The elk’s head mounted on the wall, the crackling fire, the click of billiard balls and the raucous laughter swirling around the bar: a typical Route 1 roadhouse? Not quite. The tip-off might be the names taped to the liquor bottles on a shelf above the bar, or the fact that teenagers are throwing darts in the main hall while their parents socialize. It could be the raffle tickets being passed around: raising money for anything from sending kids to camp to buying dictionaries for their adopted school to buying gifts for veterans in a VA hospital or phone cards for soldiers overseas.
At Alexandria Elks Lodge 758, located on Richmond Highway north of Lockheed Boulevard, every social event is an opportunity to help the community and support the causes members care about. Army Sgt. Tom Baker, the lodge’s Esteemed Lecturing Knight, said he joined the Elks two years ago because of their dedication to veterans’ programs. Four times a year Elks volunteers transport patients at the Veterans Administration hospital in D.C. down to the lodge for a meal. More often, they visit the veterans at their rooms in the hospital, bearing fruit cups and stuffed animals.
Esteemed Leading Knight Don Delap, like Baker one of the lodge’s four chair officers, said he joined after getting married three years ago. “My wife and I wanted to go find some place where we could both do things together. Instead of my friends and her friends we’d have our friends.”
THE ALEXANDRIA LODGE was founded 104 years ago, and has been open to women for the last 15. Although, men make up about two-thirds of its 477-person membership, this year, for the first time in its history a woman was elected Eminent Ruler.
Both Baker and Delap say they can be found in the lodge three or four days a week. It is open seven days a week. Members can drop in for a meal or a beer or a shot from their personal bottle. On Friday nights, Baker and Delap work in the kitchen, helping serve the weekly dinner that can draw crowds of 35 to 60, depending what’s on the menu (when it’s steak, it’s more like 60).
Besides Friday dinners, the lodge hosts a Monday pool tournament, twice-monthly karaoke nights and parties for any excuse: the Super Bowl, the Preakness, St. Patrick’s Day, birthdays, NASCAR races, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Redskins tailgates. And every fourth Sunday they host a breakfast open to the public.
“Our menu for breakfast you will not believe,” said Delap. “French toast, pancakes, waffles, eggs to order, cream beef sausage gravy, sausage - links and flat, bacon, fruit cups, kielbasa, fried potatoes, biscuits. Six dollars. All you can eat.”
And then there’s the breakfast bar: a table set with ingredients for Mimosas, Bloody Marys and screwdrivers and a bucket for donations. After the lodge pays the costs of liquor and mixers, the rest goes to charity. In fact, every party and every gathering is an excuse to raise money for charities. Some parties are thrown specifically for a certain charity, such as an upcoming April spaghetti dinner for breast cancer research, while the earnings from others go to a general pool.
Last year the lodge used proceeds from its events to pay for 28 children to go to camp. It has sent 200 sweat suits to wounded soldiers in Landstuhl Germany. It buys dictionaries and flags for Washington Mills Elementary School. Delap recently taught the school’s crossing guards how to fold flags and how to dispose of them.
The Alexandria Lodge is responsible for the World War I memorial in Arlington. It participates in Veterans Day and Memorial Day ceremonies at the cemetery. One of its members, Muriel Kerr, calls every living World War I veteran once a month.
According to Baker, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was founded by New York actors and comedians in 1868 to circumvent drinking laws. They called themselves the Jolly Corks. But after a member died and left his family destitute, the Corks took their first collection. They found that carousing for charity was more fun that simply carousing, and renamed themselves after an animal they decided was distinctly American. They founded lodges at their stops on the theater circuit, cementing the Elks’ popularity from coast to coast. Baker credited the elaborate speaking parts that characterize Elks rituals to the founders’ thespian background.
Frank Carey, the chairman of the Veterans Committee, has been a lodge-member for 22 years. He remembers meeting at the Lodge’s old quarters above the American Legion Post on Cameron Street before they moved to their current location in 1990. He said the organization has evolved dramatically. “At the Legion we didn’t do anything. Now we’re doing everything. That’s the bottom line I guess.”
FIVE DAYS A WEEK, the Elk Lodge hosts lunch for the homeless. Elks make food on Monday. Aldersgate Methodist Church makes food on Fridays. A revolving list of churches fill in the other days.
On a recent afternoon, the Divine Mercy Prayer Group from St. Louis Catholic Church was serving spaghetti. The volunteers can use the Elks’ health department certified kitchen under the supervisor of a certified kitchen manager. “They provide everything for us,” said Divine Mercy organizer Fran Raven. “It enables us to do our volunteer work.”
Emma Martin, lodge manager and karaoke night “Elkette,” said that at the end of the month, 40 or 50 people will often show up for a meal: “elderly couples, mothers and children. Families roll up in a car. You can tell everything they own is in it.
“It’s a chance for people that have grown up in this community to give back to the community. And by having the social quarters we have fun doing it.”
Delap said he deep fries five turkeys for the people 75 or Elks who show up for the lodge’s Thanksgiving meal. He will soon start growing out his beard so he can play Santa Clause for local children at Christmas. As he talks, he continually thinks of yet another party, cause, or recipient of charity. “For us to sit down and say what we do and how it’s done. We have to hit and miss until we get the whole story out.”