True Grit Elks: Bill Oakley
Bill Oakley

Grit. People who possess it have always survived life’s challenges better than those who don’t. This was as true for cavemen as it is today. The only difference is that now there is data to prove its worth.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth studied people in various challenging situations, including National Spelling Bee participants, rookie teachers in tough neighborhoods, and West Point cadets. Her research suggests that grit is a more accurate predictor of success than social intelligence, good looks, physical health or I.Q.

Other social scientists have also studied the power of grit and resiliency. In his book Resilience, Why Things Bounce Back, Andrew Zolli defines resilience as “the ability of people, communities, and systems to maintain their core purpose and integrity among unforeseen shocks and surprises.”

Zolli defines resilience as a powerful combination of optimism, creativity, and confidence, which together empower one to reappraise situations and regulate emotion—a behavior many social scientists refer to as “hardiness” or “grit.” Zolli further explains that “hardiness” is composed of three tenets:

  1. The belief one can find meaningful purpose in life.
  2. The belief that one can influence one’s surroundings and the outcome of events.
  3. The belief that positive and negative experiences will lead to learning and growth.

Elks know they can make a difference in their communities and that they can influence the next generation in a positive way. The Elks National Foundation has the privilege and responsibility to help Elks do that by developing programs and providing grants.

Through the Hoop Shoot, the Elks have been developing gritty kids for more than 40 years. The desire to succeed in a simple free throw contest encourages kids to set goals and work hard to achieve them, both of which are fundamental to developing grit. Participants learn for themselves that persistence and hard work lead to improved performance, which reinforces those characteristics.

Elks share a strong sense of responsibility for instilling grit into the next generation. One such Elk is Bill Oakley, who has dedicated his life to helping young people gain skills they need to navigate life’s challenges. He has enough grit to inspire others to persevere when things get tough.

A member of Clayton, N.J., Lodge, Oakley has been an Elk for 43 years. He’s a past president of the New Jersey State Elks Association and served on the Grand Lodge Public Relations Committee for 10 years.

For fun, Bill enjoys reading and traveling. He has a collection of 400 “Goofys,” which also happens to be the name he uses to sign his emails. He roots for Alabama when it comes to NCAA football, and University of North Carolina during the NCAA basketball season.

When asked who inspired him as he inspires others he said, “My father was the best man I have ever known. My son and daughter and my grandchildren continue to help me be a better person. I couldn't be more proud.”

Bill has also been inspired by Winston Churchill’s quote, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

What job did Bill like best in his life?

“Separating vocation from avocation, I most enjoyed being a travel consultant (specializing in Europe) and meeting planning both national and international,” Oakley says. “For some 50 years, I have worked with youth in numerous capacities. Some of my most rewarding and sad moments came as a result. My passion remains helping youth. Only one child in the history of the world was born for the express purpose of dying; all others deserve, at least, a fighting chance.”

Oakley has faced many challenges in his life, what was the biggest?

“Fighting for my life through a very serious illnesses,” he says. “Actually, without the help and encouragement—insistence of—many, I might have given up.”

How did his fellow Elks help him during this challenge?

“Never underestimate the power of prayer—both your own and that of others on your behalf,” he says. “A longtime friend who served with me on Public Relations, Bob Shell, heard of my illness. He kept tabs on me and sent me a prayer card and devotion to St. Peregrine, the patron saint of cancer victims.

“When I told him that cancer had left me he said, ‘Thank God for St. Peregrine.’ Sadly, he died since my illness was discovered and treated. Two other dear friends have also died, and they weren’t sick when I was diagnosed, one with my very illness.”

Bill Oakley is the kind of person who Andrew Zolli wrote about. The kind of person who possesses a “belief that positive and negative experiences will lead to learning and growth.”

What has this challenge taught him?

“Our Elks funeral service, which I performed last Sunday for a member of Clayton Lodge, says in part, ‘and bowing to the decree of an all wise God,’” Oakley says. “The great gift of extended life gives me the opportunity to continue my quest in the education and mentoring of our youth through our New Jersey Elks Path/Peer Leadership Conference. Several years ago I thought it might be my unfinished symphony. Now I have a chance to refine it and pass it on to someone's care.”

Oakley turns his passion into action by empowering the next generation to live healthy lives. This poem by Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral is Oakley’s favorite and represents his life’s mission well:

We are guilty of many errors and many faults, but our worst crime is abandoning the children, neglecting the fountain of life. Many of the things we need can wait. The child cannot. Right now is the time his bones are being formed, his blood is being made, and his senses are being developed. To him we cannot answer “Tomorrow.” His name is Today.


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