By Ron Leir
He’s probably the smallest guy in the outfit, but his buddies – as much as they may kid him – acknowledge that he’s got a huge heart.
And that’s probably why they’ve chosen Larry Bennett as exalted ruler of the Harrison/ East Newark Elks Lodge 2326 each year for the past decade – a significant milestone in the annals of the organization.
“Ten years is a record for the Elks’ North Central District,” Bennett noted.
The district encompasses lodges in Harrison/East Newark, Kearny, North Arlington, Lyndhurst, Belleville, Newark/ Bloomfield, Cedar Grove, Orange, West Orange and South Orange.
“He’s going to keep doing it till he gets it right,” quipped 35-year lodge member Larry Park, a trustee and past exalted ruler.
Among the 117 lodges around the state, Bennett ranks No. 2 in consecutive years of service in the top spot. “Another guy has 12 years,” he said.
Ironically, compared to Park and some other longtime lodge brothers, Bennett – who also serves the community as a member of the Town Council and Housing Authority Board of Commissioners – might be considered a rookie, having come aboard in 2000.
“Rich Rykowski and James Geddes, both past exalted rulers and trustees, approached me and asked me to help the Elks reorganize,” Bennett said. Membership was slipping and the lodge was becoming stagnant; it needed a big push. “We put together a team and it just took off.”
Now, a largely blue collar membership exceeds 350, including retirees now living in Florida but also others coming in from Kearny, North Arlington and Lyndhurst, and the lodge, collecting per-member dues of $42 a year, has a healthy treasury.
And all are involved, in one way or another, Bennett said, with the Elks’ charitable efforts in West Hudson and supporting Elks-sponsored project around the state.
Perhaps the biggest of those endeavors is the New Jersey State Elks Association’s Camp Moore for disabled children, which operates in Haskell, a rural part of Passaic County.
“Six-hundred kids go every year,” Bennett said. “It costs $900,000 a year to run the camp.” To send a kid to camp for one week, it costs $500 and that cost is underwritten by individual Elks lodges’ fundraising activities. “We send four to six kids each year,” Bennett said.
Veterans are another focus group for the Elks. Lodge members sponsor picnics, holiday visitations and clothing drives for ex-servicemen and servicewomen at V.A. hospitals in East Orange and Lyons.
“We also take a group of those veterans to Bears Stadium in Newark for a [baseball] game during the summer,” Bennett said.
The Elks also pitch in to help with financial support for Camp Fatima of New Jersey, a non-profit, non-sectarian summer camp for developmentally disabled youngsters and adults, based in Lebanon in Hunterdon County.
Other beneficiaries of the Elks’ largesse include a host of local organizations: Harrison Cancer League, Harrison Little League, Harrison Pop Warner and High School Football, Harrison Travel Baseball, Harrison Cheerleaders, Lady Blue Thistle Soccer Team, Harrison Girl Scouts, Harrison Lions Club gala, PBA Torch Run, East Newark Volunteer Fire Department (new equipment) and college scholarships cosponsored by the PTOs.
But the lodge also helps in other ways. For example, Bennett said, “When Sandy hit, we had food for the workers who were dealing with the flooding. We sent trays of food to the Senior Center for people evacuated from their homes. If a person has cancer and needs help paying bills, we help. In the past year, we raised money for a family who couldn’t afford to pay for their son’s burial.”
“All the money we raise here goes to charitable causes,” Bennett said. “And we’re all volunteers here – no one gets paid. And this needs to continue because a lot of fraternal orders today are folding up. In a sense, we’re really the center of this community.”
The lodge meets the second and fourth Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. at its hall, 406-408 Harrison Ave. New members are welcome.