By Ron Leir
Laurence “Larry” Bennett just began another term as the leader of the Harrison/East Newark Elks Lodge No. 2326. Or, as they say in Elks parlance, he’s Exalted Ruler.
Well, no big surprise about that, right? Bennett, 59, is now serving his ninth year as Exalted Ruler of the local lodge and during that time, he was contested for the office only once.
But it turns out that nobody else in the Elks’ North/ Central District – encompassing Cedar Grove, Nutley, Belleville, the Oranges, North Arlington, Lyndhurst, Kearny, Harrison and East Newark – can match that longevity record.
“Larry’s an amazing man,” said former longtime North Arlington resident Bob Whitaker, one of 11 district deputy directors for the New Jersey Elks organization.
Over the past decade, Whitaker has come to know Bennett as an Elks loyalist who “does a lot of work, no matter what you ask him to do. He deserves whatever recognition he gets. He does go above and beyond.”
Bennett shrugs aside the praise, saying that the team of volunteers he has assembled is responsible for all the good deeds attributed over the years to the Elks in West Hudson.
Ask about them and Bennett rolls out a list, probably as long as your arm.
At the top of that list, according to Bennett, is fund-raising on behalf of impaired children, supporting Elks Camp Moore in Passaic County, run by the state Elks organization at a cost of $1 million a year. Each summer, the Elks rotate about 600 youngsters with a range of disabilities through the summer camp for one-week sessions in the outdoors, “at no cost to their parents.”
“We also provide wheelchairs and hospital beds to the camp, as needed,” Bennett said.
Another big priority for the Elks, Bennett said, is veterans.
Elks members visit Veterans’ Administration hospitals in East Orange and Newark during Christmas and Easter holidays, bringing gifts and running bingo games. And the Elks arrange to bring veterans who are patients at Lyons VA Hospital to the Harrison/East Newark lodge for a summer picnic and trip to a Newark Bears baseball game.
Throughout the state, Elks lodges collect donations for the “Army of Hope,” which aids injured veterans in readjusting to civilian life and helps the families of veterans killed in action.
During Veterans’ Day observance in 2009, the Elks learned that the local American Legion post was scrambling to raise money to fix its badly leaking roof but was having a tough time of it.
“So,” Bennett recalled, “we got together with the firemen and Miles F. Kelly Suppliers, who donated building supplies, and we got a contractor, Denny’s Roofing & Painting, who did the roof work, and volunteers did the cleanup with help from John Cali of Cali Carting which provided a Dumpster. And the Elks wrote a check for $4,000 to the Legion.”
Elsewhere on the charity front, Bennett said the local lodge has done joint fund-raisers with the FMBA (Fireman’s Mutual Benevolent Association) and PBA (Patrolman’s Benevolent Association) and with the Harrison/ East Newark Football Booster Club.
“Since 2006 to the present,” Bennett said, “our lodge has donated $275,000 to charitable causes. We’ve only been able to do that because of the team we have in place and because the community has generously responded.”
The lodge has also loaned its meeting hall for use by outside civic and fraternal groups like the Lions Club, the Cancer League, the PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) and PTA (Parent Teacher Association).
During the Thanksgiving holiday, Elks members distribute meals to needy families and on Thanksgiving Day, they prepare and deliver hot meals to seniors and the disabled who are unable to cook for themselves. “Last year, we did 110 meals,” Bennett said.
At Christmas last year, the Elks supplied 25 needy families with clothing and toys, he said.
In the last three months alone, Bennett said the lodge donated nearly $7,000 to the Harrison Recreation Dept. — $5,000 to complete the redoing of the Harrison Little League infield with clay and the balance to various local recreation programs.
While Bennett didn’t mention it, Whitaker reminded The Observer that the Exalted Ruler “runs a districtwide soccer shoot contest for children underwritten by the Elks.”
Additionally, Bennett said, the Elks answers the call “when someone in a family is sick and the family can’t pay the medical bills or when someone dies and there’s no money for burial expenses or when people are left homeless and lose all their possessions due to fire.”
“This is how we’ve made the Elks a pillar of our community,” Bennett said. “I’ll always be an Elk because it’s important for us to continue to do this work. It’s also important to note that with the Elks, everyone’s a volunteer. No one gets paid. All donations go directly to services for the community.”
Whitaker said that Harrison/ East Newark lodge consistently ranks “in the top two in the district and among the top 10 in the state” for fund-raising efforts.
Bennett was recruited to the local Elks at the end of 2000 by two past Exalted Rulers, Richard Rukowski and James Geddes, then a trustee. “At the time,” Bennett recalled, “the Elks, like any other fraternal organization, was losing membership, money was going down. And these men were concerned we’d lose our lodge which, if that happened, would impact all the charities helped by the Elks.” (Harrison/East Newark lodge formed in 1965 after separating from Kearny.)
So Bennett joined and was quickly elected trustee and stand-in for Exalted Ruler. After being elevated to Exalted Ruler in 2003- 2004, Bennett said, “We put a team together and worked on fund-raisers and putting out into the community what we’re about – helping others.”
And the team set about injecting new, younger blood into the organization – an effort that continues today as the lodge boasts 338 members and counting.
“In the last six to eight months, we’ve brought in 20 to 25 new members, ages 21 to 35,” Bennett said. “As soon as they join, I put them to work. You make them feel they belong and, eventually, they feel comfortable being there.”
Tax-deductible donations to the Elks, a registered non-profit organization, are always welcome. “They can contact me at (973) 865-9990 or write a check to the Harrison/ East Newark Elks and send it to the lodge at 406- 408 Harrison Ave., Harrison, N.J. 07029, Attn: Larry Kelly, trustee,” Bennett said.