Shriners Have Fascinating History in Community Service

By DAVID JONES
Contributing Editor

SHRINER ROYALTY: Jerrell Glass and his wife Mickey are feted at the Akdar Shrine as he is installed as potentate for 2008. The Shriners have a lot of fun, Glass says, but they also have done a lot of good for hundreds of thousands of children.

DAVID JONES for GTR Newspapers


Jerrell Glass wears a funny-looking hat.
Actually, it is a fez, named after a city of the same name in Morocco. It is worn in America by members of the Ancient Arab Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, commonly known as Shriners.

Sure, Glass admits, they do wear the fezzes and occasionally dress up as clowns, sponsor circuses and drive funny little cars, but beneath the frivolity lies a serious purpose: getting medical treatment to children who desperately need it.

“We do have a lot of fun,” says the newly-installed Potentate of Tulsa’s Akdar Shrine Temple, “but we work hard to help others, too.”

The figures bear out the Shriner’s good works. Since the first Shrine hospital was opened in 1922 in Shreveport, La., some 835,000 children have been given free medical care. The Shriners now fund 22 hospitals. The order, which includes well over 400,000 members throughout the United States as well as Mexico, Canada and Puerto Rico, makes sure the medical facilities are well funded and have the latest equipment.

So how did a jovial brotherhood of merry makers become major benefactors to thousands of children who otherwise might not have gotten desperately needed medical assistance?

It all began in 1870 at the Knickerbocker Cottage in Manhattan.
At that time New York City was aswarm with Masons, and the Knickerbocker Cottage was a favorite meeting place. A table on the second floor was routinely inhabited by a particularly jolly group, among them William (Billy) Florence and Dr. Walter Fleming.

They decided they needed a fun-and-games society to spark up their lives.

Florence was a popular stage actor who had achieved acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. He recalled that once while in Marseilles, France, he had attended a party given by an Arab diplomat. When Florence told Fleming about the exotic get-together, Fleming came up with the idea for the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine and spent the next few months dreaming up the rituals for the meetings. He was the one who decided that every well-dressed Shriner needed a fez.
The first temple was organized in the New York City Masonic Hall in 1872 and the Shriners took off. Bands were formed. The first circus performed in Detroit in 1906. Local charities were funded and occasionally, as in the relief fund for the San Francisco earthquake, a national effort was made. For the most part the Shriners contented themselves with smaller local efforts.

A lot of the Shriners were dissatisfied, wanting to do something larger and more important. In 1919 the incoming Potentate toured the Scottish Rite Hospital for Crippled Children in Atlanta and became aware of the desperate need for orthopedic medicine for children. At the 1920 convention the idea of the Shriners developing a hospital was proposed, but many members thought it too ambitious. It took an extraordinary event to change minds.

One Shriner, lying in his hotel room at 4 a.m., was awakened by a musician playing “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” a popular song of the time.

The next day he told his fellow Shriners what he had heard and suggested that what they were doing, with their local and fragmented efforts, was blowing bubbles.

The message met the moment. The Shriners voted overwhelmingly to support a hospital, which turned out to be the one in Shreveport. Originally the Shrine hospitals were used to combat the effects of polio, but as the years went on and the cases of polio declined the Shriners branched out. In the 1960s the Shrine hospitals began doing research and branched into other medical needs of children. There are three hospitals that specialize in burn treatment.

“Doctors will see more burn patients in a few months in one of our hospitals than in years in a standard hospital,” say Glass.
A host of other ailments, 18 in all, from spinal cord injuries to cleft palates are covered in Shriner hospitals.

“We accept neither government nor insurance money,” says Glass. “The help the kids get doesn’t cost their parents a cent.”

The Shriners work hard to finance their hospitals.

“Most of our money comes from foundation grants and businesses. Our members work hard at things like the Shrine Circus (coming to Tulsa Feb. 28 – Mar. 2). On Feb. 12 the International House of Pancakes is letting us participate in IHOP National Pancake Day in which in lieu of charging for an order of pancakes, IHOP will accept a cash donation equal to or greater than the value of the pancakes purchased with all proceeds benefiting the Shriner Hospitals for Children.”

So, says Glass, it is true that the Shriners wear hats that people might think are funny. They dress as clowns. They drive funny little cars.

But behind the frivolity they have a serious purpose and close to a million children have benefited from that purpose.

Updated 01-31-2008

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