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Elks back on the stampede

The lodge was dormant for years, but it's thriving in fancy new digs.

By TERRI BRYCE REEVES, Times Correspondent
Published October 7, 2007


DUNEDIN - Just days after the Dunedin-Clearwater Elks said farewell to their old lodge, the ceiling collapsed.

"It took care of us as long as it had to," said Roger Clark, a longtime member of the fraternal organization. "Then it took its last breath."

Just 10 days before the ceiling gave way, the Elks moved into their new $1-million home at 1240 San Christopher Drive. It makes an impressive statement, especially at a time when many fraternal organizations must struggle to stay healthy.

But they weren't always as strong as they are now. In March 2001, Dunedin Elks 2275 and Clearwater Elks 1525 were both having trouble attracting members. So they merged.

"Our goal was to build one viable lodge from one that was floundering and one that was just staying afloat," said Clark, now the exalted ruler of Dunedin-Clearwater Elks 1525.

So far, so good.

Since moving into the 7,000-square-foot facility at the end of July, the organization has been getting plenty of new members. Many former members are being reinstated. The roster now tops 730.

"Many of the new members are in their 40s, 50s and 60s," Clark said. "Some have children. We need them. We're getting tired."

* * *

The former Dunedin lodge, about 2,500 square feet in size, had once been a two-bedroom farmhouse, purchased in 1963 and expanded over the years. It was located on the same piece of property as the new one.

The Clearwater lodge was situated on 7.5 acres on Sunset Point Road. That property was sold for $750,000 to provide the down payment on the new building.

The new lodge has beveled glass entry doors, tough PVC floors engineered to look just like wood, a kitchen to please any chef, and a lounge stocked with plenty of booze, new tables and bar stools. The lodge area, where members hold dinners and meetings, features a large dance floor that can be sealed off from the rest of the building with glass pocket doors.

On a recent Wednesday evening, the joint was jumpin' with about 80 people singing karaoke and engaging in chitchat.

A few sat outside having cigarettes, as smoking is banned inside the new building.

"We went from a hole in the wall to the Taj Mahal," said Clarence Rolsin, 69, lodge chaplain and chairman of social events. He joined 12 years ago, becoming, he says, the first African-American Elk in Florida.

To become a member, one must be 21 and have a sponsor. At one time, the organization was for males only, but since 1995, women and minorities have been allowed to join. Sheree Hull of Clearwater is a newer member.

"It's a really friendly place; everybody's so outgoing," she said. "I love the new building; it's light and airy."

Another newbie is baby boomer Jim Haley, 51, of Dunedin, who joined just a week ago.

"This new building was certainly a draw," he said. And, he said, he likes the fact that the Elks are much more than dinners, drinks and bingo parties.

They contribute to myriad causes.

"We help support children and veterans," said Art French, a 70-year-old trustee.

The lodge has adopted San Jose Elementary School in Dunedin, donating 150 dictionaries and 800 pounds of school supplies in August.

Lodge members feed needy families at Thanksgiving, and provide them with toys and clothes at Christmas.

They've sent toiletries to the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and trophies to the Clearwater Little League Challenger Division. They also pay for therapy services for disabled children.

* * *

For many, the lodge is a home away from home.

Sometimes, it becomes home.

Rolsin, the chaplain, recalled the time a widow brought in her husband's cremated ashes and set them on the bar.

"She said, 'He spent more time here than he did at home, so you guys can have him.' "

The organization kept those ashes in the old lodge for 40 years. Then they found the proper burial place: the foundation of the new lodge.

"Elks are never forgotten," Rolsin said. "Elks are never forsaken."

By the numbers 

730 Dunedin-Clearwater Elks members.

800 Pounds of school supplies the lodge donated to San Jose Elementary School in Dunedin.

1963 Year the original Dunedin property was purchased.

1995 Year the Elks opened membership to women and minorities.

2,500 Square feet of the old facility.

7,000 Square feet of the new facility.

[Last modified October 6, 2007, 20:07:41]

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