Herd Dwindles After Leadership Ouster at Denver Elks Lodge No. 17

By Kathryn White

Denver Elks Lodge No. 17 is currently surrounded by construction projects, but still enjoys an exceptional view of downtown. The lodge rents a level of the building’s north wing, and some of its parking and perimeter, to a construction company working nearby. Photo by Lexi Lehman

Springtime brings change to Colorado’s estimated 300,000 elk. 

Where the fall rut (mating season) brought the grunts and high-pitched squeals of bulls vocalizing their quest for mates — or defending a harem against outsiders — spring brings quieter shifts. Coats slim down to a summer layer, bulls shed antlers and pregnant cows spend their last months with the herd before each strikes out on her own to give birth. 

A season of renewal comes to the other kind of Colorado Elks too, the 20,000 members across 55 Elks Club lodges. Elks renew their memberships this time of year and local lodges elect new leaders to assume roles like exalted ruler, leading knight, loyal knight and lecturing knight.

Denver Elks Lodge No. 17, at the corner of West 26th Avenue and Alcott Street, lost some high-ranking members of its herd in 2022 and 2023. When the annual membership renewal period ends this month, it will have lost some more. 

A contentious meeting back on Oct. 22, 2022, set in motion a chain of events that left some who’ve since left the lodge wondering whether local changes to promote diversity and inclusiveness are sustainable within a national organization where a chain of command can be yanked from above at any time to set back their efforts.

In the end, a diverse group of women, people of color and LGBTQ club leaders–who had furthered the lodge’s philanthropy and helped it to regain financial stability–spent over a year jostling through legal action and other protests within the organizational apparatus before ultimately leaving the well-known public club. 

The Denver North Star last covered Denver Elks Lodge No. 17 in December 2019, when the lodge was undergoing something of a revival. A group of parents from neighborhood schools had put on an event at the lodge and were later inspired to join its ranks. They saw potential in an organization with such a clear charitable purpose operating out of a building with a great view of downtown and ample space for community events. 

But first they needed to get the place back onto solid financial footing. Membership had diminished to around 200, with only a dozen or so active members, and there was talk of selling the building.

In September 2021, Westword reported on the lodge’s exalted ruler (aka president) at the time, Jim Wolf, who had created the lodge’s first diversity statement and was acknowledging the national organization’s exclusionary history. Lodge leadership was rapidly growing membership with Denver’s diverse population as its model. Wolf, and later others like Josh Crawford and Garrett Phillips, served as exalted rulers who brought new streams of revenue into the organization to put toward its community service work and cover monthly and maintenance expenses associated with the building.

The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (BPOE) was founded in New York in 1868 as a social club for minstrel show performers. Members got together over drinks, and when a fellow member fell on hard times, they’d pitch in.

The social-plus-service formula was aided in its rapid growth by the traveling nature of the minstrel show world at the time. By 1890, there were 173 men-only lodges across the country. Today that number exceeds 2,000, and over 1 million dues-paying members.

Early Elks were men whose minstrel repertoire included performance in blackface, but the lodge’s early days went well beyond leaning on racial caricatures to perpetuate racial stereotypes. Lodges excluded outright, or made membership difficult to achieve, for African-Americans, Italians, Jews, women, atheists and others. 

By the late 1990s, more than a century after the organization’s founding, many local lodges had undergone moves to shed themselves of exclusive practices. Sometimes that took the form of local lodge leaders pressing for change, other times lodges were forced to admit new categories of members when they were sued or a local government threatened to pull their liquor license over failures to comply with civil rights laws.

When Garrett Phillips took over as exalted ruler of Denver No. 17 in April 2022, the year after he had been elected as the lodge’s Elk of the Year, he prioritized the lodge’s inclusiveness efforts. The board at the time was made up of several women and people of color and one person who identified at LGBTQ. Overall membership numbers had shifted. It became, on average, younger, and it was attracting greater numbers from groups that had historically been left out by the Elks.

Garrett Phillips with Josh Crawford, exalted ruler of Denver Elks Lodge No. 17 when Phillips was elected Elk of the Year for 2020-2021. Photo courtesy of Garrett Phillips

On Oct. 22, 2022, Garrett Phillips presided over a well-attended membership meeting where three changes to the lodge’s by-laws were to be considered. Lodge leadership sought to replace male-only pronouns with gender neutral terms. They also wanted to decrease the number of member meetings from 24 per year to 16 and increase annual membership dues from $115 to $200.

A heated discussion consumed the meeting. Phillips had to call the meeting to order several times to settle outbursts from members. 

“There was one in particular, who I’d never seen,” said Theresa Peña, Denver native and former DPS school board president, “who I’ve come to know was John Amen. He’s kind of a legend in Colorado, even at the national level, and a very important member.”

“He was rude and disrespectful,” Peña continued. “I’d never witnessed that kind of behavior in my time at the lodge since joining in April. It’s a friendly place. We’re trying to do good work and volunteer in the community.”

By evening’s end, despite a contentious and lengthy process, the proposed bylaws changes were passed, with amendments, by a vote of members. A local lodge’s decisions would typically be then sent up the Elks hierarchy for sign-offs. 

Instead, on Nov 18, 2022, Phillips received a “Notice of Emergency Executive Order” removing him from the office of exalted ruler. The order declared Phillips ineligible from holding any office at an Elks lodge for three years and it suspended his club privileges, also for three years.

The order contained eight charges against Phillips, and noted that the move was recommended by “State Sponsor John D. Amen, Past Grand Exalted Ruler.”

The charges included three pertaining to how Phillips presided over the Oct. 22 meeting, one claiming Phillips had allowed new air conditioning to be installed at the local lodge without proper national sign-off, and another that Phillips had failed to obtain “an excuse for good cause” when he missed a regional leadership meeting to attend his daughter’s soccer tournament.

All eight charges were ultimately dismissed, but not before a lengthy appeal and internal court-like process from November 2022 to January 2024.

“What we found out is that, with a big organization,” Phillips said, “if you try to make too many changes, there’s a national organization that’s in control of it and they will shut it down.” 

Peña wrapped up her active time with the lodge last spring when her term as leading knight ended and she had completed her work on the lodge’s annual scholarship cycle. She renewed her membership one last time because she wanted to be a member in good standing when Phillip’s appeal took place. This month, Peña said, she will allow her membership to lapse.

Peña and another member filed an internal Elks charge against Amen for his conduct at the October meeting. The parties would have gone to mediation, but the matter was dropped by the national organization when Amen transferred his membership to a lodge in Colorado Springs, where he now lives.

Beyond the three changes on the agenda that October 2022, Peña’s sense was that some, Amen in particular, just wanted things to stay the same. They questioned changing rules that had been working for the Elks for 100 years.

After the meeting, Peña began researching Elks history.

“If you go back and look at the Elks constitution, it’s not gender neutral,” Peña said. “It’s not very friendly to women. It’s silent on any kind of person of color perspective.” 

Lisa Ramirez, a North Denver parent who has been involved in neighborhood schools for many years, sent a letter of resignation to the national Elks organization last fall. She said she respects the decisions of friends who’ve decided to remain members, who want to continue pursuing change within the lodge, but she’s no longer willing to invest her own energy there.

Ramirez expressed disappointment in the absence of a democratic process prior to the abrupt removal of Phillips from leadership. She said she was struck by a double standard that put Phillips through months of defending himself, while those who had made unsubstantiated charges against him faced no repercussions.

“I could not in good conscience be part of the Elks any longer. You become part of the Elks national organization when you join as a member of a local lodge. I couldn’t remove myself from that and I just didn’t want to condone that kind of behavior,” Ramirez said. “I think it’s still a good old boy network. Our local chapter was amazing for a while. But seeing some of the things Garrett was accused of as he was trying to make it more inclusive? That told me all I needed to know.”

Michael Encinas, North Denver native and City Council Pro Tem Amanda Sandoval’s husband, said both he and Sandoval were extremely disappointed when Phillips was ousted. Encinas was a lodge trustee at the time and had pitched in at the lodge in a variety of ways, including help at the building during COVID-19, arranging for $10,000 a month in rental income from a construction company operating nearby, and teaming up with Phillips and Denver North’s golf coach Ron Ramirez to install golf simulators at the lodge for student golfers to practice during the winter. 

“My daughter played golf at North,” Encinas said. “With the girls golf program in high school athletics, they catch the short end of the stick. Their season starts in the spring. We were goofing off down in that room one day. And we said we should put a net down here and hit some golf balls.”

Talk turned to fundraising and what it would take to bring simulators into the space. 

Today, the garden level of the building’s north wing serves as the Denver North golf team’s offseason training space. And when golfers from Denver North aren’t training, Elks members who’ve paid for an additional golf membership can use it themselves. The simulators mimic courses as renowned as Pebble Beach and as familiar to locals as Willis Case.

Denver Elks Lodge No. 17 is currently surrounded by construction projects, but still enjoys an exceptional view of downtown. The lodge rents a level of the building’s north wing, and some of its parking and perimeter, to a construction company working nearby. Photo by Lexi Lehman

Encinas, who recruited over 25 new members while he was active, has no plans to continue as an Elk. 

“It’s not a money thing for me. It’s the principle,” Encinas said. “It’s what they did to my friend. Especially after everything we accomplished at the place.”

He described Amen’s behavior at the October 2022 meeting as that of a ”grouchy, bigoted, old white man who didn’t like to see the changes that were happening at the Elks Lodge.”

“We were trying to change those bylaws to make it more inclusive, so it wasn’t so geared towards men,” Encinas said. “On our board, we covered it. You had three persons of color, you had one LGBTQ person, you had four women. We were rocking and rolling, getting stuff done.”

According to Encinas, there was also some infighting. He said former Exalted Ruler Jim Wolf, the one who made it onto the pages of Westword for the lodge’s first diversity statement, didn’t like what lodge leadership at the time was doing. So he sought the support of a friend he’d made in Elks circles: John Amen. 

“And then John Amen dropped the hammer on us,” Encinas said. 

John Amen declined to comment for this story.

Because Elks take an oath not to discuss internal matters with non-members, current Denver lodge members The Denver North Star reached declined to comment on the details of Phillip’s removal as exalted ruler.

Wolf declined to comment on Amen’s role in Phillips’ removal from office, but he spoke to the impact of the abrupt change on the lodge.

“It was extremely disruptive to all the good work that we had been doing for the past several years,” Wolf said. “My wife and I worked hand in hand with Garrett during that entire time to build up the lodge to what it was and make the lodge an instrumental part of the community.”

“But the lodge came together and supported Garrett,” Wolf continued. “And since then, the lodge has continued to grow and strengthen. Membership continues to increase and I think we’re stronger for it, to be honest with you.”

Denver No. 17 has 582 members now, according to Secretary Travis Caldwell.

While Caldwell and current Exalted Ruler Chris Jeffrey declined to comment on Phillip’s removal, they provided The Denver North Star with a tour of the lodge and they shared about lodge history. 

Space at the lodge was made available to community groups nearly 20 times last year, for events like Denver CASA’s (Court Appointed Special Advocates) Colorado’s Christmas toy give-away, blood drives, Denver North High School sports and arts banquets and fundraisers, and Veteran’s memorial services. 

And even with a system Caldwell said grossly under reports volunteer hours, members recorded roughly 1,000 hours spent volunteering in the community.

Caldwell said the lodge was particularly proud of the role it played in supporting recent immigrants living at the nearby Quality Inn and neighboring encampment that surrounded their building. In partnership with the city and state, the lodge was used for clinics to help expedite the processing of work permits for approximately 150 people.

The lodge gave over $40,000 last year to organizations like Special Olympics Colorado, Denver CASA, Servicios de la Raza, Laradon Hall and Bienvenidos Food Bank. And they gave out $20,000 in scholarships and some smaller, individual grants to veterans for things like rental assistance.

And Caldwell said they’re actively planning their annual fundraiser for Special Olympics Colorado on May 20. The community is invited.

Phillips reflected back on what he and others accomplished in growing lodge membership to reflect the people of Denver. “The old white people around there, they didn’t like that at all,” he said. “And one of the guys was in a position that he could just say, OK, you’re out.”

“The end result is that [leadership] is back to like 90% white people,” Phillips said. “White, straight cisgendered males that run that organization, including the local Lodge.”

Garrett and Tiffany Phillips bartending at the Jolly Corks bar inside Denver Elks Lodge No. 17. Photo courtesy of Garrett Phillips

Phillips received notification on Feb. 5 that his case within the Elks quasi-judicial system had finally been put to rest. All charges have been dropped, and he had agreed to a lifetime ban from holding office at any level in the Elks organization. A $1,000 deposit, the fee required to initiate the appeal process, was returned. Phillips notified members, many of whom had pitched in to cover the fee, that he would donate the $1,000 to the North Side High School Alumni Association’s scholarship program.

As life moves on, for Phillips and others who left, as well as for the lodge and its roster of social-plus-service activities, it remains unclear if, how and when the Elks organization will completely shed itself of its exclusive past.

Denver Elks Lodge No. 17 is on solid ground when it points to its good works, cheap drinks and million dollar view of downtown.

But it may take a few more rounds of sparring and tangled antlers before the Elks truly become a community organization.

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