by Midnight Freemason Contributor
RWB Michael H. Shirley
The other day at one of the many and varied Masonic meetings I seem to attend, a Brother stood and asked the crowd if anyone had any advice for rebuilding a moribund lodge, especially in a small town. We didn’t exactly offer advice, but several of us talked about what lodges we knew had done to turn themselves around. It occurs to me that my lodge, Tuscola No. 332, might be an example for some, so I offer this narrative in hopes of encouraging others.
When I became interested in Freemasonry in 2006, I sent an email inquiry to the Illinois Grand Secretary’s office, and received a reply saying that someone from the local lodge would be getting in touch within 48 hours. Two weeks later, having heard nothing, I sent another email. That apparently lit a fire under someone, because the next day, Tuscola’s secretary was at my door with literature and a petition. He stayed for a while, answered whatever questions I had, explained the membership process, and took my signed petition and check away with him. A few weeks later, he and another Mason came to investigate me. Apparently, this was a fairly unusual experience, as they hadn’t had many candidates in recent years. (I found out later that I was the first candidate raised in my lodge in three years.) Anyway, I was elected, and received my degrees in reasonably good order, although only one or two members of Tuscola knew enough to do any ritual in them. I was raised to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason on November 20, 2006. At our next Stated Meeting in December, which was the first regular meeting I was eligible to attend, we received the District Deputy, Right Worshipful Brother William C. Dillon, for his official visit. I had no real idea what was going on, but I noticed that the Worshipful Master was reading from a little blue book, and the DDGM seemed angry about it. RW Brother Dillon had been at all of my degrees, so I knew him a little, and hadn’t seen him mad before. We had our election of officers that night, and before it happened, he pointed at me and said, “you put that young man in a chair.” So they elected me Junior Warden. (I do not recommend that. It worked for me, as I’m a quick study, and emergencies require drastic steps, but try not to make the new guy a Warden.)
Worshipful Brother Frank Lincoln, who had been Master in the mid seventies, was elected Master, and Brother Matt Pangburn, a superb ritualist and dedicated Mason was elected Senior Warden. Together, we planned for a year of Frank being back in the East, to be followed by what has become a tradition: two year terms for the dais officers. It lent stability, and gave us time to learn more. Matt did an excellent job, both as Senior Warden for a year and Master for two, setting an example of dedicated work and learning more ritual than had been the norm.
Not knowing any better about the traditional way to do things, I proceeded to learn my ritual, fulfill my duties, and tried generally to figure out what Masonry was all about. I liked it, although the meetings were sparsely attended. I particularly liked the ritual and the monthly Workers Club meetings, where Brethren from round the district came to learn and practice the ritual and floorwork. It made me realize there was more out there than just Tuscola’s way of doing things. My district was then particularly fortunate to have Arthur Lodge No. 825, home lodge not only of Bill Dillon, but then-Grand Master Noel C. Dicks, and Right Worshipful Brother Jesse Higginson, past chairman of the Board of Grand Examiners. Jesse was our regular instructor, and was quite happy to put people on the spot and push them to learn. He would regularly assign me new bits of ritual and expect me to have them ready at the next monthly meeting.
Having found that I liked Masonry, I started looking around for potential members. Tuscola is a “city” of 4600 in a county of 19,000, so the membership pool is not huge, but I knew a few people. The first man I approached was Eric Frahm (he would later follow me as Worshipful of Tuscola Lodge), an IT guy I’d known for years, mostly through our wives. I handed him Chris Hodapp’s Freemasons For Dummies, and told him to read it and see if it sounded like something he’d like. A few months later, he said, “yeah, sounds good.” So Eric became Brother Eric. His cousin, Cory, petitioned the lodge at Eric’s urging, and the three of us set about looking (in a fairly haphazard way) for good men we thought would make good Masons. One friend of mine, now a member of our lodge, had never inquired about Masonry because he thought you had to be asked to join. Others had never realized Masonry existed. We got new members fairly regularly, and they interested their friends, and before long we had regular Work, with more and more of our members able to participate in degrees beyond just standing in the obligation line.
We started cleaning up two miles of a local highway, sponsoring the local high school’s Scholastic Bowl team and hosting their awards dinner; sponsored two blood drives every year, conducted ILCHIP events, traveled to other lodges to help them with their degrees, and generally tried to be active on a number of levels.
Three years after I was raised, I was elected Worshipful Master, succeeding Worshipful Brother Pangburn, who became Lodge Secretary. As a lodge, we set about planning our 150th anniversary rededication. We put down new flooring in the dining room, replaced stained ceiling tiles, and generally spruced things up. Although I kept referring to the Most Worshipful Grand Master, Richard Swaney, as “Most Excellent,” because I was apparently channeling Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, it was a wonderful ceremony, held on the actual date of our charter. We didn’t feel old at all.
We kept working, with new petitioners coming fairly regularly. Eric succeeded me as Master, and Cory followed him. I conferred a lot of degrees during my time in the East, as did Cory and Eric. It became the expected thing to know the work. If a Brother had trouble learning it, there was no shame. But everyone tried, and that was and is a wonderful thing. It’s become the norm for us to learn ritual. Some learn a little and some learn a lot. But we all learn.
Not quite ten years have passed since I petitioned for my degrees. Eric, Cory, and I are all Past Masters. We’ve raised twenty-nine Master Masons since then, and, while some have moved away and others are infrequently at meetings, eleven of them are there every month. We’re also active enough that some Brethren who’ve moved here from other places are now regular attendees. One of them has affiliated with us and is now our Senior Warden. This year, the Worshipful Master, Secretary, Treasurer, and Tyler are Past Masters. Everyone else is new. It feels wonderful.
So, what did we do that worked? A number of things, some of which may be universally applicable and some not. I offer them in no particular order:
1. We kept trying new things. If something didn’t work, we abandoned it, but if it did, we kept doing it. We plan plans, but we don’t plan results.
2. We learned ritual. When I was raised, if I recall correctly, only one member of my lodge could do any work in the Third Degree, and only a couple could do any work at all. Now Tuscola can do all its own work if we all show up, although we like to have visiting Brethren work in our degrees. It seems only fair to let travellers have fun.
3. We sought out new members. Illinois allows us to ask potential members to join, and we did. Sometimes we did it well, and sometimes badly, but we were looking for good men who might enjoy Freemasonry as we did. We don’t act like salesman, but I, at least, will say to a guy who I think would be a good Brother, “why aren’t you a Mason?” It gets the conversation started.
4. We got visibly involved in the community. Blood drives CHIP events, scholastic bowl sponsorship: all these things matter, particularly in a small town. Besides, doing good things together connects us to one another.
5. We maintained the building. We’re fortunate in that we have a downtown building with a tenant downstairs whose rent just covers our property taxes, and a temple board that’s frugal. In the last ten years we’ve had the building tuck pointed, repaired the roof a couple of times, replaced the sign, put down new flooring in the dining room, replaced ceiling tiles, ceiling fans, and lights, and generally kept the place looking fresh. We solicited donations among the various bodies that meet there (Blue Lodge, Eastern Star, York Rite), spent from saved funds, and did most of the work ourselves. The kitchen is a mid-70s time capsule (thank goodness the colors are muted), but it works, and that’s good enough. A lodge is the Masons and their charter, but buildings are part of our existence, and maintaining them is essential. Old and well-used buildings are charming; neglected ones aren’t. Potential Masons look at our physical temples, and if it looks like nobody cares, they won’t usually inquire further.
6. We committed to Freemasonry. We showed up, did what needed doing, and looked for good examples among our Brethren. We didn’t wait to be shown: we got involved. That said, we also exhibited enough enthusiasm that our older Brethren volunteered to help us.
7. We traveled to other lodges for degrees and instruction. I, for one, love my lodge, but I also love going to see other lodges, love watching other Brethren work, and generally love holding Masonic fellowship away from my home turf. Those of us who learned ritual found out we were often asked to help out in other lodges during their degrees, and we did. That not only made us feel welcome and competent, it encouraged us to learn more ritual.
8. We respected and learned from our elders. When Worshipful Brother Burl Green, 93 years old and nearly seventy years a Mason, rises to speak, we pay attention, even if he’s just talking about something we already covered. Our ancient Brethren are often fonts of wisdom. Even when they’re not being particularly wise, they’re our Brothers. We let them talk and we’re attentive.
9. We didn't inflict guilt trips on Brothers who can’t make it to lodge for work, family, or other reasons. They’re our Brothers, and we know they’re busy, especially the young guys. We just welcome them whenever they can show up, and make sure to keep them in the loop.
10. We did not look back at the “good old days” as being better than today. We study our history, but we live in the present moment, and we look to the future. There are bright days ahead, at least if we don’t rest on our laurels. This fraternity did not get to be nearly 300 years old by standing still.
So, is Masonry what I expected? Have I found what I was looking for? I can’t say yes, because I didn’t expect anything and I had no idea what I was looking for. What I did find was men looking for a higher purpose in their lives, a ritual that teaches me how to live every day, and a history rich beyond measure. I also found a future that is what we make it. Together, as long as we keep working together within the points of the compasses, Tuscola Lodge No. 332 will continue to rebuild itself on the foundation of those true Masonic ornaments: brotherly love, relief, and truth. We will, I trust, never stand still.
R.W.B. Michael H. Shirley serves the Grand Lodge of Illinois, A.F. & A.M, as Leadership Development Chairman and Assistant Area Deputy Grand Master of the Eastern Area. A Certified Lodge Instructor, he is a Past Master and Life Member of Tuscola Lodge No. 332 and a plural member of Island City Lodge No. 330, F & AM, in Minocqua, Wisconsin. He is Past Most Wise Master of the George E. Burow Chapter of Rose Croix in the Valley of Danville, IL; he is also a member of the Illinois Lodge of Research, the York Rite, Eastern Illinois Council No. 356 Allied Masonic Degrees, Eastern Star, Illini High Twelve, and the Tall Cedars of Lebanon.The author of several article on British and American history, he teaches at Eastern Illinois University.You can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org