For the past 100 years, the American Legion has been bidding farewell to old members while welcoming new ones, and to keep up it will have to embrace technology and change, according to current and former leaders.
On Saturday, members of American Legion Post 31 gathered at the Legion Hall on Washington Street to celebrate the Legion, and the Post’s, 100th year with a dinner and a dance.
According to the American Legion’s website, it was March 15-17, 1919, that members of the American Expeditionary Force got together in Paris for the first American Legion caucus. In September of that year, Congress chartered the American Legion.
American Legion Post 31 was charted on Aug. 11, 1919, said current Commander Tom Rounds while at the Legion Hall on Saturday. Post 31 has had a tradition of celebrating its anniversary on St. Patrick’s Day weekend ever since its 50th year. Former commander Dave Zsido said it’s because many of the folks managing the entertainment for the event happened to be of Irish descent.
Rounds said Legion membership ebbs and flows with each generation.
“Every generation, you come back from a conflict, people really line with their families first and try to reconnect with what they missed and what was going on, and then the brotherhood part comes back in after a period of time,” he said.
This is Rounds’ second year as commander of Post 31. He served in the Navy from 1979 to 1999. His parents were charter members of the American Legion Post 90 in Pownal.
“Our young men and women who’ve served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the later part of the Cold War, some of them are just starting to become members, because there’s sort of an age gap,” he said. “What’s important is we’re reaching out, we’re with the Reserve Center here and the National Guard, trying to support Vermonters…”
Post 31, he said, has met its membership quota at 575, but back in the days when Zsido was commander, the Post boasted around 1,500 members, many of them World War II and Korean War veterans.
“We’ve lost almost all of our World War II vets now, some of the Korean War vets are starting to pass, and also the Vietnam vets,” he said.
Zsido said there was a time, seemingly in the mid 1990s, when the American Legion was honoring hundreds of deceased World War II veterans each year.
“My father was going through it at a time when they were really quite busy, because that was the time a lot of World War II guys were meeting the Maker,” he said. “And now it’s less because there’s that much less that have survived. You figure most of the World War II guys are into their 90s.”
Rounds said to draw new membership the Legion is looking to technology.
“We’re trying to some things differently, we’re looking at what we can do tech-wise, they need to go to a place that has internet access, they need to go to a place that has some options for them to get online and do things to connect with their generation,” he said. “It’s millennials and X-gen, and folks that are prominent now and moving forward. They’re trying to fit in, and we welcome everyone.”
Not all veterans join the American Legion right away, as evidenced by Legion member Ron Fairbanks, who manages the Post’s Color Guard. He was in the Air Force serving as a crew chief on a B-52 Bomber from 1964 to 1968. He didn’t join the Legion until 1978.
“I was young and stupid, I didn’t know what was going on, I didn’t know about it,” he said Saturday at the Legion Hall “I was coming up here with my mother and father-in-law every Saturday night and decided it was finally time to join, so I joined.”
Fairbanks said being in the Legion has been a lot of fun, and he and it’s members have been able to run many programs for children and youth.
“I brought my wife up all the time with me,” he said. “We had a good time. They had a lot of stuff you could do at the time. I opened up a softball team, which I ran for the Legion for 25 years, and then I ran American Legion Baseball.”
The community service aspect has been particularly rewarding, he said.
“The most rewarding part was seeing some of the kids programs we have, like them getting scholarships for college,” he said. “There’s a lot of things we do for the kids and the community that people don’t recognize.”