|Delegates to the 1902 National Convention in Wilber, NE.|
Western Fraternal Life has its origins in the immigration of Czech and Slovaks in 1848. In order to preserve their culture and protect each other financially, they formed the Czechoslovak Benevolent Society (CSPS) in 1854. Members paid dues, which varied depending on the number of deaths claimed per month. Neither age nor health was a factor and all members paid the same; there was no reserve. This was standard practice for fraternal benefit societies; however, time would prove the need for change.
In 1897, Jan Rosicky represented those who had concerns with the system. He drafted four resolutions and presented them to the CSPS Convention. The resolutions were (1) for premiums determined by age, (2) admission of women as fully-insured members, (3) establishment of the reserve fund, and (4) a medical director would examine all applicants. CSPS rejected all of these resolutions. Later that year, the Zapadni Ceska Bratrska Jednota (ZCBJ) was formed to be its own organization and by the end of the year, boasted 49 charter lodges and 1,269 charter members.
The first National Convention of the ZCBJ was held in New Prague, MN, in 1899. Women, formerly social members, were admitted as full members on an almost-equal basis (men could purchase up to $2,000 while women up to $1,000). Some lodges did not integrate the women into regular lodge meetings, and thus there were lodges which admitted women only.
In 1917, the nation became concerned about wartime fears and influenza. The Association had required all members to be vaccinated, but it wasn’t enough to stop the concern. Membership dropped as a result of war deaths and influenza. The challenge of gaining new membership became more difficult when the U.S. government passed a restrictive immigration law in 1921, and Eastern European immigration came to a near stand-still.
In 1919, juveniles were allowed to become insured members. At the sixth National Convention in Omaha, NE in 1922, they further loosened membership requirements. Originally, only persons of Czech or Slovak birth, or the children of those were eligible. They broadened the membership to include spouses (regardless of national origin) of those eligible to be members, as well as children. They also authorized the first English-speaking lodges in recognition that children and grandchildren were not growing up with the Czech language in their homes, and in order to grow, they had to reform. The first English-speaking lodge was No. 262 in Cedar Rapids, IA.
At the same time, the Association moved to premiums for members based on a mortality rate table. Although members were given credit for length of membership, many decided to leave. A legal reserve plan was adopted to build up money for the future, and stability was created for current and future members.
Later, ZCBJ absorbed the CSDPJ (Czechoslovak Workmen Benefit Society) and gained almost 2,000 members. During the Great Depression, many fraternal organizations folded, but the ZCBJ remained strong, although had slower growth compared to the past.
Three important changes came at the Omaha, NE Convention in 1932. Dividends were declared, members could get either Czech or English certificates, and District and State Meetings were organized.
At the 1937 National Convention in Milwaukee, WI, a total reorganization was discussed. Replacing the board of supervisors would be a seven-member board of directors, elected from six districts. The work of the National Office was organized into departments, with each of the national officers being responsible for supervising different departments. The national officers composed of an executive committee, which met to make important decisions. The executive committee was subject to the board of directors. This was a more modern, organized method than had been done.
|Delegates to the 1937 National Convention in Milwaukee, WI.|
In 1938, Germans invaded the Sudetenland, (part of Czechoslovakian borders). In response, the Supreme Council of the Western Bohemian Fraternal Association petitioned the U.S. to pledge territorial and political integrity to Czechoslovakia. However, the Allies abandoned the Sudetenland over to the Germans at the Munich Conference without a fight. Later, Bohemia and Moravia fell to Hitler. Lodges were active in efforts to support the war effort. Although policies contained a war clause (to exempt payment if death occurred due to military service) they were not enforced and certificate holders were paid half of the value of the policy and issued a Certificate of Participation for the second half. In 1944, the Executive Council reviewed and redeemed the Certificate of Participation and paid out war clauses in full.
At the 1947 National Convention, the delegates eliminated the requirement of a Czech background and any American could apply for insurance.
In the late 1950's, the National Council asked the lodges to participate in a campaign to help build the American Museum of Immigration on Ellis Island. In the next decade, the Association and WBFA Vice President and Nebraska Congressman Roman L. Hruska were instrumental in convincing the United States Postal Service to issue a commemorative stamp in honor of 50 years of Czech independence.
The Home Office purchased land at its current location (1900 First Avenue NE, Cedar Rapids, IA) after a motion passed at the 1955 National Convention in Dallas. There had been pressure for the Home Office to have a building representative of a 50 million dollar business organization, and alleviate overcrowding from lodges who shared space with the Home Office, but officers had delayed in doing so until a deadline was determined at this Convention. A cornerstone ceremony for the new building was conducted in 1958, and employees went to work there in 1959. Afterward, many office activities started to modernize, such as billing being conducted by the Home Office.
For many years in the 50's through the 60's, there was debate over the name of the Association, because of how the word Cesko in the business title could be interpreted. When the issue came up in 1967, it was proposed to eliminate the word altogether. New members were joining for the insurance and fraternalism rather than cultural identity. After much debate, the proposal failed to pass the name change to Western Fraternal Life Association. The debate had turned by 1971, and when it was re-proposed, the name was changed at that National Convention.
In 1991, the National Convention delegates voted to donate to the building fund of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids. In 1992, it was announced that the Association would fund a wing of the museum, the WFLA Heritage Hall. In 1995, Presidents Bill Clinton, Václav Havel (Czech Republic), and Michal Kovác (Slovak Republic) dedicated the new facility.
Over the years, the National Convention has been an opportunity for members to come from various states and join together in celebration, fraternalism, and work. This year, we look forward to seeing delegates and visitors in Green Bay, WI.
Information for this article was collected from the Centennial Issue of the Fraternal Herald (July 1997), written by Joseph and Joanne Nolte.
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