A flood in May, 2001 caused massive damage to the Elks' long-standing home on Boulevard East, forcing the Elks to conduct their general charity-based business elsewhere. But construction continues on restoring the Elks facility. Officials hope to have the building open and operational by January, 2004.
In the meantime, some of the organization's events have been forced to move elsewhere, like the Elks' annual "Salute to the Press" Night, which was held last Monday night at Schuetzen Park in North Bergen.
For the last 56 years, the Elks have set aside an evening to pay tribute to the local press, like the Hudson Reporter newspaper chain, as well as the freedom of the press that is executed throughout the United States on a daily basis.
Several local dignitaries were among the crowd of 250 people who attended the evening.
The featured speaker was Rep. Robert Menendez, who has been a supporter of the Weehawken Elks and the "Salute to the Press" Night dinner for many years. Menendez has been the featured speaker at the event on several occasions.
"The role that the press plays is one of the fundamental rights we have in our country," Menendez told the audience. "For 56 years, the Weehawken Elks have been celebrating that fundamental value, and to continue that for over a half century is an amazing feat. The press has an extraordinary right and an extraordinary responsibility. The press provides a constant informational flow to our citizens that enables us to make decisions. In places like my parents' native land Cuba or China, those countries control the information that gets out. It's a state-sponsored press, because they are afraid of the consequences of a press that speaks their mind and speaks the truth."
Added Menendez, "We celebrate the freedom of the press in the context of the Constitution and the First Amendment. We give unfettered power to the press."
Menendez then commented on the recent rash of "tabloid" journalism that appears in supermarket magazines and now, in Internet websites.
"I think about those who use the shield of the First Amendment to do or say whatever they please, whether it is in print, on television or on the radio," Menendez said. "They use the media to defame people and slander them. It shows the incredible power that the press holds. They have an incredibly high standard that they try to maintain. However, some of them might use that right not as meant by the founding fathers when they wrote the Constitution."
Menendez spoke about the role the press will play in the years to come.
"In the next few years, we will decide what are our values, our great American values and a free press will play an important role in helping us make decisions about the future," Menendez said. "What are our priorities in the future? As a country, we've posted the highest deficit in our nation's history. It could reach 4 to 7 trillion dollars. We're in the midst of a situation in Iraq. We spend every day praying for our troops over there, but we still ask, 'What were our motivations there?' "
As the third highest ranking Democrat in Congress, Menendez has a responsibility to toe the party line. He then spoke about Operation Iraqi Freedom with some questions.
"What about our intelligence (CIA)?" Menendez asked. "Were they wrong? Was the information contrived and overstated? Is this something we can sustain? It seems as if we're ready to spend unlimited capital to help Iraq form a free society, as much as $150 billion. We've already spent $20 billion. I think it's going to be the beginning of a long debate in the press. The press has to look at the unfolding state of events and understand the responsibility in reporting the truth."
Menendez then spoke about the true "power of the press."
"The press has incredible power and responsibility," Menendez said. "Our free press will have a central part of what we choose to be in the future. There are many issues out there and we need a press truly committed to high standards, which meets the responsibilities and helps to mold the ultimate course of events. It's incredibly important for the citizens of this country to have news every day that is truthful."
Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner also spoke, praising the working relationship he maintains with the local press.
"We might not always agree," Turner said. "We might not like what is said or written, but we have a right to deal with the media in a very professional matter no matter what. It's our responsibility as public officials to deal with the media on a daily basis."
The Weehawken Elks also sponsored an essay contest with Weehawken High School students writing their feelings about the freedom of the press. Senior Jonathan Barracato won the essay contest and received a cash prize for his winning essay.
"Not all nations are lucky like Americans to have a true freedom of the press," Barracato said. "The members of the press are the unsung heroes, because they provide the information we all need every day. Freedom of the press means freedom for us all."
Dominic Facchini, the chairman of the event, spoke about the progress that is being made in the restoration of the Elks Lodge.
"We did whatever we could in terms of resources to renovate the Lodge," Facchini said. "It was a tremendous undertaking. It's taken longer than we anticipated because when we started to do the work, we found that we had significant decay. It was supposed to be completed by Labor Day, but we're currently on schedule to have the work done by December. It can be like a Christmas present for us all and we can be open by January. There was a lot more damage than we envisioned, but we still have a beautiful place to call home."
And next October, when the 57th annual "Salute to the Press" Night takes place, it definitely will be where it belongs - at the majestic Lodge on Blvd. East.