- Associated Press - Saturday, July 2, 2016

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Bob Momsen waves away comparisons to secret societies.

Innijiska, the St. Paul-based fraternal organization he helped found in 1958, is more of a subtle society - a quiet network of civic leaders with several former state lawmakers, 32 company presidents, two judges, a newspaper publisher and Minnesota’s longest-serving orchestra percussionist counted among its members.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press (https://bit.ly/1QbWgbL ) reports that for 58 years, members of Innijiska have helped run economic development organizations, parks boards and even whole cities. But when they get together, they mostly just party.

“It’s probably as unique a group as you can find,” said Momsen, 86, who served as an advertising executive for the St. Paul Pioneer Press from 1950 until his retirement in 1992.

It’s also a closed network. Innijiska hasn’t accepted new members, other than spouses, since the mid-1960s, though they’ve tallied well over 600 descendants in their extended family.

In service to their communities, members of Innijiska sometimes took center stage and sometimes operated behind the scenes. But along the way, they almost always injected a dose of fun into what they did. At least 10 members have been spotted on the St. Paul Winter Carnival Vulcan Krewe.

“Two were fire kings,” said Momsen, who for years was in charge of hiding the Pioneer Press’ Winter Carnival Treasure Hunt medallion. “Two were prime ministers.”

But it hasn’t all been fun and games.

A total of 47 members served in World War II or the Korean War, Momsen said. One man spent more than two years in a German prisoner of war camp.

And after 58 years, the society has slowed. All but two of 51 surviving members are over age 80, and 14 members are at least 90 years old. The eldest is 94. More have been buried than remain alive.

“Age is catching up with all of us,” said attorney Mike Galvin, 85, who still checks into work regularly. “We’re just gliding into old age - gliding into maturity.”

Innijiskans don’t laugh at death, but they’ve been known to offer a wry chuckle. By the club’s official count, 65 members “have preceded us to the happy hunting grounds.”

Momsen said an Innijiska newsletter launched in 1995 by former Pioneer Press publisher Tom Carlin, a founding member, will soon cease publication.

That doesn’t stop the membership from throwing a party. Official gatherings occur thrice annually. They’ve ranged from coat-and-tie formals to Hawaiian-themed cook-outs and a “We Gotta Bingo” dinner theater in downtown St. Paul’s Lowry Theater.

This past Tuesday, some 30 members of Innijiska gathered at the Commodore Bar and Restaurant on St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill for a black-tie-optional dinner co-organized by Momsen’s wife of 67 years, Yvonne.

“They’ll be there with wheelchairs. They’ll be there with canes,” said Momsen, a few days before the gathering. “One will have a nurse. But they’ll come.”

There are members who can trace their friendships back to grade school. Others, to high school. Most met in the 1940s as members of the St. Paul Jr. Chamber of Commerce, a men’s group that had no real connection to the actual Chamber of Commerce.

“The thrust of our chapter was all about leadership training through community development,” Momsen recalled.

Founded in 1929, the organization eventually came to be known as the Jaycees, dedicated to young professionals ages 21 to 36. From 1950 to 1965, the St. Paul Jaycees gained near-legendary status within their national network, running over 200 civic projects per year, including the St. Paul Open.

“We put on a major golf tournament,” Momsen recalled. “At one time, it was the only PGA tournament played on a public course (in St. Paul) for years. That ended in the 1960s.”

On three occasions, their Jaycees chapter was ranked first in the country.

There was just one problem - youth ends.

At age 36, Jaycees members were dubbed “exhausted roosters” and dropped from the roster. But the friendships were too tight to let go. And the parties were grand.

“Nobody had much money. We all had a lot of kids, and we were just beginning in our careers,” said Momsen, a father of five. “But we loved to have fun. There was always a party.”

Eager to keep in touch, outgoing members of the Jaycees started their own civic club and incorporated a sister organization, the Jaycee Wives. The first party took place in 1958 at the White Pine Inn on the St. Croix River, and members paid what they weighed for admission - a penny per pound. Rather than step on the scale, Betsy Guthmann opted to put in the flat fee of $5 instead.

“There was a lot of fooling around with the weight,” said her husband, Howard Guthmann, 93. “This group just isn’t serious about anything.”

Annual membership dues were $20 (equivalent to about $170 in the 1950s) and have barely gone up with time. At that inaugural party, the Guthmanns won their dues back by submitting the winning entry for the organization’s new name - Innijiska, meaning “white rock,” the title given to the St. Paul area by its original native tribes after the white cliffs found in a bend of the Mississippi River.

Adopting an American Indian theme might be politically sensitive today, but the idea stuck around through the decades.

A few years later, Innijiska decided to stop accepting new members. A group picture from 1968 shows several-dozen men and women in their coats and ties, martinis in hand, under the title “St. Paul’s Tribe of Old Friends.” Some met regularly to play bridge, travel or enjoy a monthly women’s lunch at the Pool and Yacht Club in St. Paul. There were four parties yearly.

What they didn’t do as a club was community service, politicking or any other official duties that might compete with the Jaycees.

“Absolutely no service projects,” said Howard Guthmann, who dismisses any comparison to Hollywood versions of secret societies that might quietly pick the next governor, senator or president. “Are you kidding? The general rule is that there’s no rules. It’s just for fun.”

Over the years, the group of old friends flourished. Dozens became company presidents, partners, owners and managers. Howard Guthmann, Innijiska’s second-eldest member, once chaired the St. Paul School Board and the St. Paul Port Authority.

In April, he retired at the age of 93 from Wilkerson Guthmann CPAs, where he’d worked for 70 years. His Innijiska scrapbooks will soon be donated to the Ramsey County Historical Society.

Other members could be found on the mastheads at the Pioneer Press, Northwest Bell Telephone, the First National Bank of St. Paul, the Harris Insurance Agency, Piper Jaffray Financial Co. and Ben Franklin Savings and Loan.

Galvin, the attorney, still shows up for work at the downtown Minneapolis offices of Briggs and Morgan. “I was there twice today,” he said Tuesday. He spent 60 years with the company in St. Paul’s First National Bank building.

Bill Carter became the executive director of the St. Paul Housing and Redevelopment Authority and ran for mayor in 1968. Frank Delaney ran the St. Paul Civic Center Authority. The Honorable Otis Godfrey and Dave Marsden were Ramsey County district judges.

Several members got the political bug.

Tom Newcome served as mayor of White Bear Lake and a state representative from 1965 to 1975. Joe O’Neill was a two-term state representative and a three-term state senator who served as Republican floor leader from 1974 to 1976. And Mary Jeanne Schneeman was a two-term member of the Mendota Heights City Council. Harry Strong ran for Congress.

Members also took to the stage.

Marv Dahlgren was the principal percussionist with the Minnesota Orchestra in Minneapolis for 48 years and a prolific author of musical guides. His credits include performances with renowned talents such as guitar-picker Leo Kottke and Yusuf Islam, the singer-songwriter formerly known as Cat Stevens.

Innijiskans sometimes joke about their strong fertility. The club counts 421 grandchildren and 208 great-grandchildren.

Sometime in the not-so-distant past, members Pat and Lloyd Rogers decided to ascribe meaning to the letters of the name. The letter I, they figured, stood for “incomparable friendships that will continue” and the first “n” for “numbers that will decline.”

The next “n” represents the group’s “nebulous future.” And the next I is “inescapable mortality.”

But then there comes a J. And J might stand for the best of all - the “joy of fellowship and laughter” - which after 58 years, Innijiska still has in abundance.


Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com



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