“What image does this project?” Davis eyes his audience, the Masonic Renewal Committee, as they browse articles like “Nurturing a Culture That Cares” and “Our Return Policy: Making the Customer Happy.” Davis makes his point: “Nordstrom’s owns its customers.”

Now he hands out a Masonic product. It is a promotional Sunday insert from an Ohio newspaper. On the cover is a painting of a man in a skirt-length Masonic apron, sandals, long wavy hair and a black beard. He wears a V-necked navy-blue medieval tunic and skirt, and holds an L-shaped ruler and a compass. It is bizarre. He looks like some dowdy 15th-century drag queen architect. Inside are snapshots of old men wearing fezzes, sandwiched between thick layers of text.

“This is not what we want the public to see as a first impression,” says Davis. “It’s dark. It’s mysterious. It’s cultist.”

(Such imagery may help explain why the Masons have been accused of heresy by popes, by the Southern Baptist Convention, and even by Pat Robertson, who claimed in his 1991 book “New World Order” that a shadowy cabal of Masons, among others, now controls the Federal Reserve, and possibly orchestrated the Lincoln assassination.)

In the meeting room there are nods of agreement. This sort of cultish image must be stopped, everyone agrees. But soon the meeting breaks up without any grand battle plan consensus. The Masons join their wives in the parking lot, board a chartered bus and are off for good times at the Pinnacle Peak Patio for beer and steaks.

Hovering over the meeting in Tempe is a question. It is never openly stated, but here it is: The Masons may be cornball, they may be too male and too pale, but they exist to promote the basic decent universal values of brotherhood and good fellowship. Their money goes to comfort the afflicted of all races and religions and social classes. So what are we to make of the fact that this particular organization, as old as America, seems to be dying because it has become, to our way of thinking, unacceptably uncool?

ONE MASON’S STORY

Ernie Higgins is 91. He is driving, and it’s quite a ride. You ask him what it means to be a Mason, and between harrowing lane changes, he will tell you.

His nickname, proudly displayed on his calling card, is “The Old Goat.” At the moment, he is careering down the confused one-way mesh of D.C. streets in a tiny Hyundai loaner like a man who’s seen most of the city built around him, which he has. The Crown Vic is in the shop.

We are driving to the House of the Temple at 16th and S – the headquarters of Masonry’s largest branch, the Scottish Rite Freemasons, and one of local Masonry’s most imposing structures.

For Ernie, the lodge is a place where men come together to drink coffee, to talk and to retreat together from the world.

He’s been a Mason since – he summons the date effortlessly – Aug. 18, 1925. He has been master of Theodore Roosevelt Lodge 44 of Washington, D.C., three times. First in 1934, then in 1984 and once again in 1994.

He was even Harry Truman’s bodyguard for a day when the president, a Missouri Mason, came to a service at a local lodge some 40 years ago. The real Secret Service boys weren’t Masons, so they couldn’t enter the lodge room. Even national security sometimes yields to Masonry.

Seven years before he became a Mason, Higgins knew he would someday be one. He decided as a boy, at his father’s funeral.

“My father had one hand,” explains Higgins. “To be a Mason then, you had to have a full body.”

“They paid the doctor’s bill,” Higgins says about the Navy Yard, where his father worked. “But they didn’t give him any sick leave in those days. But they gave him permission to sell tools in the Navy Yard.”

His father worked hard and gained the respect of the Navy men to such a degree that they accepted him as one of their own. “Papa died on Thanksgiving 1918. The war was on – men would work six or seven days a week and couldn’t take time off. But so many came from the yards anyway, the church was full, there was no room for them.

“Men with white aprons and white gloves stood facing each other outside the church, in two facing lines, from church steps to the grave.”

He pauses.

“I asked Mama what it was, and she said they were Masons. And they thought of Papa as a Mason. He had learned to be such a good man he must’ve been.”

From that moment, as a boy of 14, Higgins decided that he would be the Mason that his father couldn’t be.

Being a Mason in those early years was filled with tradition, in an era when tradition was vigorously protected. Back then, nobody challenged why women couldn’t be Masons, or why black and white Masonic lodges were segregated, or why Masons had such elaborate ceremonies. They only wonder about that stuff today.

Trailing him through the House of the Temple on 16th Street is like walking through Masonry’s well-storied past. The House is a limestone monument to hundreds of years of Masonic tradition, an approximated replica of the tomb of the 4th-century B.C. Carian king Mausolus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the origin of the word “mausoleum.” Inside is a crypt of Masonry’s departed brethren.

Higgins can remember staring up at the entryway as a kid. Its double doors are the height of two men.

Now Higgins knows every nook and cranny of the massively mysterious structure: the secret doors, the names of all the people in the fading portraits on the walls.

Thirty-three 33-foot-high columns support the temple’s main pyramid. That’s no accident, according to Higgins, nor is it coincidence that the temple’s address is 1733 16th St. Thirty-three is a big number for Masonry, which is divided into 33 ranks known as degrees. The main staircase is flanked by large black marble statues of the Egyptian gods Osiris and Isis. Just left of Osiris, in a side hall, is a painting of million-dollar Masonic contributor Gene Autry, smiling next to his trusty steed Champion.

Autry and Osiris. It is a startling juxtaposition, just one of many. Immediately beyond the main wall is a shrine of sorts to the very king of secrecy himself, a man of whom Ernie Higgins and other Masons here at the House speak in reverential terms: Brother Mason J. Edgar Hoover. He is wearing men’s clothing. To the Masons, he is a symbol of justice and machismo of a bygone era. To the Masons, his reputation remains unblemished.

Hoover relics line the inner sanctum – his FBI desk, his boxing gloves, a snapshot of the director and Shirley Temple, newspaper clippings chronicling his heroics. And of course, set aside in a glass display case, his fezzes.

The House of the Temple, to say the least, is an odd place.

The origins of this heady swath of cultural kitsch are the subject of much speculation, but the tangible beginning is in London, where the first lodge was built in 1717 by a group of stonemasons. The “secrets” of masonry then were largely trade secrets for a thriving profession during a boom time of church building. Once the Masons lost their craft, they continued to embrace the secret rituals already in place. Masons won’t let you watch these rituals, which have been passed down over the years, occasionally reinvented, but always revered as the defining factor of Masonry. Even Dudley Davis, who seeks to modernize the Masons, stresses that the ritual must stay, even if it is scaled back.

The secret rituals – required to advance in the 33 degrees of Masonry – usually involve tests or lessons performed by Masons wearing elaborate period costumes and acting out parables extolling basic values like honesty, bravery, loyalty.

Non-Masons are not allowed to witness such events, but a trip to the basement of the 16th Street local Scottish Rite Temple tells part of the story. Rows of closets line the “costume room.” There are racks of swords and muskets on the wall. The outfits are arranged by period: stacks of Colonial garb, with ponytailed wigs and tricorn hats. Another sliding door reveals Arabian robes and headdresses. Still another beckons with medieval armor: chain mail, codpieces, that sort of thing.

At the House of the Temple, the ceiling of the main meeting chamber soars a hundred feet overhead. The massive room is circled with wooden thrones and benches, glitteringly entwined serpents and, in the center, a large altar. Ernie Higgins lets us play the giant, swirl-toned organ. The sounds fill this neo-gothic chamber. It’s impressive. It’s like the setting of the world’s most bodacious game of Dungeons and Dragons. This could be Camelot, or a Deep Purple video.

It’s all quite a hoot.

THE MORGAN AFFAIR

Masons built our country – literally and figuratively. George Washington, Ben Franklin and other brothers laid the actual cornerstone of the Capitol, the White House and the Washington Monument. Colonial Masonic lodges were a refuge where men could talk revolution. They were hard drinkers. Wenchers. Scrappers. Then, in 1826, disaster struck.

The honeymoon ended in Batavia, N.Y., when William Morgan, an ex-Army captain who fought for Gen. Andrew Jackson in New Orleans, disappeared, creating a national scandal. What actually did happen that summer is anyone’s guess, but varying media accounts render it something like this:

Morgan arrived in Batavia in 1821 and petitioned the local lodge for membership. He claimed that he was already a Mason, which he most likely was not. At first embraced by local Masons, Morgan – as well as his credibility and character – over the next few years came into question. By 1826, the Masons threw him out of the Batavia lodge, saying he was a profligate drunk who had joined under false pretenses.

To get back at them, Morgan resolved to publish the Masons’ secret rituals, and joined forces with another ex-Army officer and printer to publish an unauthorized account of Masonry. When Morgan was arrested for a minor offense, a contingent of Masons arrived at the jail and spirited him away. He was never seen again.

Much of the public believed Masons had kidnapped and killed him. The response to the scandal devastated Masonry. The country’s first national third political party was formed, the Anti-Masonic party, its entire platform being to bash Freemasons. Thousands of members, horrified by the publicity and scandal, fled the brotherhood. By the 1830s, Masonic numbers had plummeted to some 40,000 nationwide.

But the need for fellowship proved stronger than the stench of scandal. By the end of the 19th century, there were 750,000 Masons. The brotherhood was back in full swing. Masonry this time around, though, was different. Not so roguish or sexy. More conservative. Less dangerous. Never again would it be an instrument of change in America – instead it became an instrument of stability. That has lasted for 100 years.

CALL TO ORDER

The members of Osiris-Pentalpha Lodge 23 meet on the first and third Wednesdays of the month in a plain three-story brick building at the corner of Carroll and Maple streets NW in Takoma. It is just down the street from Friedrich’s Modern Dry Cleaning and catercorner to Stein Hebrew Funeral Home. There are thousands of Masonic lodges just like this one across the country.

On this drizzly night, the brethren gather in a small powder-blue anteroom on the second floor, about three dozen men in brown or blue business suits. This group is as heterogeneous as Masonry generally gets. Most are in their sixties, but a few are twentysomethings, and a few are black. (Though black men are admitted into the mainstream Mason organization, most black Masons belong to a separate organization, known as the Prince Hall Masons, which has an estimated 250,000 members nationwide. The segregation is not a hot issue. “We got our own charters,” says Fred Williams, Imperial Director for Publicity for the Prince Hall Shriners, “and just stayed separate.” He said it’s not a big deal.)

This could be a meeting of any men’s club anywhere, except all of these men wear small, spotlessly white aprons.

At 8, Barry Benn arises. He is the Tiler. He knocks once, twice, three times on the door to the main lodge room.

Inside, the Worshipful Master, Chip Mahaney, asks the Senior Warden who is knocking.

The Warden asks Tiler Benn, and Tiler Benn tells him. The Warden reports this to Worshipful Master Mahaney, who then instructs the Warden to tell Tiler Benn and the boys to come on in. The meeting is called to order.

The main meeting hall is painted the same prom-tuxedo blue as the anteroom, and lit by overhead fluorescent lights. At one end of the room is a platform that supports a throne, flanked by two smaller seats. On the throne sits the Worshipful Master. He calls the meeting to order.

In the center of the room is a waist-high altar, and on it are a Bible and a yellow mailing tube. The Bible is a reminder of the God-fearing (though strictly ecumenical) nature of Masonry. The tube contains the lodge’s charter. It is opened once a year, when a new Worshipful Master is announced. As it happens, at least half the men in the room have been Worshipful Masters – you can tell because they put the initials P.M., for Past Master, after their names on their business cards and official programs. The main order of business on this night is a visit of members from Theodore Roosevelt Lodge 44, and a formal meeting of two current Worshipful Masters, the boyish Mahaney and Roosevelt Lodge’s sixtyish Vince Hardwick. An appeal is made for aid to Masonic earthquake victims in Kobe, Japan.

Mahaney welcomes Hardwick and the other representatives of Lodge 44 and asks the Warden to lead him to the podium. The Warden escorts Hardwick by the elbow. He makes a brief, earnest speech about brotherhood and its importance to Masonry. The point is that the two lodges should get together more often.

Refreshments are served.

The meeting is friendly, open and egalitarian. Its goal is to advance fellowship. You cannot help but be impressed with the good nature of the group, its happy adherence to ceremony, its gentlemanly respect for title and position, its quaintness and its overriding civility.

It reminds you of a time long gone.

KNIGHTS IN TULSA

L.D. Alexander: People got to where they didn’t want to join up any more. Can you imagine that? They didn’t want to be Knights of the White Magnolia. . . . They turned around and stabbed their granddaddies square in the back. . . . Little by little the lodges just sorter dried up. Nobody wanted to join. No new people. Jesus, but we was big once, Lonnie Roy. Hell, there was governors and senators that was Brother Knights. We had con-ventions and barbecues and parades. Took over a whole hotel there in Tulsa. Gawd, and it musta been somethin’ to see. Bands playin’ and baton girls a-marchin’ along. The Grand Imperial Wizard of the brotherhood rode in a big open carriage pulled by six white horses, and up above the whole shebang was this great old big blimp towin’ this here banner sayin’ TULSA WELCOMES THE KNIGHTS OF THE WHITE MAGNOLIA. Gawdamighty, now wasn’t that somethin’?

Lonnie Roy: Jeeezus, you mean to say that with all that great stuff, that people quit joinin’ up?

L.D. Alexander: That’s right, Lonnie boy.

—From “The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia,” by Preston Jones.

ADJOURNMENT

Here in Burlington, the parade is ending. The go-karts are being stowed onto semi trailers, the streets reclaimed by college types on in-line skates, yuppies with cell phones.

At the end of the parade route, on College Avenue near market Square, the kilted highlanders from the Kora Temple are squeezing one last song out of their bagpipes. It’s not scripted, it’s just something that felt right. They play “Auld Land Syne,” and when the final, sad, inscrutable lines are played – We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne – the pipes fall silent, and the drummers keep the beat a few seconds more, a steady, dignified, haunting dirge. ■

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