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New generation of Wis. Masons seeks to shed image

  • Article by: CHRIS HUBBACH
  • Associated Press
  • December 21, 2013 - 12:05 AM

LA CROSSE, Wis. — Dan Truax remembers when one of his closest friends joined the Freemasons. He gave him a sideways look and a crooked smile and said "You're doing what?"

That was about four years ago. Now the 44-year-old Onalaska man is a Mason himself; his buddy, Dave O'Neill, is preparing to serve his first term as head of their lodge.

Having found an outlet for their desire to better themselves and their community — and a sense of camaraderie they hadn't felt since their days in the Air Force — they are hoping to dispel some of the myths that surround the centuries-old group.

"The only thing I had any knowledge of was from what the movies show," Truax said. "That whole mystery side of it —it didn't take long to realize that's purely Hollywood talking."

After years of dwindling membership, the fraternal organization — whose ranks included many of the nation's founding fathers —is attracting a new crop of younger members who aim to return the group to its standing as a pillar of the community.

Truax and O'Neill, who is 45, are part of a new generation of members bringing new blood and spirit to the organization, which is modeled on the craftsman guilds responsible for building Europe's cathedrals and traces its modern roots to the early 1800s.

Founded in 1853, Frontier Lodge 45 is older than the city itself and counts among its members Nathan Myrick, the first white settler, and Col. T.B. Stoddard, the first mayor.

On the North Side, Lodge 190 was chartered in 1873 and built a temple.

In a pamphlet written by its secretary Frank "Doc" Powell — the self-styled frontiersman, medicine man and two-term La Crosse mayor —the Frontier Lodge 45 had 194 members in 1900.

The lodge moved several times during its first half-century before building a permanent temple in 1902. In 1970, the Masons broke ground on an addition that took seven years to complete — with members doing much of the work themselves.

With membership shrinking in the mid-1990s, the group moved into the addition and gave the old building to the Ho-Chunk nation, which continues to use the building for offices.

The La Crosse Tribune (http://bit.ly/1c70AEm ) reports the lodges flourished up through the 1950s, when social clubs were the primary social hubs.

"That's just what you did," said Todd Wohlert, a 38-year-old member. "You belonged to the Moose, the Elk. ... Of course they didn't have 500 channels."

When Martin Callaway joined nearly 56 years ago, "there weren't all the outlets. That was the central part of all these communities."

Of course times change.

"In that era of the greatest generation, there was a very different social contract between the government and people," said Connie Flanagan, a professor at UW-Madison's School of Human Ecology, who studies young people and civic engagement. "Over the last 50 years, there's been an erosion of that connection."

Nevertheless, Flanagan said, the need to belong is a universal human craving.

Today, La Crosse still has two lodges, though they've long shared a single temple, holding meetings on alternate weeks. Lodge 190 counts about 80 to 100 members, O'Neill said, but in spite of the attrition that comes with a group populated with so many seniors, they're holding their own.

Among the challenges to attracting new members is the group's secrecy — or public perceptions.

According to an introductory text, masonry is "not a secret society but a society with secrets."

"People say you're in a secret society," Wohlert said. "(Nonsense). It's all over the Internet."

Membership is not secret. In fact, Masons wear lapel pins and have for years published rosters.

"The only secrets are modes of recognition" — signs, handshakes and words, said Scott Hiser, the outgoing master of lodge 190.

"It's a test of my own character," O'Neill said. "I've made a promise to my brothers about something silly — like a handshake. It goes back to a time when you word was your bond and it means everything."

While many Freemasons proudly announce their membership with lapel pins, the group maintains an air of mystery in part because of its approach to membership. You have to ask.

Michael Barreyro, a 45-year-old computer programmer, said he was always curious about the group, whose temples he noticed wherever he went. He assumed he needed a family connection to join.

One day in 1996, he was at a bar with a friend who was a Mason. Barreyro asked how one could join.

Just ask, his friend said.

Many legacy Masons tell stories of waiting for their fathers to invite them down to the lodge.

O'Neill remembers being curious about his father-in-law's pin when he was in his early 20s. He never seemed to get a good answer. But once he was out of the military and expressed some real interest, his father-in-law told him how to join.

"When you have people who are coming of their own free will," O'Neill said, "they tend to be more engaged and give more."

Requirements for membership are simple. You must be older than 18, male, of good moral character and believe in a higher power — whatever you call it. Once someone has petitioned to join, the members vote, dropping white balls into the ballot box to signal approval.

If members disapprove, you're black balled, though O'Neill says that's rare.

O'Neill said there are two simple taboos: don't talk about religion or politics.

"They're divisive," he said. "All of our discussions are around harmony. How do we build? We're builders."

For members — young and old alike —belonging is the central draw.

Truax and O'Neill describe a camaraderie like that they enjoyed in the military.

"It's good fellowship," said George Boyd, 75. "You know you're with a lot of people of like or similar mind."

Though not religious, the organization emphasizes morality. According to one introductory text, Masonry is "a system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols."

The group is rife with symbols — the square reminds the member to square himself with virtue; the compass to circumscribe his passions with all mankind.

"Basically," Wohlert said, "it's all about self-control."

An AP Member Exchange Feature shared by La Crosse Tribune

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