The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the national fraternal order first formed in postbellum America, is celebrating its 150th birthday on Feb. 16. But calling the Elks a mere “fraternal order” or a “social club” belies its importance, says Greg Verdun, the secretary of Pontiac Elks Lodge 1019 and vice president (and president-elect) of the Illinois Elks Association; rather, he thought more integral to the order’s identity was its history of beneficent undertakings over the last century and a half.
“Through our national organization, which is the Elks National Foundation, we do a lot of things, like donations to the community,” he said. “For example, we’ve given $1,500 to the tutoring program at the Methodist Church, $1,000 to Livingston County Special Services Unit, $1,500 to the Humane Society, $1,500 to the Pontiac Police for their Special Olympics program. This is through our national foundation.”
Verdun additionally noted that the Elks was the third-largest provider of college scholarships nationally, as well as being financially supportive of a number of veterans programs.
“We’re not just a country club,” he said. “While all that stuff is on the national level, we do have, just for example, our own scholarship fund in 1979 and we’ve given over $300,000 in the community since that time.”
Verdun noted that the Pontiac Elks Lodge was formally organized on March 1, 1906. The Lodge had its roots in the Vermilion Club, which was a young men’s social club that was charted and incorporated in Pontiac a decade and half earlier. Regarding his own history with the club, Verdun said he was invited to join in 1985. He said that his wife, Sue, encouraged him to join, but only if he was going to be actively involved in it. Within six months of joining, he became an officer, and he’s held some post or another ever since.
Verdun believed that a certified existence of more than 110 years speaks to the Elks’ staying power, particularly as membership has declined so severely in other organizations to the point of their closure. But the secretary of the local club notes it hasn’t been exactly easy for the Elks, either.
“Our membership was around 950 in 2008, and then, the economy tanked,” he said. “We lost members, we’re around 600 now. And for many years, we were a mens-only club, which changed about 20 years ago — there was one initiation a few years ago, when we had 19 people initiated: 14 of them were women.
“So we’ve tried to adapt with the times and get women members, too. There’s a lot of professional women in the community, so we’ve tried to recruit them.”
Verdun added that there was perhaps a stronger hereditary relationship of members, meaning that children of Elks members were often sought for recruitment. But something he felt was just as important, albeit less thought of, was the impact the organization had on the communities they were a part of.
“In 2006, when we had our local centennial, our quote or motto was ‘Making a difference since 1906,’” he said. “That’s what I want, for us to be here making a difference since 1906 until, say, 2106. That’s my goal.”