As with most matters of Odd Fellowship, nearly every aspect of the
annual convention of the Sovereign Grand Lodge of the Independent
Order of Odd Fellows must adhere to protocol. The dais for the
officers' banquet, for example, must be two-tiered and able to
accommodate 50 people, important on the bottom, really important on the top. Seats for the sovereign grand master, the deputy sovereign
grand master, the sovereign grand warden, the sovereign grand
secretary and the sovereign grand treasurer. Seats for the leaders
of the two uniformed branches, the Patriarchs Militant and its
Ladies Auxiliaries. A seat for the president of the International
Association of Rebekah Assemblies, established when the Odd Fellows
long ago recognized "the need for a woman's touch."
Here they are now, the officers and their escorts, proceeding
solemnly through the grand ballroom of the Adam's Mark Hotel as the
sovereign grand musician plays `Pride and Gallantry' on the piano.
Six hundred people rise to their feet, more than a few with some
Robert Robbins, the soft-spoken sovereign grand master whose
yearlong tenure ends with this convention, takes his honored place.
His black tuxedo is adorned with an eye-catching medallion of merit
and the grand master medal he will soon relinquish. His jewelry is
modest, given the glint of Odd Fellows bling in the room.
Gazing out upon this gathering of Odd Fellows and Rebekahs, all
about to dine on small portions of beef or salmon, he sees a bobbing
sea of gray and white. In this crowd he is practically a stripling,
at 69. Since his installation as top Odd Fellow, Mr. Robbins has
warned that this order, dedicated to caring for the widowed, the
orphaned and the needy, is in a `state of crisis.' Members are dying
by the thousands, local lodges are closing by the dozens, and actual
participation among the 289,000 members is dropping. If the people
sitting before him do not heed his call to replenish the ranks, they
will be the Odd Men and Women Out" defunct, extinct, done. "Unless
we can do something to turn the membership losses into significant
gains in the next couple of years," he says later, "we may be at a
point where we can't recover."
Once we were a nation of joiners, and so many joined the Odd
Fellows, a fraternal organization whose name stems from an English
journalists observation in 1745. He found it odd to see fellows,
rather than the aristocracy, helping widows, orphans and one
another. The name stuck, oddly.
In many communities, you can still find an old I.O.O.F. building, a
place of some mystery, where the rituals would include acting out
the story of the Good Samaritan. Members were to apply that story to
real life by aiding their brothers and sisters, chipping in to pay
burial costs, for example. You merely had to express belief in one
Creator to be eligible; atheists and pantheists need not apply.
Odd Fellows tended to frown on alcohol, loved bestowing medals on
one another, and reveled in seeing their sword-carrying, uniformed
brothers, the chevaliers of the Patriarchs Militant, march in Main
Street parades. In their small worlds, Odd Fellows mattered.
Then came social changes to dull the appeal of fraternal
organizations. Tighter government regulations forced the Odd Fellows
out of their signature cause, orphanages, while baby boomers found
all the pomp and secrecy to be, um, silly. Several years ago, after
contentious debate, the Odd Fellows allowed women (!) into their
ranks, but that has done little to stem the decline.
It's gotten so bad that many members of the Patriarchs Militant are
too old to march anymore. "Because a lot of them can't even walk",
explains one chevalier, who includes himself among the non-parading
Still, here the Odd Fellows are, in Denver, 1,000 strong and not so,
coming together from many states and a few countries on an expansive hotel concourse with many large meeting rooms, thus accommodating
those using wheelchairs and walkers and cutting down on the chance
for escalator mishaps.
At times the concourse is still, as private meetings focus on bylaw
changes and membership crises, the protocols of medals and the
worthiness of certain charities. Rituals have their occasional
glitches, as when the Mardi Gras music of a Rebekahs gathering in
one room filters into a memorial service being held by the uniformed
branches in another.
But when those meetings break, the floor becomes awash with color,
much of it radiating from the distinctive dress of the Ladies
Auxiliaries: white nurse dresses, white shoes and white gloves,
offset by purple-and-gold capes, purple-and-gold sashes, and purple-
gold-and-white yachting caps. You know them when you see them.
Facing his brothers and sisters at this night's banquet, the grand
sovereign master cannot help but wonder what will become of his
Here is Hank Dupray, 63, a former sovereign grand master from North
Carolina who guided the order into establishing an orphanage in
Here, too, is Harrell Shoultz, 84, a retired farmer from Indiana
who, with his wife, LaVern, just pledged $50,000 to that orphanage.
And here is Mike Easley, 64, who arranged this convention with his
wife, Linda. His mother became seriously ill in the early 1950s,
leaving him and his three brothers to spend years in a fine Odd
Fellows orphanage. He says that he is simply giving back now and
mentions in passing that his mother lives today in an Odd Fellows
A toast then, to all national leaders of the world, as is Odd
Fellows custom. Another toast, to all fraternal leaders of the
world. Dinner, remarks, benediction, recessional to the strains of
the `Battle Hymn of the Republic'. Odd Fellows and Rebekahs
everywhere, good night.
Online: Audio and photos of the Odd Fellows convention in Denver at