WILLMAR — Paul Ryan barely has time to get his suitcase unpacked before he has to re-pack it with fresh clothes and leave for yet another convention in another state.

It’s a pace he’ll keep until mid-July when his term as the Grand Exalted Ruler of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks ends.

Ryan, who lives in New London and is a member of the Willmar Elks Lodge 952, was installed as president of the national fraternal organization in July of 2020.

National President Paul Ryan, also known as the Grand Exalted Ruler, of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks, shows the pin he passes out while traveling to other lodges.

Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune
National President Paul Ryan, also known as the Grand Exalted Ruler, of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks, shows the pin he passes out while traveling to other lodges. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

Representing the national organization, which was founded in 1868, has been a “life-changing experience,” said Ryan.

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His wife, Stacey — who has actually been a member of the Willmar Elks lodge longer than her husband — travels with him to the state conventions.

Being among other Elks and hearing “what their concerns are and what they love” about the Elks and the people they help through their charitable work with children, veterans and community organizations has been an “absolute thrill,” said Ryan. “It’s meant a lot to us.”

Typically at this point in the calendar, the Grand Exalted Ruler would have made about 40 trips to visit Elks lodges around the country. But COVID-19 changed that.

“It’s not the year we expected,” said Ryan.

National President Paul Ryan, also known as the Grand Exalted Ruler, of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks shows the national banner May 3, 2021, at the Elks USA Lodge 952 in Willmar.

Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune
National President Paul Ryan, also known as the Grand Exalted Ruler, of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks shows the national banner May 3, 2021, at the Elks USA Lodge 952 in Willmar. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

Many of the visits and communication events have been through email, social media and other electronic means.

But recently, the in-person visits have ramped up and Ryan has traveled to about 14 different locations so far. He has another seven trips planned to places like California, Arizona, Michigan, Indiana, Virginia and Washington.

The last state Elks convention he will attend as national president is the Minnesota convention which will be held June 25-27 in Willmar.

He’ll get a one-day break and then head to Tampa, Florida, for the national convention, where he will run the business meeting.

Young blood

At 51, Ryan said he is one of the youngest Elks to ever hold the position as national Grand Exalted Ruler. Most national presidents are older and retired, he said. One person who was younger was apparently selected because older members were off fighting in one of the world wars, he said.

Ryan, who has been involved in the local, state and regional organization, has steadily moved up the ranks in the Elks to become eligible for the head role, thanks in part to encouragement from Dwayne Rumney, another Willmar Elks member who served as the national Grand Exalted Ruler in 2000-2001.

National President Paul Ryan, also known as the Grand Exalted Ruler, of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks poses for a portrait May 3, 2021, outside of the Elks USA Lodge 952 in Willmar.

Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune
National President Paul Ryan, also known as the Grand Exalted Ruler, of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks poses for a portrait May 3, 2021, outside of the Elks USA Lodge 952 in Willmar. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

Ryan said it’s very rare to have two national presidents come from one lodge, especially from one the size of Willmar.

Ryan said Rumney encouraged Ryan to get more involved in order to bring “younger, fresher blood” with new ideas and a new direction to the Elks.

Ryan said his “youthful spirit” and “pretty good business sense” have been assets he’s brought to the role. Ryan has worked for 25 years as a real estate agent and has been involved in a number of community boards, including the Spicer Commercial Club.

Charity, not cheap beer

As in many other charitable organizations, a majority of the Elks’ members are aging and membership has steadily declined.

That may be due, in part, to the fact that the organization does not “toot its own horn” enough, said Ryan.

One of his missions while serving as president was to bring the Elks' message of charity, justice, brotherly love and fidelity to the public and inspire others to join and be a part of a wide range of community-building efforts.

Ryan said a misconception about the Elks is that the lodge — like the one in Willmar that’s located on the west edge of the city on U.S. Highway 12 — is “a place to get cheap drinks and cheap food.”

National President Paul Ryan, also known as the Grand Exalted Ruler, of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks poses for a portrait May 3, 2021, at the Elks USA Lodge 952 in Willmar.

Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune
National President Paul Ryan, also known as the Grand Exalted Ruler, of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks poses for a portrait May 3, 2021, at the Elks USA Lodge 952 in Willmar. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

“We’re much more of a charitable organization. People just don’t know about us,” he said. “Our biggest thing is charity.”

According to its website, the national Elks organization gives more than $80 million a year in scholarships and gives help to individuals, families and community organizations as part of its mission to contribute to “benevolent, educational and patriotic community-minded programs.”

The Elks organization supports the national “Hoop Shoot” free-throw contest, physical and occupational therapy programs, drug awareness and patriotic programs and programs that help veterans and children with special needs,

Locally, the Willmar Elks lodge also contributes to Safe Avenues, is involved with events for adults with developmental disabilities, supports veterans and provides local scholarships. This year a BOLD student, Lilly Henriksen, will be competing in the national free-throw contest, sponsored by the Elks, after she won the local, regions, state and national/region contests.

National President Paul Ryan, also known as the Grand Exalted Ruler, of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks poses for a portrait May 3, 2021, at the Elks USA Lodge 952 in Willmar.

Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune
National President Paul Ryan, also known as the Grand Exalted Ruler, of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks poses for a portrait May 3, 2021, at the Elks USA Lodge 952 in Willmar. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

“We’re giving back, more than anything,” Ryan said. That charity includes not just monetary donations but also service and time in helping others.

Knowing that people in their 20s and 30s can have challenges while starting their families, Ryan said the Elks can be a go-to place to receive help. Then, by becoming Elks members, they can “pay it forward” to others.

“Once you give and see the faces of kids, or give a vet a hug or a meal or do something charitable, it warms the heart,” he said.

What is an Elk?

The Elks organization was founded in New York City in 1868 under the name "Jolly Corks" by 15 actors, entertainers and others associated with the theater. Membership later expanded to other professions.

Its purpose is to promote and practice the four cardinal virtues of charity, justice, brotherly love and fidelity, promote the welfare and enhance the happiness of its members, to quicken the spirit of American patriotism and cultivate good fellowship.

The Elks is a non-political, non-sectarian and strictly American fraternity.

Members must be an American citizen, believe in God, be of good moral character and be at least 21 years old.