Saturday, April 1, 2006

Once Back in St. Cloud, Interested in Other Things I Turn Down a Twin Cities Newspaper Offer

[This is for my kids and grandchildren to save for later when they get time to read, probably after I’m long gone, about grandpa’s “ early, formative years”]

After finally getting a job offer from the St. Paul Pioneer-Press in late 1954 for a not breathtaking figure, I sat down and deduced how I could get by on what they offered: $120 a week. The benefits were obvious: a little more prestige with a chance ultimately to write politics. A medical care program (which as a kid who believed he was immortal, didn’t interest me). But the negatives loomed large: No free haircuts from any incarcerated Indian at the Stearns county jail with an elderly sheriff looking on saying “Just take a little off the top and sides, keem-o-sabe [sp?], don’t scalp `im”; no room rent for $5 a week including linens; no free lunches from local sandwich shop because the owner was a fan; no clout from being misperceived as a shirt-tail relative of the “old Judge”: (John J. Roeser, federal district judge in the `20s) which I cashed in on for some political stories although I wasn’t related (I never did find out what he did that was so endearing). No free-lancing feature stories for a wire service. And there was an intangible something else. Caesar wrote that he would rather be first in a small town than second in Rome. As a political writer who called his own turn on anything I wrote, I was first—i.e. the only one. In St. Paul, I’d be a lowly cub.

Plus no Knights of Columbus initiation trips which paid a little money but which were more fun than almost anything else (more later). So I turned it down thinking maybe something better will come up. After all, I had only been there a year—and, frankly, I was coming around against my better judgment to love St. Cloud. But I knew I was dangerously temporizing by not getting out: maybe this would be the last job offer and I’d be stuck making $67.50 for the rest of my life. But that didn’t bother me much--such was the insouciance of youth. At this time, 1954 going on 1955, I drew a great deal of fun and satisfaction from an acting career—that involved, strangely, the local council of the Knights of Columbus.

The Knights.

Anyone familiar with U.S. history in the early 19th century understands the role secret societies played in our history. De Tocqueville wrote of it; so have all the major historians; I’ve heard Samuel Eliot Morison lecture on it. There was a fascination with them, particularly as a fraternal association which at the outset was strictly patrician. The leading secret society from the time of the nation’s founding was the Masonic Order to which George Washington and his fellow Virginia planters belonged…and he led a string of prominent presidents (not all of them however) who belonged up to Harry S. Truman. Jefferson didn’t belong (his belief in religion was very slight) but Madison and Monroe did. Then they skipped for a few presidents. William Henry Harrison did; John Tyler did. In the 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt, Harding, FDR was high ranking. And so on.

The Masons were intended to be a male auxiliary to Protestantism but for many men who valued camaraderie it often became a substitute for Protestant church-going. Then, of course, you know what happened: business deals were cooked through Masonic connections; politics was affirmed that way; even when I was a child, whole companies seemed to embrace them (or maybe that was just Catholic paranoia). Sears was supposed to be a Masonic preserve; if you’re not a Mason, don’t expect to go far. That was the refrain: a good excuse for men who didn’t go far.

In the mid-19th fear of the Masons grew so great among Catholic immigrants and others that a political party was created to counteract them, the Anti-Masonic party, which amalgamated with the Whigs and later the Republican. Abraham Lincoln was not a Mason and his leanings were not religious at the outset, anyhow. But his great and good friend, Thurlow Weed, a Republican strategist, was a leader of the Anti-Masons as was the brightest member of his cabinet, William H. Seward. Anti-Masonic activity was particularly prominent with the newly-arrived immigrants of Catholic heritage, particularly the Irish. Then as the Irish strove to gain acceptance, many of them left their Catholic faith and became Masons. This led one young priest, Father Michael McGivney of Hartford, Connecticut to establish what would be a kind of Catholic version of the Masons in the church basement in 1882.

Because Catholics—particularly the Irish and Italians—were regarded as largely riff-raff and less than 100% pro-American (because, it was thought, their Catholic faith made them pledge allegiance to a foreign potentate, the Pope), they were cut off from many benefits, including some benefit organizations of the time which paid out funds to widows and orphans. McGivney wanted to start a lodge that (a) provided a co-op insurance program for widows and orphans of members who were not supported by any other means, (b) stressed patriotism and Americanism and (c) would serve as a social rallying point for young immigrant men. He picked Christopher Columbus who was both Catholic and Italian (if only Columbus were Irish it would have been more advantageous, he thought, but you couldn’t have everything). He liked the idea of knighthood and called the group the Knights of Columbus. Rapidly it expanded throughout the East and became a rallying point for Catholic men to slam the doors shut and hold mysterious rituals not too different from Amos ‘n Andy’s lodge, the Mystic Knights of the Sea.

In St. Cloud of the mid-1950s, Masonry didn’t count for much but being a Knight of Columbus sure did—and the Protestants saw the same kind of clique-ishness that we did in Chicago. I wanted to get in because all my St. Cloud friends were in and my father in Chicago, an enthusiastic Knight, volunteered to pay my dues. He said it would bring great dividends for an aspiring political reporter as well as help his spiritual life—and he was right (about the political connections, anyhow; it did nothing for my spiritual life except one thing: made me so busy in my off-hours I didn’t get into trouble.)

St. Cloud was a heavily Catholic town; the mayor was a Knight, so was the chief of police and the town’s leading plain-clothes detective, the sandwich shop owner who staked me to free take-outs, Fred J. Hughes, the Republican lawyer who once said he wanted to talk to me about the Republican party but seemingly forgot; the owner of the town’s biggest employer, the granite quarry; the biggest manufacturer, Franklin Transformer; Sheriff McIntee, all his deputies; the leading undertakers (excellent for culling gossip from), the politicians, of course; the leaders of the main street businesses; the adjutant general of the National Guard, the bankers, Frederick Fandel of Fandel’s Department store; the business manager of my newspaper (although the owner was a Mason).

I can see them all now, seated in rows listening to the Grand Knight (the head guy), Dr. Fred Petters, the town osteopath, dressed in regalia. If the roof of the K of C building were to fall in and kill them all, there would be a lot of openings in every profession including the three mortuaries.

But it was the Knights’ initiation ceremony, written by Father McGivney himself (who had died in 1898 at age 38 and ever since has been pushed by the Knights for sainthood, quite a stretch it seems to me) that sparked my interest. Since I was a boy I had come upon male family members whispering about the initiation, talking to themselves sometimes with saucer-eyes of astonishment, then doubling up in laughter. But they couldn’t tell since under the rubric of the Knights was that no one—and that meant no one—could reveal the initiation—even to wives and loved ones. To do so was akin to the most foul mortal sin, seemingly cavalier about betrayal of Christianity itself. Then in the 1940s Chicago Catholic apostate, drunken bum, womanizer, druggie, atheist, degenerate but literary master James T. Farrell, described the procedure in his novel Studs My father had gone to St. Alphonsus grade school with Farrell (who had the nickname Studs) and he said Farrell was known as a despicable type even then. But, he acknowledged, Farrell had captured the essence of Chicago in his novels, that he was sure Farrell died unrepentant with the result that his soul is roasting in torment on a spit in Hell. “Nevertheless,” he said, mysteriously, “in so many things about the times in Chicago, Studs had it right.” But for Farrell’s shocking disclosure of the K of C rites he had only the most vehement disgust.

Notwithstanding Farrell’s literary acumen , when I was a child and it was a best-seller, not only was I forbidden to buy the book or read it in the library but that if someone sought to tell me the ritual, I should withdraw from his presence immediately. Anyhow I would find out soon enough when I became a Knight. But my mother would never find out. She would flounce away and say it was a lot of kid stuff and she didn’t want to know anyhow. Now when I found out, my father said, I was not to tell anyone how the initiation turned out including my mother, although I could share laughs and exclamations in private with other Knights, the implication being that were I to violate that oath, I might very well be struck dead in the telling of it and the family would probably have no recourse but to bury me in unconsecrated ground while my soul would take its place, turning on the same spit with Farrell’s.

Thus it was a great experience to take the initiation but unfortunately it was short-lived. Some years after, the Knights determined that the ceremony was too archaic, out-of-date and would be supplanted by a modern one, as drab as it was officious—and worse, not secret at all. When asked what would happen to the old secret ritual now that it was rendered obsolete, the Supreme Knight, in Hartford, shrugged and said frankly it was no concern to him. So it was a great disappointment, once to get on the inside and find out later that people would become bored with the telling of it. I felt cheated but that’s the way life is sometimes. Thus when I go on with this story, I’ll tell you the details since I not only survived the initiation but was recruited to travel the state at Knights’ expense putting it on.

It’s now time to go to bed, late on Friday night. These words are to be posted Saturday. I’ll resume the telling next Monday morning. All the same, if something happens to me before then—and I die or be struck mute and illiterate—you’ll know there was something to the old injunction after all.

My best advice would be for you to forget the whole thing…but think of me kindly.


  1. I think that, at least for the third degree, the old ritual might have been reinstated. In any event, I was sworn to secrecy about it, and this was in the last ten years.

  2. Tom- Fr. McGivney hailed from New Haven, CT. The parish he founded, St. Mary's, is now run by the Dominicans, and is located ar 5 Hillhouse Avenue, just off the Yale campus. It is a beautiful church, and Fr.'s tomb is to the left as you enter into the main part of the church. Likewise, the International HQ of the K of C is in downtown New Haven. Our eldest son is employed in their extensive printing facility.
    Frank & Lillian Nofsinger
    North Haven, CT