Secret handshakes and giving back

The Old Whaling Church in Edgartown was packed on Saturday for the funeral of Robert (Bobby) Corr. The service started late because the morning boats were canceled due to gale force winds. People assumed Bobby, who worked for the SSA for 30 years and was known for his wry sense of humor, was behind the rough ride to the Island.

Bobby was also known for being a compassionate and kind man, always willing to help others.

His funeral was a Masonic funeral, rich in pageantry and pathos. Bobby was a Mason for over 40 years and he rose to the highest ranks of Freemasonry in Massachusetts. On Saturday, Masonic brothers from all over Massachusetts made the trek to pay tribute to him.

I became a Mason after Bobby moved to Florida, so I didn’t know him personally. But as a journalist and fellow Freemason, it seemed fitting to honor him by writing about the tradition of Freemasonry on the Island, which many people don’t know about; and also the misconceptions about Freemasonry, which many people seem to have heard.

Freemasonry on Martha’s Vineyard dates to 1791, when the first Masonic Lodge was built in Holmes Hole (today Vineyard Haven). Lodge members voted Paul Revere as proxy to Grand Lodge in Boston, a position Bobby Corr would fill 180 years later.

Many whaling captains were Masons. The Bible in Oriental Martha’s Vineyard Lodge in Oak Bluffs was a gift from sailors who were taken in by Island Freemasons during a raging storm in 1860.

The list of past masters of lodges on Martha’s Vineyard includes long-rooted Island names: Look, Mayhew, Beetle, Luce, Flanders and Athearn.

The current membership at Oriental Martha’s Vineyard Lodge is a melding of race, age, ethnicity, financial strata, religion and sexual orientation. Unlike many lodges in this country, we’re growing in number. Members work to improve themselves and to help improve the community in myriad ways, and we do it quietly.

We have an Angel Fund for any Islanders in need of clothes, food, money for heating fuel or any basic necessity. On this playground for the rich and famous, it’s startling how many people here need help to get by, especially in winter. To honor his memory, Bobby’s family asked that donations in his name be made to the Angel Fund.

On a broader scale, the Shriners Hospitals, which treat children free of charge and also fund groundbreaking research, were started by and are funded by Masons.

We don’t control world currency, we’re not a satanic cult or anything else non-Masons may have posted on the internet.

Yes, a Mason must believe in God. It’s not because we’re religious. It doesn’t matter what religion or how often you go to your church or temple or mosque. It’s simply because belief in a supreme being requires a degree of humility.

Yes, we do background checks. Besides CORI checks, we ask around in the community. If any applicant, no matter how prominent, has a history of shady business dealings or misogyny, he won’t make the cut.

Yes, we are men only. That’s not because we’re dismissive of women. Women are venerated in Masonry. Honoring wives, partners and daughters is part of our tradition. Each lodge also has a widows and orphans committee which checks on the well being of family members of brothers who have died.

We’re not a secret society, we’re a society with secrets.

Yes, we have a secret handshake which dates back to the Middle Ages, when the master masons building granite cathedrals to great heights were understandably picky about who worked beside them.

Fourteen presidents have been Freemasons including Washington, and both Roosevelts. Other well known Masons include Mozart, Thurgood Marshall, Ben Franklin, Richard Pryor, Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, Count Basie, Oscar Wilde . . . it’s a long list.

Currently 150 Island men are Freemasons. We invite others to join us, in helping others and in striving to lead a life well-lived.

Just like Bobby Corr did.

Gazette contributor Barry Stringfellow lives in Edgartown.