Gail Malin has to stand by and watch an old friend die, and there’s nothing she can do about it.
Not only must Malin witness the death throes, it’ll also be her job to turn out the lights. Further, she must help decide the fate of the decedent’s estate, and that situation is stunning in potential for the community.
Malin holds the title of “noble grand” of San Diego’s Sunset Lodge of the IOOF. Those are the mysterious initials we occasionally see chiseled into a concrete brick at the top of old buildings. If there’s a date included, it’s usually something like 1900.
The Independent Order of Odd Fellows, healthy during the time of the Model T, is now itself about to pop-pop, backfire and die.
Malin is a well-spoken woman who takes dignity seriously, but she’s not stuffy. She’s a recent widow and retired funeral director of 70 who lives in a pleasant mobile home park in Vista.
She can also handle irony, including the fact that, as she recognizes the impending death of her organization, she may have a crucial role in giving away a fat treasury of $600,000.
(And I thank you for the abrupt upswing in interest.)
The Odd Fellows was formed in 18th-century England by men who were considered “odd fellows” for their extensive charity. It came to America 200 years ago and continued the charitable work. It attracted hundreds of thousands of members throughout the country, including many of the national glitterati, and was strong in California and San Diego.
Locally, three buildings boast the arcane letters IOOF atop the façade: 932 Market St., at University Avenue and Kansas Street, and 503 Mission Ave. in Oceanside. Each is in the National Registry of Historic Places. Only the Oceanside site is still used by the organization, and that building is apparently soon to be sold.
In 1927, the Odd Fellows had a California membership of 58,000; in 2007, it was 5,000. Today, Malin estimates state enrollment at less than 2,000. On a graph, that would be a downward angle no ski slope would dare.
Other groups are also sucking oxygen-tank air, as are many of their members. Included are a zoo of fraternal organizations such as the Elks, Moose, Eagles and also the Masons, Shriners, Grange and others. Even the American Legion and VFW have slimmed down, though they have a recruiting funnel from our constant wars, plus they tend to offer cheap drinks at club bars. That used to work pretty well.
The demise of fraternal groups has obvious reasons: mobility, urbanization and — of course — TV. We now live differently, more privately, less socially. The idea of going to a meeting to consort with a person simply because we share a password does not cause us to leave the Chargers game or “Dancing With the Stars” on our home-theater screen.
However, that’s all academic to Malin. She’s got a more pressing problem, and that is how to gather enough members to hold a meeting.
“The problem is getting a quorum, and now that my husband, Floyd, just died, we only have one male left. All the rest are women: four women and one man, and five is a quorum. One more person dies, one person gets sick, you can’t have a meeting. One person goes on vacation, you can’t have a meeting.”
You’re looking at the extinction of the lodge, right?
“Absolutely. I predict that within five years there won’t be an Odd Fellows left in San Diego.”
Or maybe tomorrow.
“Well, right. I’m the youngest one in the lodge. We have four men who are still members, (but) they’re all in their 90s, and they’re all going to die. A year ago, there were six, but it was just who was going to die first. Nathaniel died first, then Floyd. As I speak, we have one guy that’s 97. He’s in a nursing home. He doesn’t come anymore. We have another guy, he’s like 92. He can’t (attend). They’re out of it. We have only one man who attends, and he’s 70.”
To make a quorum possible, the lodge made members of the Mesa Jewel Rebekah Lodge, the women’s auxiliary, eligible for Odd Fellows membership.
How old are the other women?
“They’re all older than me. One’s 90, one’s 82, one’s 73.”
Malin explains that once a quorum is no longer possible, the state grand lodge will remove the charter and take possession of the treasury of about $600,000.
Might it be time for a big party? Maybe in Paris?
“We can’t. We can only have the lodge pay for our annual anniversary dinner.”
You canceled last Tuesday’s meeting?
“We only had four people because one took a vacation. We have changed it to tomorrow night (Jan. 14), because she’ll be back and then we’ll have a quorum.”
If one more person quits or dies ...
“Yeah. We’re done.”
Then the treasurer has to write that big check?
Where’s the money at?
“In Union Bank.”
Just sitting there?
Sunset Lodge sold its building at University and Kansas about 10 years ago and last year rented a smaller place in a strip mall in east San Diego.
“We fixed it into a meeting room, kitchen and a little dining room, all on one floor, because nobody can climb stairs anymore.”
Also meeting at that site is the Ladies Encampment Auxiliary. The twist to that is the Encampment itself is made up of men. However, there are no male members anymore, but the ladies auxiliary is still going.
Malin says one of the duties of grand noble, in addition to presiding, is chauffeur. “I drive 40 miles one way, and I have to pick up riders to get them there so we can have a quorum, because they don’t drive at night anymore.”
What’s a meeting like, Gail?
“A meeting is very boring. They don’t do anything. They come in. They have a ritualistic opening. They pledge the flag. They introduce dignitaries if there are any there.”
Oh, dignitaries of ...
“Of the order. I’m a (state) director emeritus of the Rebekahs, so I would be introduced.”
Even though you’re also the noble grand?
“They escort the dignitaries. Right now we have an officer of the (state) grand lodge that’s in our lodge. Danny Williams is a ‘grand herald’ of the grand lodge. He always gets introduced.”
Even though everyone knows him?
“Oh, yeah. It’s an honor. Then they have the minutes. Then they call for committee reports. Well, there are no committees. New business, old business. Well, there is no old business. There is no new business.
“We have to have something in these meetings, so I decided Floyd would do current events and read something out of the paper that day. Then someone else would read something on health or education, and someone else would do something inspirational or funny. Then we closed. Then we spent most of our time socializing around a cupcake or something.”
Why don’t you read my column to them? I lust for audience.
“Oh, OK. I’ll read it. I’m current events now since Floyd died.”
Is the meeting sad?
“It is sad, because I remember when I came here in 1981, there were two and three people running for noble grand. Now you have to beg somebody to be noble grand.”
Now, back to your pot of gold. When you disband, can you donate the $600,000 to charities of your choice?
Malin points out that the lodge already supports a low-cost housing project in San Diego. She says there is nothing in the charter or bylaws to prohibit giving the money to charity.
I ask: But if you lose your quorum, then you can’t call a meeting to disperse money, so it would then go to the state by default. Is that right?
“Yes. Tomorrow night is my last meeting to preside, and I’m going to say that we need to set out a two-year plan to either disband or grow. But we’ve tried to grow. We’ve even advertised in the paper.”
From a parliamentary standpoint, if you can’t hold a meeting, you can’t say, “This is it.” Correct?
And if you can’t get a quorum, you can’t hold a meeting to disburse the money. Then the state (organization) will swoop in and take it, right?
Maybe someone’s going to say, “Let’s end it now.”
“Well, let’s hope someone says that.”
Actually, if you want to help worthy charities with that $600,000, sounds like you’d better act.
“We have to act.”
She adds: “It’s sad that it’s all coming to an end like this. It’s sad to see it, because at one time, it really was active and germane to what was going on in the world, but it’s not anymore. It’s not.”
Do you think fraternal groups have outlived their purpose?
“Uh-huh. I do.”
Is it time to just fade into the sunset?
“I think so. I really do.”
Samuel Butler wrote a novel a century ago with a title that outlives the plot. It speaks to Malin’s lodge. It speaks to all of us: “The Way of All Flesh.”
As pedestrians pass the stately old Classical Revival building on Market Street, they might ask what the IOOF atop the front stands for. Someone will know. However, as the years pass, the question will still be asked, but fewer will know. Until one day ...
Fred Dickey’s home page is http://www.freddickey.net
Email is [email protected]