(Photos by Tim Jaynes, Staff)
CHARLESTON -- Although he knew the appointment would come for about nine years, Bruce Austin of Charleston is still a bit in shock that he is the grand master for Missouri for the Freemasons, A.F. & A.M.
"It's very exciting," said Austin, whose position was approved in September. "But very humbling at the same time."
Austin, who is the first elected grand master from southeast Missouri in almost 40 years, said that makes the experience even better, since the leaders often chosen come from more urban areas. "The membership in this area are so proud to have a grand master from down here to represent them," said Austin.
He has been in line for the position for eight years -- and during that time, received training and more and more responsibilities. In fact, his approval in September was "pretty much just a rubber stamp," Austin said. Now, he is the leader of more that 51,000 dues-paying members in the state.
Austin doesn't skip a beat when asked what his most prized possession is -- the 14-karat gold grand master's jewel, which he wears in his vest pocket.
"I'll still wear it after I'm grand master," he said. Austin said he hopes the jewel will become a family heirloom.
The jewel includes a diamond, a ruby, and has Austin's name engraved on it, in addition to the years he will serve as Missouri's grand master. The jewel, given to him by the state, is worth about $7,000.
Another treasured item of Austin's, which he gets to keep, is the purple-
trimmed apron. It is the only one with an insignia on the bottom which denotes his rank. All members have aprons, he said, but color of trim and other decor is what represents their rank.
The collar is passed down from one grand master to the next.
Austin was initiated into the East Prairie Lodge in 1961, then transferred his membership to Charleston in 1964.
He has seen a lot of changes to the organization during his membership. One of the best, he said, is that members can now ask a man to join. "We couldn't do that a couple of years ago," he said, saying that potential members had to ask a current one. Austin said he believes that has helped bump up membership.
One change he doesn't like so much, however, is that there is no longer a required proficiency aspect to joining.
"We've gone too far that way," he said. "Sometimes, a member just doesn't know why he has joined anymore."
For that reason, Austin will use the rest of his time as grand master to promote a mentoring program in all of Missouri's 400 chapters that will make an educated member available to answer the questions of others.
"That's my main goal," he said.
Another is to expand the MoCHIP program. Provided in Missouri -- and several other states -- the child identification program compiles information which is loaded on a CD. In case a child is abducted, runs away or gets lost, that information is recorded in a certain place and an Amber Alert can be issued almost immediately, he explained.
"It's fantastic -- it's one of the greatest programs we've ever had," said Austin.
Another thing Austin is pushing is more family involvement - to get members' wives and children involved. "That way, the wives are more understanding when the men come to a meeting," he said.
His own wife, Myrtle "Sisser," is involved, and often travels with her husband. "It's really fun," she said. "I enjoy it."
And they now do quite a bit of traveling -- Austin said he attends other meetings at least twice a week, sometimes just to pop in and other times because he is officially asked -- within and outside the state.
And in an organization whose motto is to "make good men better," that's exactly what has happened for Austin.
"It's helped me out in my moral life and dealing with other people," he said. "It's been a good brotherhood that I have enjoyed with the other men that normally I would have nothing in common with."