Gilroy Elks Lodge celebrates special birthday party with Feb. 10 event

Published in the January 24 – February 6, 2018 issue of Gilroy Life

Gilroy Elks members Jon Vickroy, right, and Duane Rasmussen, prepare scampi during a recent Mushroom Mardi Gras festival in Morgan Hill. Gilroy Life file photo

The Gilroy Elks Lodge invites South Valley residents to a special birthday party Feb. 10. Elks members will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the national fraternal order.

The sesquicentennial event is a meaningful milestone for all members of the lodge, said David Marano, who serves until April as the Gilroy Elks Lodge’s “exalted ruler” (the lodge’s CEO).

“Most organizations are not that old,” he said. “We are the oldest service organization in the United States. We’ve had presidents, we’ve had congressmen, we’ve had governors, we’ve had all kinds of people as members.”

In its history, the Elks have had in its ranks prominent people including Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, General Douglas MacArthur, General George. S. Patton, entertainers Will Rogers, Irving Berlin, and Ben Affleck, and sports figures Vince Lombardi, Knute Rockne, and Eli Manning. In Gilroy, esteemed members include former county supervisor Sig Sanchez (still a member) and former mayor Don Gage.

The Elks was founded in 1868 by New York City minstrel show performers as a social club called the Jolly Corks, Marano said. Laws restricted the hours that public taverns could serve patrons, and so the actors established a social club to enjoy a drink or two after shows. One member died and his wife and children were without income so they took on a service role. They established rituals and took a new name — “The Elks” beat out “The Buffalos” by a single vote. The official name is the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks.

In the early days, members came from New York City’s theater industry. Over time, it grew into a major fraternal, charity and service order. Today, there are about one million Elks.

Officers of the 1931 Gilroy Elks Lodge pose for a photo. Photo courtesy Gilroy Elks

About 50 years after the Elks was founded, a group of men in Gilroy asked the Santa Cruz Elks Lodge to sponsor their efforts to start a lodge in the South Valley. The Grand Lodge granted a charter and Gilroy Elks Lodge No. 1567 was instituted Aug. 8, 1929. Among the prominent founders was Lin Walker Wheeler. He donated a building in downtown Gilroy (the same building as the Golden State Brewery site). That building was later sold, and proceeds went to buy in 1969 the Gilroy Elks’ current lodge located on a hill along Hecker Pass. In 1986, additions included a members lounge, exercise room and a sauna. Today, the lodge rents out for events such as club meetings, weddings, anniversaries, and graduation celebrations.

The Gilroy Elks has about 400 members. About 40 percent come from Morgan Hill. Throughout the year, members work on projects.

“We do a lot of youth and veterans programs,” Marano said.

An Elks Lodge member cooks scampi during a recent Mushroom Mardi Gras. Morgan Hill Life file photo

A member for 23 years, Marano started as a young man in the San Jose Elks Lodge with his father. He took time away and returned to the Gilroy Elks after retiring from a career in banking. He went “gung-ho” as an Elk when he had the time to be active.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie,” he said. “I’m involved with the veterans things we do. The Elks are a group where you can get together with the guys. That’s why I enjoy it.”

The Elks members meet for socials, with a catered dinner on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month. The first and third Wednesdays of the month are for administrative meetings.

Throughout the year, the Gilroy Elks hold social events such as a New Year’s Eve gala, an Italian Night, a Fish Fry, a Tom and Jerry drinks fundraiser during the holidays, an Oktoberfest, and a Purple Pig fundraiser where members put money into piggy banks.

Doing good for the community is a big reason Marano feels proud about being involved as a Gilroy Elk.

“We have a lot of fun and we have a lot of events,” he said. “I tell you, you can make this a career just coming to all the events that are around all the different lodges. Members donate all their time to do all this stuff, and it’s really, really fun.”

Among the popular activities is an annual lunch cooked for the men and women patients at the VA Hospital in Palo Alto. “You’d be surprised at the number of Gilroy Elks members who sign up to go to that and do a barbecue for the veterans,” Marano said. “Last year we served as many as 400 meals.”

Gilroy Elks member Phil Quast, a two-time past exalted ruler, serves as the chairman of the 150th anniversary event. “Education stations” at the celebration will inform guests about all the benefits the lodge provides the South Valley, he said. The group hopes this will encourage guests to get involved.

“For young people with kids and all the rest of that, they look at the narrow time frames they have, the sociable point is really what they have time for,” he said. “When you become a member and become an officer, you basically, like, marry into the system.”

Youth activities are an important part of the Gilroy Elks’ mission. Members spend hours throughout the year fundraising to provide scholarships. The lodge also hosts an annual Hoop Shoot event where members guide boys and girls to develop their basketball skills. The lodge also helps children in early grades get eye exams and even provides eye glasses if they need them.

“The Elks offers schools an eyesight check for kindergarten and first grade,” Quast said. “As a teacher might tell you, by the time the (children) come into second or third grade and you find out they have a vision problem, then they’re already behind the curve.”

Volunteer time at the Gilroy Garlic Festival is among the bigger fundraisers. Over the years, the Elks raised about $475,000 which goes to a restricted account for youth activities, Quast said.

Women were able to join the Elks only recently. Officials voted at the Elks National Convention in July 1995 to remove the word “male” from the national membership requirements. The Gilroy Elks Lodge has about 20 women members and among them is Angela Flores, who enjoys the title of Loyal Knight. She encourages more women to join the South Valley lodge and participate in various activities.

“The Elks is an awesome organization,” she said. “The volunteer work we do — it’s great to see young women and more and more women getting involved and some becoming exalted rulers.”

Flores started with the Hollister Elks and served as exalted ruler there. She later transferred to the Gilroy Elks Club. Having the door opened to women helped to transform the Elks and bring new energy to its activities, she said.

“I think it’s changed for the better,” she said. “And of course, there’s two sides to every view. And women bring a different view.”

Marano also encourages residents who have an interest in getting into an active organization to consider joining the Gilroy Elks. He welcomes them to attend the Feb. 10 party and chat with members to find out more about the local lodge.

“We’re the best kept secret in Gilroy,” he said. “We want to get the word out there in the community where we’re at … We all do our part here, but we could use more help.”