Soaring to the top: Rothbarth at helm of state Eagles organization

WORTHINGTON -- Many men don a suit and tie to go to work each day, changing into more casual attire for nights and weekends. Neil Rothbarth's wardrobe change is the reverse: He wears a more casual uniform for his job as a commercial driver for th...

Neil and Elayne Rothbarth
Neil and Elayne Rothbarth stand outside the local Eagles Aerie on Oxford Street in Worthington. (BRIAN KORTHALS/DAILY GLOBE)

WORTHINGTON - Many men don a suit and tie to go to work each day, changing into more casual attire for nights and weekends. Neil Rothbarth’s wardrobe change is the reverse: He wears a more casual uniform for his job as a commercial driver for the local sanitation company, but his role as Worthy President of the Minnesota State Aerie of the Fraternal Order of Eagles requires that he wear a suit and tie on many nights and weekends.
Since his election to the post last June, Rothbarth has been traveling the state, attending special events at Eagles Aeries throughout the region and getting to know his fellow Eagles members, who have quickly learned that Rothbarth is not a handshaker. He usually foregoes that formality in favor of more personal contact.
“I’m a hugger,” he proclaimed, brushing away an outstretched hand in favor of a quick embrace.
Neil, who spent most of his life in Winona, has been a member of the F.O.E. since he was a young man.
“My mother is a member with the auxiliary,” he explained. “My dad joined, too, but wasn’t really active. I just went in and watched it, talked to a few people, and decided to join.”
The F.O.E. is an international non-profit organization “uniting fraternally in the spirit of liberty, truth, justice and equality, to make human life more desirable by lessening its ills and promoting peace, prosperity, gladness and hope,” according to its website.  It was founded in 1898 by six theater owners who initially gathered to discuss a musicians’ strike. After addressing the issue, the owners decided to “bury the hatchet” and formed what they originally called The Order of Good Things. As the order grew, the members selected the bald eagle as its official emblem and changed the name to the Fraternal Order of Eagles. The women’s auxiliary organization was added in 1926.
“Not having to prove anything,” is what appealed to Neil about the F.O.E. “I didn’t have to say I made more money than this other guy. You’re on the same playing field as someone making six times more money than you are, and you are treated like an equal. We are brothers in the fraternal sense.”
Neil also particularly liked a statement that is part of an F.O.E. member’s obligation: “If I cannot speak well of an Eagle, I will not speak ill of him,” and the organization’s volunteerism and charitable efforts.
“People helping people - that’s what we are known for,” said Rothbarth.
Over the years, Neil’s involvement in the Eagles grew, and he became president of the Eagles Aerie in Winona. Bolstered by that success, he eventually decided to make a run for a state office.
“I ran for three years before I made it in,” explained Neil, who climbed the ladder of state leadership. “You have to prove yourself. Then it took 10 years to get to the top, and after this, I will have one year left - Junior Past President.”
Neil not only found a sense of purpose and belonging in the Eagles - he also met his future first lady. He first connected with wife-to-be Elayne Murray at the F.O.E. state convention in Bemidji. Since she had a good job in Worthington, they married four years ago, and Neil moved to Worthington, securing a job with Schaap Sanitation.
Now Neil maintains dual membership at the Winona Aerie and Worthington Aerie 3282, where Elayne is active in the auxiliary. Neil is also an officer in the Worthington Aerie with the title of Worthy Conductor.
“Behind every good Brother is a better Sister - that’s what we say in the auxiliary,” said Elayne, who oversees the local Aerie’s monthly spaghetti dinner and solicits Neil’s help with the meal.
Both Neil and Elayne are passionate about the Eagles organization and its charitable works. The F.O.E.’s primary international charity is its Diabetes Research Center, currently under construction on the medical campus at the University of Iowa.
“The Eagles made a commitment at the international convention of $5 million a year over a five-year span for a total of $25 million,” Neil said. “That is going to the Diabetes Research Center, to diabetes research to find a cure. None of that $25 million is for the building or supplies - it’s all for research.”
“The main thing they have promoted everywhere is how many of you have a friend or a relative who has diabetes,” added Elayne. “Very few don’t raise their hand, because everyone knows someone with diabetes.”
In Minnesota, much of the F.O.E. fundraising is done through charitable gambling, Neil noted, although the Eagles also have fundraising events.
Most weekends the Rothbarths are on the road at one Eagles function or another. Neil plans to attend almost all of the district conventions during his tenure as state president, but also tries to be at as many fundraisers and meet-and-greet events as he can fit into his schedule.
“We’ll go from one end of the state to the other and side to side,” he said.
“I have to keep his calendar so he knows where he’s going and what time he has to be there,” inserted Elayne.
Just in recent months, they have logged more than 1,700 miles - a tally that Elayne keeps track of for mileage reimbursement. Neil’s presidential obligation is almost like a second job, which makes for some very long days as he goes to work for Schaap at 3 in the morning. But the hospitality the Rothbarths have experienced and the friendships they’ve built make all the miles and long days worth it.
“The best thing, even before I started running for state office, was going to the district conventions, because you meet your friends there, and then the state conventions, because you meet new friends from across the state,” said Neil.
As president, one of Neil’s primary functions is to build membership in the organization. His first job upon taking office was to develop a membership theme - something over which he debated long and hard.
“At first, since I work with recycling, I thought maybe I could do something like a triangle with three arrows - recycle, renew, reuse?” he related.
But then at a district convention, one of his Eagle cohorts jokingly introduced him as Neil Rottweiler - a play on his last name that seemed to stick.
“So we decided to get a dog head pin and use ‘Join the pack - put a bite on membership,’” Neil said.
Born in Wisconsin and an avid Green Bay Packers fan, Neil also liked the “Pack” connection and used the team’s signature green and yellow scheme in his membership logo.
“He’s like the top dog,” noted Elayne, “and the membership is like the pack. They’ve also used (the slogans) ‘Mark your territory,’ ‘Sniff ’em out,’ and at the conventions they have to ‘woof, woof’ or howl like a dog. It’s just kind of evolved, and people are having fun with it.”
And Neil is reveling in every howl, every new member that comes in during his term and every hug that he gives out along his presidential journey.
“Wanna have fun? Wanna meet new people?” said Neil about how he sells his organization to potential new members. “Do you like to travel? Do you like volunteering? … We are the best-kept secret out there.”

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers
can be reached at 376-7327.

Related Topics: PEOPLE
What To Read Next
Professional researcher Debbie Boe will give an introduction to family history research for new genealogists.
Parga and fellow SWIF staff will lead the foundation’s Grow Our Own framework, focused on helping southwest Minnesota kids and families reach their full potential from cradle to career.
The event will include viewing a live webinar hosted by the U.S. Department of State over Zoom, followed by a question and answer session with community members and Kivu Law staff.
Everyone is invited to bring in a photo of their pet, friend or partner, or a favorite card or memento, so that the library can make it part of a display.