Most Disney fans and historians know that Walt Disney was perhaps one of the 20th Centuries most successful and innovative animation and entertainment pioneers. Walt prospered and achieved phenomenal success in conceivably one of the most brutal and competitive business’ around. One had to be somewhat “Worldly” so to speak to succeed. But Walt’s early life and upbringing by his Father Elias and Mother Flora, solid, down-home stoic Midwesterners who installed in Walt, solid work habits, strong religious beliefs, and a belief in simple staples, one would think Walt would turn out to be the naive “Country Boy” from the sticks. But Walt was always a dreamer and fighter, and his early encounters as a paper boy in Kansas City, a year as an ambulance driver in post WWI France, his early failure with his first commercial art business with Ub Iwerks, and later, the harsh reality of the animation world when Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, he and Ub’ creation was taken from him by Charlie Mintz.
There is much about Walt many are not cognizant, notably his personal life. In his lifetime, he wore countless hats, and most glossed over are the ones worn in his private sphere. One of the lesser known facets about Walt is his involvement in the DeMolay organization. What is DeMolay you ask? The DeMolay International, also known as the Order of DeMolay is an international fraternal organization for men, ages 12 to 21. It was founded in Kansas City Missouri in 1919 by Frank Sherman Land. At the time, Land was the social services director for the Scottish Rite bodies in the city. He hired Louis Gordon Lower, a teenager to help around the building. In the interim, Land learned Lowers’ Dad recently passed away. Louis confessed he missed his father’s strength and direction. Louis also confessed that he had other friends that lived-in homes without a father figure, either gone by death, divorce or were abandoned; and they, like him longed for a leadership figure in their lives.
This sparked an idea in Land, who asked Lower to inquire of his friends if they would be drawn to an idea of forming a fraternal club. The first meeting at the Scottish Rite building brought eight of Lower’s friends, and the young men heartily agreed such a club was a good idea. Land’s model for the club would be an organization where young men could confederate with their ilk, share common interests, and learn responsibility and skills that would further them in future endeavors. Land went further to include having professional and business men, Masons involved with the boys and club, befriending them, giving “Fatherly” advice and maybe offering them job opportunities. So was the start of the “Order of DeMolay”. Within three years, chapters were established in 39 of the then 48 states and the District of Columbia. It is now worldwide. The name for the organization came from Jacques DeMolay, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templars. The original nine members of DeMolay selected his name in honor of his high principles. DeMolay is not as such a “Masonic” organization, but it can be considered part of the general family of Masonic groups.
A fundamental prerequisite for membership was the belief in one Supreme Being. DeMolay emphasized the seven cardinal virtues… Love of parents- reverence for sacred things- courtesy-comradeship- fidelity- cleanness and patriotism. You can see how much of these basic qualities and virtues followed Walt throughout his life, in his work and his love of family. The weight was anchored on developing leaders through civic and personal responsibility.
Walt joined DeMolay in 1920; he was the 107th member of the original Mother Chapter of DeMolay in Kansas City. His fellow members fondly recalled him as hardworking and creative. Walt was extremely proud of his participation in DeMolay. In fact, he sported a DeMolay ring until the 1940’s when he and the family obtained the Irish Royal Claddagh ring, a traditional wedding ring since the 17th Century, on a summer trip to Galway Bay in 1948; which replaced the DeMolay ring.
Walt Disney’s devoutness and pride in DeMolay remained with him his entire life. He attributed his life and business success as a direct involvement with the organization. Back in 1963, then religious writer Roland Gammon communicated with 55 famous Americans, personalities such as Steve Allen, Eleanor Roosevelt, Roy Rogers and; Walt Disney. He asked all the same question…” What is your faith and what part has it played in your life achievement?” Walt submitted a composition entitled…” Deeds rather than Words”. What stands out in his dissertation is this short paragraph… “Later in DeMolay, I learned to believe in the basic principle of the right of man to exercise his faith and thoughts as he chooses. In DeMolay, we believe in a supreme being, in the fellowship of man, and the sanctity of the home. DeMolay stands for all that is good for the family and for our country.” You can see how deeply Walt felt that DeMolay was a shining beacon in his life.
In 1931, Walt Disney was honored with the DeMolay Legion of Honor. Recipients of this award have to show they actively exhibited exceptional leadership in some endeavor, i.e. fraternal, spiritual or professional. In 1936 Walt Disney was asked and accepted to be an honored guest at the first DeMolay Founder’s conference in Kansas City. In part of his speech, he articulated this… “I feel a great sense of obligation and gratitude toward the Order of DeMolay for the important part it played in my life. Its precepts have been invaluable in making decisions, facing dilemmas and crises, holding on the face and ideals, and meeting those tests which are borne when shared with others in a bond of confidence. DeMolay stands for all that is good for the family and for our country. I feel privileged to have enjoyed membership in DeMolay,”
Walt’s reverence to DeMolay morphed over into his favorite son, Mickey Mouse. In the early 30’s one of his artists at the studio, Fred Spencer, who started in 1931, another DeMolay member was asked by Walt to begin an original Mickey Mouse comic strip entitled “Mickey Mouse Chapter” for DeMolay for their national newsletter, the “DeMolay Cordon” Both men were humbled to bestow upon “Dad” Land and the organization this strip. The first episode of the two-tiered black and white strip has Mickey drawing up a poster to get all the barnyard residents to creating their own chapter of DeMolay. All wholeheartedly voted “Aye!” In another strip, Mickey is speaking at the lectern with a DeMolay symbol in it. However, Fred died tragically in a car accident in 1938, so there were few examples of the strip left, most lost to the mists of time. They were signed by Walt Disney.
Again, in 1965, shortly before Walt’s untimely passing, he was asked by the DeMolay Acacia Chapter of Stuart Florida for a statement on his feelings towards DeMolay. It was explained that… “An organization such as ours can’t possibly survive unless it has the support of adults who can give it all of their years of learning. We need men who are willing to spend a little time to teach young boys how to grow up in to perfect gentlemen and citizens. There is no way at all in which we can get these men unless they know about us and what we stand for. Mr. Disney, we need support. Can we have yours?”
Walter Disney responded with this guest essay…
“To my young brothers in the Acacia Chapter, Order of DeMolay, in Stuart, Florida I am happy to extend my warm greetings to you all. I am proud, indeed, still to retain my bond with DeMolay as an honorary legionnaire. I am deeply grateful for the association which materially influenced not alone my young years but my whole personal and professional life. One of the most important events of my youth, and one of the happiest too, was my acceptance into the membership of DeMolay. And I realize now, even more than then, how deeply my whole life, personal and professional, has been influenced by that early association. I am proud, indeed, still to retain my bond with DeMolay as an honorary legionnaire. I was among the first members of the order when it was conceived and established in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1919 by that grand humanitarian, Dad Land. At his invitation, a number of my young neighbors and I from the Benton School joined the first chapter in the city of its birth. Through the years, I have watched the growth and progress and prestige of this great organization. I have witnessed the inspiration it has been to many of our finest citizens and ablest leaders in all walks of life. The composite record of the 2,000,000-odd past and present DeMolays is most impressive for its many outstanding contributions in the private and public life of our nation. I feel a great sense of obligation and gratitude toward the order for the part it has played in my endeavors. Its precepts have been beyond value in making decisions, in facing dilemmas and crises, in holding onto faiths and ideals and in meeting the tests which are best borne when shared with others in a bond of confidence and mutual respect. The DeMolay creeds had become a definite guide by the time I started making motion pictures, first in Kansas City, then in Hollywood. There is always some connection between a man’s character and what he creates or perfects, so we are told. And it may well be that the same influences which shaped the thinking and behavior and preferences of my youth, had something to do with the early steps of my movie career and the direction it took. It is gratifying to be assured that these same influences of DeMolay are still at work among so many young Americans today”.
Many today have not heard of the Order of DeMolay, but this Fraternal organization have changed the lives of millions of young men, adrift in society, and not by their own hand, since its inception. Today it is an international organization worldwide, continuing to give guidance and support to those men in need. Many famous icons were alumni in DeMolay… John Wayne, Walter Cronkite, Mel Blanc, football Hall-of-Famer Fran Tarkenton, legendary Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne, news anchor David Goodnow, and of course Walt Disney.
Although rarely mentioned about Walt, largely being overshadowed by his phenomenal success in animation, contributions to the industry and his Disneyland Park, DeMolay was a major part of Walt’s life until his death. He always acknowledged that without the Order of DeMolay in his life, his life might have turned out completely different!