Towson Elks extend a helping hand to local veterans

For all that Joe Lancaster — and several of his fellow Towson Elks — do for local veterans throughout the year, they don’t ask for much in return.

According to Lancaster, the work is just his way of giving back to the community and particularly to those who have served in America’s armed forces.

“My goal is to at least put a smile on a veteran’s face,” the longtime Timonium resident said, noting that the Towson Elks, which is the local branch of a nationwide charitable and community service organization, provide a variety of events for former military service personnel.

As chairman of the Towson Elks veteran services committee, Lancaster spearheads programs for veterans that range from pizza parties to cookouts to ice cream socials.

The Elks — whose lodge has been at the same site on West Pennsylvania Avenue, in the heart of Towson, since 1899 — also distribute 500 poinsettias to local veteran hospitals that are donated by Radebaugh’s Florist in Towson.

The events reflect a proclamation by the national office of the service organization — formally known as the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks — that November is Veterans Remembrance Month.

The Elks’ 800,000 members in more than 1,900 lodges nationwide are encouraged to “find local veterans and help them with their needs,” according to the national group’s website, elks.org.

Lancaster said that the local Elks’ latest outreach endeavor is his most important. Once a month, he and a couple of other volunteers cook and serve breakfast for families of veterans and hospice care patients at the Loch Raven VA Community Living and Rehabilitation Center in northeast Baltimore.

On Saturday, Lancaster was joined by Anneslie resident Patrick Sullivan, Jim Bullington, of Lutherville, Towson resident John Billett and John Morton, of Timonium, all of whom gathered in the kitchen at the Loch Raven facility to serve hospice patients and their family members.

The friendly banter between the five Elks as they prepared the meal did not detract from the seriousness of helping to feed the half dozen ailing veterans who were in the 10-bed facility.

Richard Shawyer, who was visiting his brother-in-law, Chester Evans, said that the Elks’ service is greatly appreciated.

“It’s terrific,” the former Marine Corps and Air Force veteran said. “People love it. It’s great that these guys give their time to do this.”

Lancaster and the other members of the Towson Elks say they get something out of their effort, too.

“It’s very rewarding,” said Lancaster, who launched the effort in February. “We serve coffee, orange juice, eggs, bacon and toast. We do all of the cooking and cleaning up.”

Sullivan, 40, said that he enjoys the interaction between the Elks and the veterans.

“The veterans really enjoy talking to us; even if it’s just a half-hour,” the Calvert Hall College High School graduate. “They talk about their lives, where they grew up and some of the things they’ve accomplished. It brings you a bit of joy and tugs at the heartstrings a little bit.”

Sullivan added that the Towson Elks are fortunate to have someone so attuned to veterans’ issues as Lancaster.

“Joe does a great job of identifying their needs and finding ways to help them,” Sullivan said. “He’s an unsung hero.”

Lancaster, 69, said that his reasons for helping veterans is simple — other than the fact that he is himself a veteran who served a 17-month tour of duty as a communications specialist in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969.

“Why do I do it?” he asked. “Because I care.”

On Nov. 16, the Towson Elks will host 50 or more disabled veterans for a Thanksgiving turkey dinner with all the trimmings, five days after members take part in a Veterans Day ceremony at the Wayside Cross, near Towson Circle.

The Veterans Day event, which is held in conjunction with the American Legion Towson Post 22, begins at 11 a.m. at the 97-year-old memorial to U.S. servicemen who died in World War I, marking the centennial anniversary of America’s entrance into what was then called “The Great War.”

The ceremony then moves a few blocks west to a memorial honoring 26 Baltimore County men and women who served and died during Operations Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom that stands between the Historic Courthouse and County Courts building in Towson. That memorial is next to the Vietnam Memorial along Pennsylvania Avenue.

Lancaster described the Elks as a “community of volunteers,” and said he learned firsthand about the service-oriented organization’s good deeds as a youngster growing up in Rocky Mount, N.C.

“My father died when I was eight,” he said. “And then I started playing midget football for an Elks-sponsored league. And I always told myself that if I got the chance, I was going to join the Elks.”

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