If you're under 40, you may never have heard of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). If you're over 40, you probably have a vague idea that DAR is an organization of women whose ancestors lived here at the time of the American Revolution.
Most likely, DAR is also your idea of Dullsville: meetings of blue-haired widows who sip tea, play canasta and reminisce about their Puritan forebears who arrived on the Mayflower. Minnesota must have had 10 such ladies a decade ago, with the number down to seven today, right?
Well, think again. In 2005, DAR's mission is to promote patriotism and awareness of American history, as it was when the organization was founded in 1890. But today, the Minnesota DAR is not about grandmas with knitting needles. It's about women such as Andrea Lloyd Curry: national TV sports analyst, former captain of the Minnesota Lynx basketball team, four-time All-America and 1988 Olympic gold medalist.
Lloyd Curry, who has 13 Revolutionary-era ancestors (and counting), exemplifies the direction that DAR is headed in the 21st century. In February, after her first DAR meeting, she was hooked.
As a pending DAR member, Lloyd Curry joins more than 900 Minnesota women in 23 chapters, in places ranging from Duluth to Fergus Falls to tiny Tracy. Interest is growing so fast that DAR is launching new chapters in Stillwater, Wayzata and St. Cloud.
What accounts for this? I suspect that the Minnesota DAR's recent growth stems, in part, from the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Following that day, many Americans began to sense that we had taken our freedom for granted for too long. They developed a new pride in American ideals and a new curiosity about American history. Some felt a growing urgency to connect with these things in a personal way.
Lloyd Curry puts it like this: "We need to know where we came from and what people did to make our nation the one we enjoy today, so we can appreciate it even more."
Dianne Plunkett Latham -- regent of DAR's Monument Chapter, which Lloyd Curry joined -- heartily agrees. A former patent attorney and history teacher, she presides over DAR activities in south Minneapolis and nearby suburbs. The Monument Chapter's members range from 94-year-old Helen Salzman to 18-year-old Sarah Schwartz, who will attend the U.S. Air Force Academy in the fall.
Latham joined the organization in 2002. She is descended from John Alden, a passenger on the Mayflower. So is her husband, Daniel. (Shortly before their marriage, they discovered to their surprise that they're 10th cousins.)
Latham acknowledges that DAR's stuffy reputation used to be well-deserved. "When I joined, this chapter was a pretty sleepy group," she says. "The joke was that it was easier to identify CIA operatives than to find your local DAR chapter."
But Latham, like other new DAR members across the country, was determined to change this. Her enthusiasm for American history and community service is infectious. In 2003, she launched an ad campaign to get out the word about DAR in the south metro. That's what first caught Lloyd Curry's attention.
The Monument Chapter's meetings generally combine a history-related activity -- such as study of the Declaration of Independence -- with service of some kind. The chapter has erected a number of patriotic monuments. (The latest is the flagpole at the new Edina Library.) Members also raise money for special projects, such as North Carolina's Crossnore School, which serves children from families in crisis.
Nationally, DAR is at the forefront of historical preservation efforts. "We've done everything from helping to restore Ellis Island," Latham says, "to putting up monuments to honor pioneer women."
DAR also sponsors an American history essay contest and scholarships for young people. Its members welcome newly naturalized citizens, support conservation projects, identify and refurbish patriot graves, and log thousands of volunteer hours with veterans and literacy projects.
So who can join DAR? Any woman age 18 and older who can prove lineal descent from a patriot of the American Revolution. "Your ancestor doesn't have to be a soldier," Latham points out. "Any person who contributed to the cause of freedom between 1775 and 1783 is sufficient." Qualifying ancestors include doctors and nurses who aided the wounded, ministers who preached patriotic sermons, gunsmiths who repaired weapons, and judges or constables.
Don't know if your ancestors fall into these categories? DAR will help you. "We've got an extraordinary online database," Latham says. "We'll help you search it to authenticate your ancestors' status."
The days when every DAR member was a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant are long gone. The organization has collected the names of several thousand black and Indian patriots and is eager to help their descendants trace their lineage.
This July 4th, we celebrate the legacy of freedom that America's founding generation won for us. All of us should take this opportunity to honor these great men and women with gratitude and respect.
At the same time, we should be thankful that some Americans -- the members of Minnesota's DAR -- have decided to devote more than one day a year to honoring those who made our freedom possible.