In a few hours, I'll be heading back towards my hometown for what should be a happy occasion. The Scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 61 is an old friend of mine, and he invited me to come and participate in his son's Eagle Scout ceremony.
Except it will be the very last Eagle ceremony for Troop 61, Saugus. Some years ago now, their Cub Pack folded and could not be rebuilt. That is a death-knell for any scouting unit; with no new youth in the pipeline, a Troop without a Pack is a ticking timebomb. Troop 61 made it four years, but then Covid crushed any remaining hope they might have had.
Troop 61 was one of the oldest troops in the region; we were originally founded in 1929. In the fall of 1974, when I was a mere lad of eight years old, my then best friend asked me to join, and I have never been out of uniform.
I expect many old Scouts and Scouters to appear today for what I anticipate will be a celebration, wake, and funeral all in one. Convenient.
Scouting has had many problems over the last few decades. We're still trying, but it does feel like it's going in the wrong direction to many of us. But it's not just Scouting. You probably knew that I also fulfilled a lifelong ambition and finally became a Mason last fall. I've finished all my degree work, and have even agreed to serve a minor role in the lodge leadership team in the fall.
But Masons are dying, too. In fact - it's perhaps a symbol of the erosion of American Society that all fraternal organizations are on the decline. There's a lot of data out there speculating on the "why". This is from an older article (circa 2014), but none of the truths therein have changed over the ensuing decade.
Lee Ballard stood out.
You could easily spot him in a crowd of 50 dedicated Kiwanians during the group's weekly meeting on a recent Thursday at MCL Cafeteria in West Lafayette.
It was not because he sang off-key during the opening patriotic song or ate too much pecan pie or announced his 80th birthday during the "Happy Dollars" celebratory donation time, but because he was one of few members under retirement age in attendance.
"It is a little concerning that most of them are older and retired, but that makes sense," said the 29-year-old West Lafayette man. "As a younger person, it's harder to get involved with a club like this that meets at lunchtime. You have to have a flexible work schedule. My wife and I have a 3-year-old that we have to take care of. We have a lot of other responsibilities."
Younger members such as Ballard might trickle into the Lafayette Kiwanis Club from Purdue Circle K, the collegiate Kiwanis affiliate. They are comfortable and familiar with the Kiwanis cause of service and want to continue the mission during their professional careers. For some, their fathers and grandfathers were Kiwanians. So it made sense to join a local club once they started their careers. They don't mind being the youthful minority in the group, and they find the stories of the older generation insightful.
Most millennials or Gen Xers, however, would never dream of joining a club that seems geared toward their grandparents. That's the general crisis the Kiwanis Club and other fraternal or service organizations are facing.
As members of the Elks, Rotary, Freemasons, Knights Templar and their ilk age and pass on, they are challenged with the uphill battle of recruiting younger members. Many organizations also face a decline in national membership.
For instance, the Freemasons are far from their glory days. They have lost nearly 3.8 million members since their peak in the late 1950s.
The national decline for the Elks started in 1980, and membership dropped from 1.64 million to 802,592 in 2012.
The Lafayette No. 143 Elks lodge has experienced similar membership losses since 1970. Back then, the lodge had more than 2,000 members. In 2010, there were only 322 members.
"Everybody has seen a decrease in their membership — whether it's Mason or Moose," said Jack Streicher, exalted ruler of the local Elks lodge. "The fraternal organizations have certainly seen a pretty steady decline. It's a continuous concern — not only recruitment but participation in activities. A lot of people join but don't really volunteer time or really participate in what's going on. They are members in name only, passive."
Nobody really knows why this is happening. There's a lot of speculation, and I'm not sure I believe any of it. To my way of thinking, it comes back to something I wrote about myself not that long ago.
It's societal indifference. We have become such a nation of "every man for himself", that charitable organizations, service organizations, and even youth organizations that have the slightest hint of a larger responsibility to others and society are immediately dismissed as unworthy.
Compare all of this to youth sports - when was the last time you saw a football program, baseball, or even soccer these days have trouble attracting participants and volunteers? Despite the "team" nature of sports, it always seems to come down to the individual, and perhaps what is the new "American Dream" - someone's progeny becomes a sports star and gets a free scholarship and then turns pro and earns millions. I've seen how cutthroat that environment is with my own eyes - nevermind what it teaches youth about entitlement and selfishness.
In any case - Javi and I will be among our Scouting and Eagle brethren, and I too among many of my new Masonic friends (there's a lot of crossover). I'll be glad to spend some time with my Sainted Scoutmaster "Mr. V" (still alive and well at the age of 80) and remember what we all once were.