Brotherly Love : Santa Ana Masons Take Their Former Leader Under Their Wing 

BLACK LIFE IN O.C. Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow. 


SANTA ANA — Three years ago, Joseph B. Collins, a frail 79-year-old widower suffering from Alzheimer's disease, was living alone in Compton. His yard was overgrown with weeds, his stove disconnected and he had no hot water. Penniless, he bummed cigarettes and depended on meals delivered by a charity. 

About that time, Willie E. (Bill) Mack, an officer of the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge,, in Santa Ana, was wondering what had become of Collins, who founded the lodge in 1958 to help care for black brethren in need, and in recent years had dropped out of sight. 

Mack's curiosity led the lodge to rediscover--and virtually rescue--the much-honored Masonic leader whose life was in decline.

"We sent him a monthly newsletter and it came back marked 'Not Deliverable,' " Mack said. 

Finally, in April, 1992, Mack went to the address in the membership file and was shocked by the awful conditions. Mack quickly realized Collins' memory was fading fast--yet there were some things the retired mail carrier hadn't forgotten.

"He gave me a Masonic handshake and a broad smile," said Mack, a political consultant and former chief of staff for Assembly Speaker Willie Brown 

Since then, lodge members have showed their gratitude and respect for their former leader by taking him under their wing. 

"These people have really stepped up to the plate for this guy," said Michael Skudstadt, an Anaheim lawyer who Prince Hall hired to win custody of Collins. "They have basically given him back his life."

Mack said after he found Collins, he learned that he was under the care of Los Angeles County Office of the Public Guardian. 

Collins' only child, a daughter born with Down's syndrome, died in 1968, and after his wife died in 1979, he drove the family Cadillac home from the funeral, never to touch the wheel again, Mack said. 

"He does not have a single relative in the whole world," Mack said. "No nieces or nephews. We are the only family he has."

 Lodge members began to visit Collins four days a week, bringing him food and cigarettes and trying to improve his situation, Mack said. 

Barbara Kubik, division chief for conservatorship services for the Los Angeles Office of the Public Guardian, said Collins was referred to the office in October, 1991, by Adult Protective Services workers who had found him "disheveled and confused." 

From then on, she said, the office took over Collins' finances, cleared up bills he had forgotten to pay, stopped a foreclosure on his house and did its best to see that his needs were being met.

"He was a difficult man to deal with," she said, noting that he often would not permit gardeners on his property, refused to see doctors and allowed strangers to eat his food and take his money. 

Collins' stove was disconnected so he wouldn't hurt himself, she said, adding that Collins was too confused to use a telephone. She said that the office arranged for Meals on Wheels to serve him and a neighbor to provide additional food, checked on him and paid his overdue bills from his pension and Social Security checks.   

But the Masons contend that until they stepped in, Collins' refrigerator was empty and he even lacked hot water because the gas pilot light had gone out. 

Mack said when they complained to the public guardian office, Collins' care improve significantly. "When we complained about his medical condition, they started sending a home nurse," Mack said, "and a maid was hired who had the house sparkling."

He said Collins' fellow Masons were angered when, after Collins was hospitalized in October, 1993, for the removal of a tumor, he was sent to a Compton nursing home and his house was sold at auction.

Kubik said the house was sold because Collins needed nursing home care, and the proceeds were used to pay hospital and nursing home charges. 

Before Collins' household furniture was sold, Mack said, the lodge retrieved his personal belongings; among them were Masonic gavels, aprons, plaques, a Bible and a historic Masonic sword.

The Masons didn't want Collins to remain in an institution, so they asked to take care of him.

Kubik said her office initially opposed the idea, having been advised by physicians that Collins should remain in a nursing home. But the office ultimately relented, she said, and in October the Los Angeles Superior Court awarded conservatorship of Collins to Prince Hall member Melvin Shanks and conservatorship of his finances to Prince Hall member Warren Bussey.

Collins, now 81, has moved into the Shanks home in Santa Ana, only about a mile from the Prince Hall lodge, known as Wiley L. Kimbrough Lodge No. 91. 

Shanks's wife, Gloria, a member of the Eastern Star, the Prince Hall women's auxiliary, said Collins spends his days accompanying her on walks and paying visits to "brothers." No longer alone, she said, "he lives a family life."

Longtime lodge members have fond memories of Collins, although he no longer recognizes some of them and finds it difficult to speak.

"When I found out about it, I was awful sad. . . . He is the guy who got us together," said Isaac Curtis, 80, a charter member of the lodge.

Helping those in need, starting with fellow members, has been a hallmark of black Masonry over the last 200 years, said Lawrence de Graff, professor of history at Cal State Fullerton. 

"This is one of the social organizations that was very vital to the building of a sense of community when blacks moved out of the South into urban ghettos," de Graff said. "It served as a benevolent society helping to take care of the sick and comforting people in time of death and other tragedies." 

While sharing the same secret rites and the religion-rooted value of benevolence, the Prince Hall Masonic organization is separate from "mainstream" Masonry. It was founded after the American Revolution by Prince Hall, a black immigrant from Barbados, because blacks were not allowed into all-white Masonic lodges.

Santa Ana's Prince Hall is housed in a time-worn, one-story stucco structure at 1403 W. 5th St., in the neighborhood where the vast majority of Orange County's blacks lived until the late 1970s. 

Today, Prince Hall members are scattered throughout Orange County and commute to Santa Ana to attend lodge meetings, Friday night socials and other events. 

Nonetheless, in the last two years lodge membership has expanded from fewer than 85 to 157, with most of the growth coming from young blacks wanting to participate in the traditions forged by their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

Eric Johnson, a 31-year-old mortgage broker from Mission Viejo and part of the new membership wave, said Prince Hall "has been a symbol to me of the positive image of black males, the ability to go against the stereotype that black males cannot work together."

Mack acknowledged that the younger members are eager for the organization to have a higher public profile, fund more college scholarships and do more community service. But when resources are scarce, he said, "our first obligation is always to our members and their families." 

Collins, he said, is a case in point. 

One recent day, Collins stood in the middle of the Santa Ana lodge hall and gazed at the 21 pictures of Past Worshipful Masters.

Asked whose picture was the first in line, Collins, struggled to speak, then simply smiled and softly thumped his chest. 

And he hasn't forgotten why he became a Mason. "I wanted to be somebody to help," he said."