The American Legion at 100: Suburban posts look for ways to evolve, stay viable
For 100 years, American Legion posts have been a place where veterans could throw back a few drinks at the bar, share stories of battles won and lost, and compare experiences in the military with former comrades-in-arms.
As the Legion marks its centennial, suburban posts are trying to chart a new course for the next century by seeking creative ways to stay viable.
American Legion facts• The American Legion was formed in Paris, March 15-17, 1919.
• Its constitution was adopted in St. Louis, May 9-10, 1919.
• Congress chartered the legion on Sept. 16, 1919.
• 685,000 members signed up within eight months.
• Today there are more than 12,800 posts with nearly 2 million members worldwide, including Puerto Rico, France, Mexico and the Philippines.
• The legion was instrumental in getting the original G.I. Bill through Congress and the creation of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
• Its purpose has been to preserve the memories and history of conflicts, cement the ties born of service, promote peace and goodwill, uphold and defend the Constitution, and to consecrate members' efforts to help veterans and serve the country.
Source: the American Legion
Brotherhood, booze and bingo once were enough for fraternal organizations to survive. But faced with declining membership as older veterans from the World War II and Korean War eras pass on, many suburban posts are struggling to stay relevant to the new generation.
"We need to attract more of the younger veterans, but the question is how do we get them," said Bruce Matsunaga, commander of the Libertyville American Legion Post 329, which has been around for 99 years.
Matsunaga, who was drafted in the Army right out of high school and served in Vietnam, said the post doesn't have any veterans from post-Vietnam conflicts. Similar to other veterans organizations, lack of engagement is a problem, he said.
Of the roughly 150 members, only about 17 show up for monthly meetings, and getting projects done rests on the shoulders of a few volunteers.
"I started volunteering at this post working bingo at the behest of my daughters. There were eight guys working and four of them were 90 years old or above," Matsunaga said. "We need younger veterans and we need the participation. We need to find a reason for them to join us other than the social aspect of the group."
Matsunaga said the focus right now is fundraising to make improvements to the post off Milwaukee Avenue, built in 1894 and originally the Libertyville town hall. He hopes eventually to start offering college scholarships to veterans and their children, weekly social, medical and financial counseling services, and financial and wellness seminars.
"The post has been very complacent about doing anything, so I'm trying to move us into the 21st century," Matsunaga said. "We need to start making all of these efforts to become relevant and to accomplish our mission, which should be to service and help veterans."
Chartered by Congress on Sept. 16, 1919, The American Legion signed up 685,000 members within its first eight months. The largest wartime veterans service organization, the Legion today boasts more than 12,800 posts with nearly 2 million members worldwide.
Though having a sense of community is crucial for returning veterans, fraternity alone isn't enough of a draw, old-timers say.
Suburban posts are trying to bring people through the doors by whatever means possible, including adding video gambling machines, holding raffle drawings, renting out facilities for parties, fundraising for charities and getting involved in community events.
Communicating with veterans and getting them to volunteer their time are the biggest challenges, said Brent Beckwith of Crystal Lake, incoming commander of Lake in the Hills American Legion Post 1231.
"There's always an open door for them," said Beckwith, who is not a veteran but is among the sons of the post who have grandparents who served in World War II and Korea. "I believe in what the Legion does, and that's why I decided to join and start helping them out."
After seeing a similar event hosted by a local Harley-Davidson dealer, Beckwith organized a World Wrestling Entertainment-style event in the legion parking lot that drew 100 people.
"It's a small fundraiser for the legion, but it also draws the younger generation. And it's entertainment," Beckwith said. "It was something unique. We thought it was a pretty good showing for a first-time event. We're going to have another one Aug. 10."
The post also sponsors Little League teams and does an annual motorcycle run that draws big crowds.
American Legion Post 329 Cmdr. Bruce Matsunaga sells bingo cards at the post on Milwaukee Avenue in Libertyville Wednesday evening. Shortly after joining he took over as commander and has worked to upgrade the bathrooms and paint the interior of the roughly 120-year-old building.
- John Starks | Staff Photographer
Focusing on families
To survive, veterans' organizations will need to evolve from being "old boys' clubs" to having programs that support young families, says William "Bill" Schoeneberg, commander of the First Division Cantigny Post 556 in Wheaton.
"Young people nowadays coming out of the service, that's not what they want," said Schoeneberg, a Vietnam-era Air Force veteran. "They want a place where they can take their wife out for the evening or bring their kids. You have to come up with some kind of activities, bags games, tournaments, raffles ... but to support veterans, not to support the post."
The Cantigny post, which has been around since 1921, has 277 members, of whom about 50 are active. The average age is nearly 70 years old. Yet, the post has been successful in drawing crowds due to its location at Cantigny Park.
The First Division Museum at Cantigny Park already is a huge regional attraction. It is housed in the mansion of the late Col. Robert R. McCormick, a Republican Chicago alderman, distinguished U.S. Army officer in World War I, and former owner and publisher of the Chicago Tribune.
The post raises about $20,000 yearly in support of the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans in Wheaton and supports several programs through pancake breakfasts, pasta dinners and collections at many Cantigny Park and golf events. This year, it hosted a cocktail party at the mansion for husbands and wives, a community picnic for 120 people and a raffle to celebrate the Legion's centennial that generated more than $5,000.
"For every $1,000 we collected, we gave a prize of $556 ... it was the first time we did it and it was very popular," Schoeneberg said. "What most posts do is they bring in money just to open the bar, and that's the thing you want to get away from, if you want to be successful. Be specific for what you're going to use the money."
Schoeneberg urges having nights dedicated to activities for young people, such as face painters, coloring books, kids' entertainment and meals.
"Open it to the public," he said. "It's a big deal, because right now, the only people who come in there are people who belong, and sit there drinking."