Staff to be honored as Mason of the Year
While sustaining an organization can be challenging in today's busy world, a centuries-old, all-male fraternal group thrives in the Mid-Mon Valley.
The Free and Accepted Masons, while basically low-profile and esoteric in nature, have about 1,000 members belonging to five local lodges.
They are Tri-County Lodge #252, based in Donora; Charleroi Lodge #615; Blyth Lodge #593, West Newton; Monongahela Valley Lodge #461, California; and the Henry M. Phillips Lodge #337, Monongahela.
Arguably, the most notable may be the F&AM's Tri-County Lodge, not only because it has the most members (445) but also because other lodges incorporated over the years include the former Brownsville Lodge #60, begun in 1794 shortly after Free Masonry arrived in a still colonial U.S. from Scotland, Ireland and England.
“Where there were no roads, men would walk trails and later railroad tracks to attend meetings,” according to James Staff Jr., of Carroll Township, who will be honored as Mason of the Year by his Tri-County Lodge fellows at a banquet Saturday.
“Early lodges met in local taverns or members' homes before they prospered and established lodge buildings.”
Besides Brownsville, lodges from Belle Vernon, Fayette City and, this summer, Monessen have become part of the Tri-County Lodge.
While Free Masonry is said to be a “secretive society,” and while the organization has maintained certain rituals, “There are no secrets at all” in the Internet Age, Staff said, except perhaps for the tradition of reciting a “password” to enter meetings.
Staff, the son of a coal miner, was a Rostraver police officer for 17 years, a volunteer firefighter in Rostraver for 38 years and an EMT driver for local ambulance services. He's the father of four children, with 10 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
“I've been a Mason for 32 years and enjoy the many friendships I've made,” Staff said.
He has held virtually every position, including Worshipful Master (equivalent to president) of the Tri-County Lodge for the past six years, and former president of Syria Shrine Caravan #17.
OK, so you've heard about the F&AM and asked, “Who are they?” or “What do they do?”
They are your neighbors, elected officials, businessmen, professionals and ordinary working stiffs. I'm not an F&AM member, so there's no conflict of interest when I say the organization does a lot of great things.
It raises and donates many millions of dollars a year for charities, the best-known being the affiliated 22 non-profit Shriners Hospitals, including facilities in Erie and Philadelphia, that provide care for children with burns, spinal cord injuries and orthopedic conditions.
It also supports Jerry's Kids and the Muscular Dystrophy Association, CHIPS and DARE programs, and dyslexia, eye-care and other foundations.
You can travel the world from Russia to Italy, from India to Pakistan, and find Masonic lodges.
There's a legacy of members such as Presidents George Washington and Lyndon Johnson, actor John Wayne, comedian Red Skeleton, Walt Disney, astronauts Buzz Aldron and Gus Grisson, et al.
Today's column would not be complete, however, without mentioning “one of our own,” Edward Fowler Jr., a resident of Lynnwood, Washington Township, who has achieved the highest position in the Masonic organization's Royal Order of Scotland.
The longtime member of the Charleroi Lodge #615 is in the last year of a five-year term as American Provincial Grand Master overseeing lodges in the U.S., Puerto Rico, Guam, Panama and the Virgin Islands.
Thought du jour - Those who are not part of the solution are usually part of the problem.
Joe Grata is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.