PEPPERELL -- When Burt Lynde walked through the doors of the Pepperell VFW on Saturday night into a room full of his family and friends, he thought it was simply a dinner party organized by the Pepperell Odd Fellows. Little did he know at the time that he was the guest of honor.
Surrounded by 73 family members, friends and other Odd Fellows, Lynde was bestowed with a gold pin commemorating his 70th year in the organization.
"This was a big surprise for me tonight," said Lynde. "I didn't know."
Lynde, who will be celebrating his 94th birthday in April, is one of Pepperell's longest standing members. After moving to Pepperell from Colraine in 1932, Lynde joined the Odd Fellows 10 years later at the tender age of 23, drawn to the group by their work in the community.
"It was a good organization," said Lynde.
The Odd Fellows, which began in the 18th century in England, migrated over to the U.S. in 1819. Since its inception, the organization's mission has been to lend a hand to those in need, providing for orphans, widows and ill community members. It was this charitable work that earned them their unique moniker.
"They stepped down from privilege to help the underprivileged, and that was an odd thing to do in Victorian England," said Bob Comer, grand marshal of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts.
When Lynde joined the organization, 25 to 30 Pepperell members would come to the regular meetings, which at the time were held in the building which now houses Sunny's Liquors, previously McNabb's General Store.
But, said Lynde, when the television hit the market, "It kind of dropped off, like everything else."
Now, six to eight members regularly attend the meeting. But Lynde, for one, has no plans to leave the organization.
"You don't just join and quit. You stay for a lifetime," he said.
Lynde, the patriarch of a large brood, instilled his love of the Odd Fellows in the generations that came after him. Several of his grandchildren are also standing members of the Pepperell group. Other family members also came out to show their support, all the way down to the youngest, 6-month-old great-granddaughter Piper.
"He's tremendous," said grandson Mike Lynde. "Everybody in town has something good to say about him."
The Odd Fellows have their fingers in a lot of charitable pies, from the Arthritis Foundation to helping provide homes for orphaned children in Cambodia.
Each year, the Pepperell Beacon Lodge, the Leominster Lodge and the Prosperity Rebekah Lodge work together to send a local high school student on an educational pilgrimage. Last year's student, Sam Rodda, 16, of Reading, attended the party to present a slideshow on his trip. He traveled to seven different cities in the U.S. and Canada from June 28 to July 5, ending at the U.N.
"It was awesome," he said. "Not many students can say they've been to the U.N."
This year, the Grand Lodge's project is to raise funds for breast cancer research at Mass General in Danvers.
"A lot of the world has gotten away from coming out to take care of their neighbors, and that's what the Odd Fellows does," said Comer.
Although Lynde is one of Pepperell's longest standing members, Comer said it's not uncommon for members to achieve such longevity in the group. On the contrary, he said he has attended several pinning ceremonies of members receiving 65-, 70- and 75-year pins.
The bigger challenge is recruiting new members. At one point, nearly every town and city in the state had at least one or two lodges; Lynn had as many as five. Now there are a total of 22 throughout the state.
"With youngsters nowadays, unless they're legacy, we're trying to get them off their game pads and come outside," he said.
One such legacy is Comer's son Benjamin, who, at 20 years old, is the youngest member on the Grand Board in the state. Benjamin said it would be a great achievement to reach his 70th anniversary in the organization.
Coming to the pinning events of members like Lynde, he said, is the best part of being a member of the Grand Board: "To see somebody keep the order alive all these years."