By Emily Younker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Enjoying drinks Wednesday night with his fellow Elks in their new lodge, Les Higdon was glad to be back in familiar surroundings.
“My wife and I come here a lot; this is our family,” said Higdon, a 34-year member of the Joplin Elks Lodge. “We missed it very much.”
Nearly 20 months after being leveled in the May 2011 tornado, the rebuilt Joplin Elks Lodge 501, 1802 W. 26th St., is set for a “grand reopening” ceremony Saturday. Guest speakers will be Ted Callicott, a Missouri Elks state sponsor and past grand exalted ruler, and Dennis “Skip” Bell, state president. Invitations have been sent to Elks nationwide.
“My intention is to thank lodges throughout Missouri, and actually throughout the country, for their support after the tornado,” said Charlie Sorenson, president of the Joplin lodge.
On the afternoon of May 22, 2011, about 75 people were at the lodge playing bingo, secretary Randy Bell said. By the time the tornado struck, with the lodge directly in its path, that number had dwindled to five.
Four of them were killed: Clyde Coleman, 72, of Galena, Kan., whose wife, Carolene, was the sole survivor; James “David” Kendrick, 63, of Joplin; Johnnie Ray Richey, 52, of Joplin, who was a trustee; and Shelly Marie Ramsey, 42, of Neosho, who was a bartender at the lodge.
About 100 of the lodge’s 600 members were directly affected by the tornado in terms of housing loss, Bell said.
With the destruction of their lodge, the Elks met at Carl Richard’s Fourth Street Bowl in Joplin until the fall of 2011, at which time they moved into an 1,800-square-foot garage they had built on their ravaged property. It was small — one-third of the space was taken up by restrooms — but it did the job, Bell said.
“We didn’t have much room, but it kept everybody together,” he said.
Meanwhile, members gathered their insurance proceeds, donations from other lodges and funds they had raised and broke ground for the new lodge one year ago. Corner Greer & Associates Inc., of Joplin, was the architect; R.E. Smith Construction Co., of Joplin, was the builder.
“There was really never any doubt that we would rebuild,” Sorenson said.
The new $2.7 million, 19,000-square-foot building includes a dining room, furnished with artwork from member Jack Davis; a bar and lounge; a ballroom; a game room with pool tables and card tables; a display case of Elks memorabilia; and about 40 young trees planted across the property by volunteers.
The new lodge room, which contains a 110-year-old altar that is the only surviving piece of furniture from the old lodge, doubles as a safe room that “hopefully we never, ever need again,” Bell said.
The names of the four victims are inscribed on a wooden plaque — a gift from Lodge 2251 in Tempe, Ariz. — that is on display in a large cabinet near the front doors.
Even while displaced, members continued their normal operations by supporting the Joplin School District’s Bright Futures program, Boy Scouts of America and Children’s Haven. Last month, they prepared 250 food and toy baskets for local families at Christmas.
When they moved into the new lodge on Dec. 1, there was a sense of relief, Sorenson said.
“The members were all very happy that they were able to get back into a full facility,” he said. “That puts that (the tornado) behind us now. We’ve always said we lost a building, but we didn’t lose our lodge. The lodge is the people; the spirit of the Elks is the lodge.”
The grand reopening comes 35 years after the Elks, on Saturday, Jan. 14, 1978, held an open house and dedication ceremonies for their old lodge, which had just been constructed. That lodge, a 16,000-square-foot, single-story building, cost about $300,000 and boasted many of the same features — a ballroom, a bar and lounge, game rooms, offices and “one of the finest lodge rooms in the state,” then-secretary Edward Welsh told the Globe at the time.
The Elks previously were housed, since 1904, in a three-story building at Fourth Street and Pearl Avenue.
THE CHARTER of the Joplin Elks Lodge dates to 1899.