- Associated Press - Sunday, February 28, 2016

WHEELING, W.Va. (AP) - At 43 years old, Johnny Bitzer Jr. of Triadelphia is the youngest Osiris Shrine leader in 50 years. His goal: to bring awareness to the Shriners’ mission and host several new public events, such as a toga party in June.

A toga party? At the Shrine?

Indeed.

Bitzer - whose nickname is “Indeed” and his motto, “Shriners ‘Indeed’ Helping Children in Need” - said before he took the helm on Jan. 8, he canvassed about 30 local young Shriners and their wives and girlfriends, as well as some out-of-state Shrine leaders to determine how to raise the most money and bring in younger people. The average age of the Osiris Shrine members is about 65, and membership has declined from 2,200 in 2008 to more than 1,700 now, in large part from the deaths of older members and the difficulty in retaining younger members.

Of the suggestions he received, a toga party, a superhero steak fry and a drag disco night made the cut.

Bitzer admitted the reaction among members to these new events was mixed, but he is determined to use his single year as potentate to bring in some new members - and keep them.

“We have to maintain the time-honored traditions that have made us what we are, but we also need to not be afraid to blaze some new paths,” Bitzer said.

His statement is right in line with an historical moment in the Shriners organization.

The Shriners was formed in 1872 when a few members of the Masons in New York City wanted an extension of their brotherhood that was “centered on fun and fellowship,” according to the Shriners International website. About 50 years later, a Shriner who was moved by his visit to a hospital for handicapped children in Atlanta called upon his brethren to begin giving back by starting a children’s hospital. At the annual Shriners meeting, Potentate Freeland Kendrick proposed each member pony up $2 a year to found the endeavor. There was much hemming and hawing about the logistics, not to mention the fee.

Then a man named Noble Forest Adair stood up and spoke:

“While we have spent money for songs and spent money for bands, it is time for the Shriners to spend money for humanity. I want to see this thing started. Let us get rid of all the technical objections. And if there is a Shriner in North America who objects to having paid the two dollars after he has seen the first crippled child helped, I will give him a check back for it myself.”

The resolution passed unanimously.

Today, there are 22 Shriners Children’s Hospitals, and the Osiris Shrine - which has jurisdiction over satellite Shrine centers throughout northern and eastern West Virginia - holds fundraisers throughout the year to support the hospitals and provide transportation and lodging for local families who need it. The nearest hospital is in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Bitzer calls the hospitals “the sole purpose for our existence.”

He noted all the fundraisers - the new ones and the ones the Shriners have hosted for years, such as the Cash Bash, the circus and the benefit ball - all have one thing in common: raising money for the children.

Bitzer chose to become a Shriner after returning to Triadelphia to help his family with his mother’s business, Wanda’s Bargain Barn, located on National Road. His mother has since died, and he runs the store.

After growing up in Valley Grove and graduating from Wheeling Park, Bitzer attended the ComAir Aviation Academy in Sanford, Florida, and became a professional pilot. He then moved to the Akron area, where he became the corporate pilot and, eventually, executive coordinator for Steve Nickelsen, CEO of Nickelsen Partners, a customer service consulting firm for the automobile industry.

Nickelsen mentored Bitzer in business and in life. During his 10 years with Nickelsen, Bitzer lived in a large home, enjoyed a jet-setting lifestyle and accumulated lots of “stuff.” When it became clear he was needed back home in 2004, he got rid of most of it.

“I saw it as this was God’s way of telling me you have way too much stuff for one person.” He bought a house in Triadelphia one-quarter the size of his old one, and began building a life in the Ohio Valley.

When searching for a group to plug into here, he knew he wanted “a core group of good quality men” and found them in the Shriners. He discovered the members to be like-minded individuals with upstanding reputations, philanthropic goals and good hearts, no matter what their age or socio-economic status.

“We revere the internal qualities, not the external qualities,” Bitzer said, adding he could be sitting between a doctor or lawyer and a student or mechanic, but all are treated equally.

“Nobody looks down on you,” he said.

He became a Mason in 2007 and a Shriner in 2008, rising quickly through the ranks of both organizations. He is a past master of the No. 5 lodge, and was almost immediately appointed to the board of directors of the Osiris Shrine upon joining.

He calls the Shrine a “finishing school for men” and a place that “makes good men better.”

The Osiris Shrine was founded in 1886, and in 1926 acquired Monument Place, the former home of one of Wheeling’s founding families, the Shepherds, where it holds its meetings. The imposing stone edifice - on the National Register of Historic Places - faces Kruger Street on the corner of National Road, directly across from the Elm Grove McDonald’s.

“A lot of people know the McDonald’s but don’t know the Shrine building is right across the street,” Bitzer said. His mission is to call attention both to the facility and to the work the Shriners do. To that end, a new electronic sign is being installed on the corner. He also granted this interview, and he’s hosting events to cater to a younger crowd, hoping to bridge the gap between the older and younger members and ensure a bright future for the group.

“It’s a cultural melding,” he said. “We’ve got to find some happy mediums.”

Past potentate Gary Gwynn Sr. of Wheeling, who is 71, said Bitzer has a good balance of reverence for ritual and youthful energy.

“He likes tradition, but he also understands there’s just some things you have to change,” Gwynn said.

The Osiris Shrine still will host many of its familiar fundraisers, including the Osiris Shrine Circus on March 28 at WesBanco Arena; and the Cash Bash in the Hills at the Carnes Center in St. Clairsville, Ohio, on Oct. 1.

Many local residents have heard of these events, and those who attend Christmas parades may know the Shriners as “men in funny hats who drive tiny cars,” Bitzer said, referring to the Tin Lizzy Patrol. “That’s OK, but they’re missing the point.”

It’s a bit of a public relations conundrum. After World War II, membership boomed as returning soldiers sought out the camaraderie they had in the service. Bitzer said his 90-year-old grandmother was impressed when he became a Mason in 2007, because when she was young they were considered “really something special.” When he became a Shriner, she told him that was “really incredible.”

The organization has become less well known to the general public in the next two generations.

“I think the world has forgotten (us) because we’ve allowed them to forget,” Bitzer said.

Bitzer keeps things light but professional at his meetings. He likes to have fun, but he is serious about breaking the Shriners out of their routine.

“Everybody - young and old - likes Johnny. He’s very personable. He has a lot of energy,” Gwynn said. “He’s going to do really well.”

“His i’s are dotted, his t’s are crossed,” said Shriner Mark Ridgely of Wheeling, who is 39 and is a close friend of Bitzer’s.

Ridgely said he, his two stepbrothers and his brother-in-law all joined the Shrine around the same time, following in the footsteps of his stepfather, past potentate John “Catfish” Walters.

All in their 30s at the time, their motivation for joining included the fraternal aspects - “It’s very fun. It’s definitely an extended family,” Ridgely said - and to help support the children’s hospitals. He said parents of the children have spoken at events, sharing their stories. “Really, that’s all the motivation you need,” Ridgely said.

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Information from: The Intelligencer, https://www.theintelligencer.net


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