Last Friday night, under a canopy of starry lights, the Santa Clara Elks Lodge #2347 honored local vets with its annual Veterans Appreciation Dinner. This year, the event drew a crowd of 164 attendees from across the area.
Mike Davis, lodge chief executive officer–or, “Exalted Ruler,” as it’s referred to in the organization–drove the forty miles from Gilroy. Admittedly, he could’ve long ago joined the Gilroy lodge, two minutes from his house. But he has a special connection to the lodge in Santa Clara due to the fact that the land on which it’s built was once a ranch that belonged to his great-grandmother.
He joined the organization five years ago, through a friend who was already an Elk. Once he attended a few events, he said, “it’s like you’re family.” He distilled the organization’s purpose to a single message, “If you’re in need, we’re here to help you.”
Nationally, The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, as it’s officially known, has been around since 1868. The community-focused group runs a number of programs from providing meals to vets to awarding $3.2 million in college scholarships to high school seniors each year. On the local level, just four weeks ago, Davis said his group distributed free dictionaries to every third grader in the school district. And the lodge itself donates its space to other organizations including the Santa Clara Women’s League, The Lions Club and a Boy Scouts troupe.
“We give back to the community,” Davis said.
Friday night, the lodge, which boasts nearly 350 members, honored veterans, like Michael Hastings, a U.S. Navy submarine vet, who was accompanied by his wife Joan, from Santa Clara.
San Jose native Dave Gutierrez, an author who himself served in the U.S. Marine Corps Infantry, gave a keynote presentation on his new book Patriots from the Barrio. Six years in the making, the book is the true story of a segregated Mexican-American combat unit from El Paso, Texas, that fought crucial battles during World War II in Italy.
Gutierrez said, “I wanted to make sure these men–their sacrifices–were never forgotten just because their last name was either Gutierrez, Rivera or Carillo. I wanted to make sure their story was out there.”
The dinner also recognized the South Bay Blue Star Moms, an organization composed of moms of active service men and women. The Blue Star Moms is another local group the lodge supports, volunteering their time and resources to help send out care-packages and personal notes to soldiers on active duty.
Penny Fouse, an Elk member from Almaden, who’s usually at the lodge every fourth Friday for the monthly Fish fry, accompanied her husband Jim, a Vietnam vet who served in the Assault Helicopter Corps.
He entered the military as a 20-year-old and turned 21 while in combat. Now 68, Fouse didn’t remember celebrating his then birthday, but said he was probably working. “I repaired aircraft radios on helicopters in twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week.”
“Tonight’s honor is fantastic,” Mr. Fouse said, recalling that, “when we came home from Vietnam there was nothing. In fact, there were protests. You came back and you received no respect whatsoever.”
Asked how he endured those difficult years during and after returning from a war that deeply divided a country, his wife Penny explained, “We were high school sweethearts and I wrote to him every day when he was in ‘Nam. When he got back, we got married. That’s how we survived. We had each other.”