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Bucking state, national trends, Albany Elks Club sees growth | PHOTO GALLERY

Fraternal organization thriving around new, younger leadership

The long-abandoned Elks Club pool has become the place for cool kids to hang out on a hot day. Enjoying the pool on a recent Saturday were, from left, Michele Hayes; Julie Hall; Fletcher Hall, 7; Caleb Carr, 11; Knox Hall, 11, and Mia Hayes, 10. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

The long-abandoned Elks Club pool has become the place for cool kids to hang out on a hot day. Enjoying the pool on a recent Saturday were, from left, Michele Hayes; Julie Hall; Fletcher Hall, 7; Caleb Carr, 11; Knox Hall, 11, and Mia Hayes, 10. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

ALBANY — Statewide, membership in the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks — the Elks Club — was down last year by 10 percent. Nationally, the decline was worse at 34 percent.

Last week, the Albany BPOE Lodge No. 713 — which was founded in 1901 and is one of the organization’s oldest — added 20 new Elks to its membership rolls, bringing its recent surge of new inductees above 80. Even more encouraging for the local fraternal organization, most of the new members are in their 30s-50s, young people bringing fresh ideas to an organization that had about run out of them.

Before this latest surge in membership, sparked largely by what member Yvette Adams — who just turned “a very young 50” — called a re-emergence of the “Elks babies,” the pool at the Elks Club was covered by a tarp, its green water sitting stagnant. The club’s full-service kitchen was shut down, and the facility at 3213 Gillionville Road was being used pretty much exclusively as a hangout for a membership whose average age was just shy of 70.

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Callie Salter, 11, whose mom Allison is an Elks Club officer, scores some swag from a “Remember the ’60s” birthday party at the Albany Elks Club lodge. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

But the election of Jon DuMond as the Elks’ “exalted ruler,” and installation of such young officers as first vice president Clint Shiver, house committee chairman Mike Yelverton, corporation manager Mark Thompson and inner guard Allison Salter, have been vital in bringing about dramatic changes at the local Elks Club.

The pool is a happening place once again. Chef Otis Garner and food prep manager Kenyetta Wilson, working under the guidance of restaurateur B.J. Fletcher, are preparing fresh-cooked meals Thursday and Friday nights. And the sounds of excited youngsters can be heard regularly during any number of special events and fundraisers at the Elks Club.

“I grew up in Albany and at the Elks Club,” DuMond, whose father was exalted ruler of the Albany organization in 1970, said. “I learned to swim at this pool when I was 5 or 6. I lived in Tampa after leaving Albany, but life’s roads brought me back here a few years ago. I came back out here a few times, and everyone treated me like I’d never left. On a lark, I decided to join the club.

“Things were kind of like they were in my dad’s day. Membership had dwindled down to around a couple of hundred, and a lot of the older members just stopped coming.”

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Elks Club House Committee Chair Mike Yelverton, left, and club Exalted Ruler Jon DuMont discuss club business during a recent low-country boil fundraiser. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

Indeed, old-guard Elks secretary Tommy Thompson — who served as the club’s exalted ruler in 1980 and decided he liked the behind-the-scenes work of the secretary better, a position he’s held now for 30 of his 42 years with the club — said it was during the low-tide early ’70s that, in one year, the club lost 36 members: 18 who just quit paying their dues and 18 who died.

“I was here when our membership dropped down below 200,” Thompson said, “and I was here when we cut off membership at 1,000 because we were growing too big. That’s the direction we want to go back in.”

One of the first things Jon DuMond did when he joined the Elks was ressurrect the pool that had been such an important part of his boyhood. It soon became apparent he’d hit on something.

“We had this tremendous asset just sitting here,” DuMond said. “I can remember when I was younger, there would be 200 to 300 people out here around the pool. No one really seemed to care when I said I’d like to open it back up, so I got it back in shape.”

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Elks Club Secretary Tommy Thompson, who has been a member of the Albany fraternal organization for 42 years, said he’s seen the 113-year-old club go through good times and bad. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

And just like that, the empty Elks pool started to draw families, many of them — like DuMond — who had grown up swimming in the pool.

“It’s fun watching things growing around here again,” Adams said as she soaked up some sun poolside on a recent Saturday afternoon. “It’s a safe, family-oriented environment, and everyone’s working to come up with events to keep kids involved. I think that’s why you’re seeing growth in our organization: A lot of these Elks babies are coming back.”

Indeed, Shiver found the golden egg at an Elks Easter egg hunt when he was 4, and that memory was part of what led him to join the club three years ago. Mark Thompson said his motivation for membership was simple: “I had great memories of this place from the past, and I wanted to see it back that way.”

Tommy Thompson (no relation), too, is a second-generation Elks member, and he notes that there are now plenty of second- and third-generation members of the Albany club.

“A lot of the fathers and grandfathers here can tell you stories about the Elks Club ‘up on the hill’ (at the corner of Slappey Boulevard and Palmyra Road, the club’s former location),” Thompson said. “That’s one of the biggest drawing cards we have: A large group of our current members remember the good times they had here as kids.”

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Elks First Vice President Clint Shiver is one of several current “Elks Babies,” club members who attended events at the fraternal organization’s lodge as a youngster. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

There are probably as many reasons for Elks membership as there are members:

— “It’s so convenient,” three-year member Richie Sizemore says. “I can hang out here with my kids any time I want. The kids can enjoy the pool and play with their friends, and I can sit down with some of my buddies and drink a beer. We live close enough that the kids (Carson Jade Sizemore, 8, and Coleman Bruce Sizemore, 13) can ride their bikes down here. It’s perfect.”

— “I won the wing contest out here last year, and we had such a good time we decided to join,” Tommy Banghart, sitting poolside with wife Sherry and Kolyn Newberry, said. “We have friends out here, and they’d been after us to join. We love it.”

— “Let me tell you right now, for a single person in Albany, there’s just no place to go,” 14-year member Martha Myers said. “You go out to a restaurant, and it’s ‘eat, burp and go home.’ Out here, you can really enjoy being with friends. I’ve been the lecturing knight chair for 11 years, and I really feel good about the direction we’re going in.”

While much of the talk at the Elks Club on a recent Saturday focused on that day’s low-country boil fundraiser outside and a member’s “Remember the ’60s” birthday party inside, DuMond reminds a visitor that the primary function of the fraternal organization is its charity work.

“A lot of people aren’t really aware of the humanitarian work of the Elks,” the club’s exalted ruler said. “We give grants to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the Lily Pad (SANE Center) and the local autism center. These are not only worthy causes, they’re causes that are dear to a lot of our members.

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Blake and Cindy Lacey soak up some sun poolside at the Elks Club on a recent Saturday. The couple are among some 80 new members who’ve recently joined the club. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

“We take the organization’s motto — ‘Elks care, Elks share’ — to heart.”

As the new generation of Elks has moved into leadership roles, bringing with it ever-younger members, the local lodge is going through the inevitable shakeup that such change brings. Some long-time members are observing with a critical eye. Others, however, say the time for change had come. Among the latter group are “Elks widows” Pat Adams and Kay DuMond, Jon’s mother.

“You have to have young people coming into your organization to survive,” Adams said. “That’s one of the reasons I believe Jon is doing such a good job. It’s wonderful watching this new generation come in, bringing in a new generation of children.”

Adds Kay DuMond: “Some people have a hard time letting go. They remember the days when our generation was the party people.”

The recent low-country boil was a prelude to one of the Elks Club’s biggest events of the year: The Aug. 9 (Aug. 16 rain date) Chicken Wing Challenge. Unlike many events at the club, this one is open to the public. Last year, around 300 came out for the day of food, fun and wing-cooking competition.

“This is really one of the events that we use as kind of a membership drive,” Jon DuMond said. “We’re also going to have a ‘corn hole’ tournament that we open to the public. We use these to generate interest.

“But one thing I want to stress is that we are not growing because we’re opening up to a ‘cattle-call membership.’ Our new members are recommended by a member, and once they’re recommended there is a full Elk technical investigation process. Once the investigation is completed, the membership votes on the candidates. There are some who will be black-balled.”

With dynamic, younger leadership, a membership that, according to new member Lane Rosen, “doesn’t go a week without coming up with new ideas,” an increasing number of family-oriented events, membership dining opportunities, the use of the clubhouse as an events center and improved facilities, the Albany Elks Club is bucking state and national trends, growing while their fellow Elks are in decline.

That’s a feather in exalted ruler Jon DuMond’s hat. But that’s only part of the story.

“We have a nice variety of amenities here,” DuMond said. “Our memebers can come in and shoot pool, play cards, swim in the pool, get involved in any number of Elks events, have a drink at the bar, compete in our Chicken Wing Challenge. And there are people who like to be involved with a philanthropic organization like ours.

“It’s a new day at the Elks Club. There’s a limited group fighting that, but that’s OK. I understand. We’re just staying positive. Every transition has its challenges. I’m encouraged by the good things we have going on here.”