Walt and DeMolay

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

When I wrote about Walt and religion, there was one short section in Walt's "Deeds Not Words" essay that attracted some attention from readers of this column. It was the following section:

"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."

In the responses I got there seemed to be some confusion about what DeMolay is and what Walt's involvement was with this organization. Walt Disney's life was so rich with experiences and accomplishments that many of the private sidelights of his life are glossed over or ignored in biographies about him.

Walt's involvement with DeMolay meant a great deal to him and he proudly wore a DeMolay ring on his right hand until the late 1940s, when he replaced it with the Royal Claddagh ring, the traditional wedding ring of the Irish since the 17th Century—usually today worn by people all over the world as a universal symbol of love, loyalty, friendship and fidelity, and of their Irish heritage. He and his family had gotten the rings in Galway Bay, Eire in the summer of 1947 or 1948.

DeMolay began in Kansas City, Missouri in 1919 with just nine young men. Frank S. Land ("Dad" Land) was the founder. Both Walt and Lillian were very impressed with "Dad" Land as a person, their daughter Diane Disney Miller told me.

Near the end of World War I, Land became concerned with the problems of boys who had lost their fathers during the war. He decided there was a need for an organization where boys would have the opportunity to associate with other boys, a place they could share common interests, learn responsibility and other skills that would benefit them throughout their lives.

His ideal model for this organization included having business or professional men, Masons, taking interest in the young people, being a friend to them, advising them, and perhaps even providing them with employment opportunities.

The name of the group came from a story Land told the original boys: "This year I am serving as the head of one of the Masonic Groups. I am the Commander for the DeMolai Council of Kadosh. There are many names and stories directly connected with Masonry, but I think I should tell you about the last leader of the Knights Templar. His name was Jacques DeMolay or as they say in history books, James of Molay."

According to its official Web site: "DeMolay is an organization dedicated to preparing young men to lead successful, happy, and productive lives. Basing its approach on timeless principles and practical, hands-on experience, DeMolay opens doors for young men aged 12 to 21 by developing the civic awareness, personal responsibility and leadership skills so vitally needed in society today. DeMolay alumni include Walt Disney, John Wayne, Walter Cronkite, Mel Blanc, football Hall-of-Famer Fran Tarkenton, legendary Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne, news anchor David Goodnow and many others."

Walt joined in 1920 as the 107th member of the original Mother Chapter of DeMolay in Kansas City. He was 19 years old and his fellow members remembered him as hardworking and extremely imaginative.

Belief in one Supreme Being was a fundamental requirement. In the beginning, at least, the secret stuff was primarily passwords and handshakes, which probably appealed to young boys as well as building a feeling of fraternity. Only boys could join and they had to be between the ages of 12 and 21.

The emphasis was on developing young leaders through personal and civic responsibility. DeMolay emphasized the seven cardinal virtues: Love of parents, reverence for sacred things, courtesy, comradeship (friendship), fidelity (faithfulness), cleanness and patriotism. You can see how those qualities would appeal to Walt and how those qualities are reflected in his work.

Walt received the DeMolay Legion of Honor in 1931. Legion of Honor recipients must have actively demonstrated outstanding leadership in some field of endeavor, whether it be a civic, professional, fraternal or spiritual arena. (This should not be confused with France's Legion of Honor award that Walt also received.)

There's an interesting Disney oddity published by DeMolay that is worthy of being reprinted. In the 1930s another DeMolay member, Fred Spencer of the Walt Disney Studios, began sending an original Mickey Mouse comic strip entitled "Mickey Mouse Chapter" for DeMolay's national newsletter. It was signed by Walt Disney and was different than the Mickey Mouse comic strip that was appearing in the newspapers.

Fred Spencer joined the Disney Studio in 1931 and worked on the early Mickey Mouse cartoons. He is perhaps best known for his work on the early Donald Duck, and he met a tragic end in a car accident in 1938. He had no connection with the comic strip department and the artwork has some resemblance to the work of Floyd Gottfredson, who was drawing the Mickey Mouse comic strip at the time.

It was a two-tier black and white comic strip and the first installment has Mickey Mouse creating a poster to get all his barnyard friends to join him in the barn so they can vote on establishing their own chapter of DeMolay, a Mickey Mouse Chapter. They all enthusiastically vote "aye" including Horace Horsecollar, who apparently is also a member. Another installment had Pluto chasing a cat and disrupting a DeMolay meeting where Mickey is speaking at the podium with a DeMolay symbol on it. So not only was Walt a member of DeMolay but Mickey Mouse was also a member.

The Disney Archives has no record of this unique comic strip and there is no way of telling how long it ran although I suspect it didn't last beyond Spencer's death and probably ended even earlier.

In 1936, Walt appeared as an honored guest at the first DeMolay Founder's Conference in Kansas City.

"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," said Walt.

Disney was a member of the first class to be inducted into the DeMolay Hall of Fame on November 13, 1986. The Masonic Stamp Club on New York had a special First Day Cover commemorative (499,505 were produced) with DeMolay and Walt images and the Walt Disney stamp cancelled in Marceline, Missouri on September 11, 1968. Currently, there is a Walt Disney Chapter of DeMolay in Cumming, Georgia.

If you would like to see two photos of Walt in his DeMolay robes at the 1936 meeting and some examples of the "Mickey Mouse Chapter" comic strip for the DeMolay newsletter of the 1930s, Visit this Web page of the Birmingham, Alabama chapter of Demolay (the link opens a new browser window to a 275Kb PDF file).