The Society of Forty Men and Eight Horses scholarship recipients

The Society of Forty Men and Eight Horses' SRJC scholarship recipients of 2018 pictured with Frank Zak.

Some community organizations have been doing their good work for various charity causes for so long that the “younger” members are closer to age 65 than a decade or two beyond. Such is the case of the local veteran’s group, the Sonoma County Voiture No. 338 of the 40&8.

For almost 60 years, since 1964, the volunteer organization closely associated with area American Legion posts, has been hosting four to five giant outdoor flea markets at the Santa Rosa Veteran’s Memorial parking lot each year to raise funds for nursing student scholarships. The collected booth fees and the sale of hot dogs and beverages has raised over $750,000 to support 500 individual scholarships at the Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) nursing program.

Right now, the flea markets aren’t able to take place and the SRJC nursing classes are mostly virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic closures. But with those “younger” members, the 40&8 leaders such as 90-year-old Frank Zak feel assured the scholarship program will return to a full schedule, perhaps as soon as later this year or 2022. The oldest 40&8 member is Windsor’s Mike Lownes who is 103. All members are veterans.

“We’re really proud of all the years of support we’ve given to so many nursing students,” said Zak, a Healdsburg resident. “Our (scholarship) criteria is pretty simple. If someone has good grades and can tell us why they might make a good nurse, we usually support them.”

Students who are veterans or come from a veteran family win a few extra points, Zak said. “We’ve never been disappointed with our selections. There’s only been a time or two when a student had to drop out because of an illness or family problem. I remember we had one student who was a mother with three boys in high school and working a job while going to the JC.”

The Society of Forty Men and Eight Horses (40&8) was started in 1920 as an American Legion activity. The origin of the curious name is from the French phrase, La Societe des Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux. During World War I, French and other troops were transported to battles in train boxcars that could carry either 40 men or eight horses. The side panels had an upside down triangle emblem with a ‘40’ and an ‘8’ in the middle. The organization is also known as “La Société.”

The Sonoma County chapter now has 32 dues-paying members with a smaller core that does most of the volunteering. In years without a pandemic, the 40&8 members, SRJC nursing students and faculty would have a banquet every December. Nowadays, individual annual scholarships are $1,750, with students receiving $875 each semester for books, supplies and other items.

“I require all the scholarship recipients to give me their email address so I can stay in touch,” said Zak. Also, many of the scholarship students volunteer at the Vets Hall flea markets.

A current student, Craig Thomas, continues to volunteer after three years at SRJC. “It’s funny, though, if you go to almost any local hospital or facility you can find one of our past 40&8 students.” Zak praised the SRJC program that prepares students for their California state Registered Nurse test and registration.

“Almost all of them pass the exam,” said Zak.

For many years, Dr. Ezben Jen was the director of the SRJC Health Education and Health Care Department. (He recently returned to the classroom where he said there is less paperwork and more learning taking place.) Dr. Jen also happens to be the current commander of the local 40&8 chapter, having served as a medic in the Vietnam War.

“The scholarships really make a difference. It’s a wonderful program,” he said.

The popular SRJC nursing education program is limited to 60 students at any one time, due to physical laboratory and classroom space. There is a 12-member faculty, plus adjunct professors. The SRJC program continues to supply all local hospitals and health care clinics with well-qualified nurses. The students graduate from the SRJC with an Associate Degree in Nursing. Next, students can take the state-administered Registered Nurse examination.

“Our students do very well,” said Jen. “We even have some former students now teaching at our program. Not everybody can be a nurse. It takes a certain psyche.”

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