The Masons moved on long ago. Gone are the Lions, too. The Moose closed for good in the late 1990s. Even before the era of internet speed and multi-tasking, Forest Park’s fraternal organizations withered under the strain of a changing society. All except one, that is.
On Saturday, May 20, 35 members and guests of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, Aerie #1344, came together to celebrate the local chapter’s 100th anniversary at its club, located at 446 Hannah Ave. Such a centennial celebration is noteworthy in itself, but it is particularly poignant considering the Eagles stand as witness to all of Forest Park’s history. And, it did so while overcoming the challenges that toppled similar organizations.
The village was incorporated as the Town of Harlem in 1884. Twenty-two years later in 1906, the 1,344th chapter of the Eagles received its charter. The town would be renamed Forest Park the following year. At the time, the population stood at 4,085, with forty percent of inhabitants being foreign born, almost exclusively of German and Italian descent. By 1930, the population had exploded to more than 14,000.
This was the Forest Park into which the Fraternal Order of Eagles was born.
And so, on this postcard-perfect May evening, these members, mostly seniors and retirees now, met to celebrate the club’s longevity and enjoy a unique camaraderie that for many has been part of much of their life.
“I became a member in 1968, and today’s [club] is a world away from what it was then,” said Don Haugen, a towering six foot, six-inch man with a silver flattop and embracing smile. “The aerie was a real part of our lives then. It was part of the fabric of this community.”
The organization’s membership has dwindled to 55 from its zenith in the 1940s and 50s, when its roster included almost 700 names. Then, any local politician, business or civic leader had to possess an Eagle membership card to be recognized as having truly “made it” to the top of the social ladder. Even through the 1970s, members included influentials”mayors, police and fire chiefs, village commissioners and local icons of commerce like Howard Mohr.
The Eagles may not boast the same numbers, but its benevolent mission remains constant. “Every dollar generated is returned as charity, primarily to local causes,” explained current president Jack Eilrich.
In fact, the Eagles continue giving thousands annually, to charities such as the Forest Park food pantry, for funding Forest Park police officers to shop for Christmas gifts for underprivileged children, and to the Salvation Army and Shriner’s Children’s Hospital.
The national Eagles organization and its chapters were a key financial supporter from the outset for Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Town, in Nebraska. Through its thousands of chapters, or aeries, nationally, the Eagles also generate millions annually in contributions for heart, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and kidney research. The chapter’s women’s auxiliary has taken the top spot for kidney research fundraising among all Illinois Eagles’ chapters as recently as 2002-03. As an organization, the Eagles are also credited with the establishment and congressional recognition of the nation’s Mother’s Day observance.
Haugen reflected on the Eagles’ mission as he set one of the dining tables in preparation for the evening’s festivities. “Tonight is a little bittersweet. We’d like to do more, have the financial impact we did for the community in years past, but I don’t know how much longer we can go. It’s just really tough to attract new members these days”civic-minded people”young or old.”
Forest Park’s Eagles continue traditions like summer picnics and children’s Christmas parties for members and prospective new ones in efforts to attract new blood, but with limited success.
In some regions of the country, similar organizations such as the Elks and Moose, along with other Eagles locals, are experiencing something of a renaissance. They’ve seen a surge in new membership coming from baby boomers and 40-somethings that now find themselves with children in college and more time on their hands. Many have also sought new ways to attract family-oriented men and women to its rolls. They’re offering summer day care and computer classes.
Member Wayne Garbe, who joined with Haugen, put it in perspective.
“We’re seeing a revitalization of Forest Park, and it’s become a hot town again, but unlike other communities, many of the newcomers are single and career-oriented. Do they want to give back in the same way? I don’t know.”
And so, the fact remains that attracting new members is the top challenge. Eilrich kept his own explanation simple.
“Back when folks actually socialized and sought out people to meet, rather than sitting inside watching TV or surfing the Internet, we were there. The Eagles were a cornerstone of Forest Park society,” he said.
Indeed, one need only look to what the Eagles’ hall was in its heyday. The behemoth, four-story building at 7507 Madison Street dwarfs Duffy’s Tavern next door. This was the Eagles’ club of yesteryear. They took the building over from the Mason’s once they outgrew their Desplaines and Randolph location, and remained there through the 1960s. The lodge signage remains chiseled at the top of the building’s facade. The windows now are papered over with advertisements hawking the structure’s latest iteration: loft condos for sale.
Back then, the second floor housed the club’s bar and dining rooms. The third floor held a massive banquet hall and dance floor that hosted prominent big bands and jazz combos in the 1940s and 50s. The fourth floor was the Eagle members’ grand hall and meeting room. Prior to the Madison Street location, the club sat at the corner of Desplaines and Randolph. The building remains today, the site of a liquor store now, among other businesses.
“Even through the 1960s and 70s, it was all about having fun while giving back to the community,” said Eilrich, adding, “People just prioritize their lives differently these days.”
Until only a few years ago, Aerie #1344 hosted a Friday night dinner crowds of 75 to 100 guests. But, as the membership aged, and fewer young people joined, the club had to discontinue the weekly fundraiser.
“Sure, people loved our Friday night dinners,” said member Nick Dorich. “They got a great meal for six or seven bucks, and we made money we could give to charity. Our servers even donated all their tips. But it was a lot of work, and like many organizations, it became clear that the majority of work was being done by a minority of members. People can only do that for so long before it gets old.”
And old is what many of the members are becoming. Yet, they strive each month to contribute what they can to area causes. “Would we love it if a dozen or so younger men and women joined? Sure,” Eilrich said wistfully. “We’ll welcome anyone. It would be nice to see the club’s bar hoppin’ again, and the pool tables being put to use on Saturday afternoons.”
He doesn’t think most newcomers to town realize the kind of impact they can have by joining such a group. “It’s a worthy, terrific, fun organization,” Haugen added. “It would be a shame to see this kind of run come to an end.”
For information on joining the Eagles, call, 708-366-1321.