Middlebury Legion celebrates 100-year anniversary
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury American Legion Post 27 is currently celebrating a century of helping area veterans and community causes, a philanthropic tradition they realize will require a major infusion of new members in order to continue.
It was on March 15, 1919, that the American Legion was born at the national level. And Middlebury-area veterans wasted no time forming a post of their own, chartered on Aug. 4, 1919. It boasted 29 founding members, many of them World War I veterans.
The American Legion’s raison d’etre: Mentoring youth, sponsoring community building programs, advocating for patriotism and honor, promoting strong national security, and lending a helping hand to fellow veterans.
Post 27 has carefully followed that script through the years, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to a multitude of charitable causes, including high school athletics, scholarships, the Memorial Sports Center, the Veterans’ Hospital in White River Junction, Porter Hospital, individual families in need, Elderly Services, and more.
But Post 27 grew from humble, frugal beginnings.
The membership at first had to scrounge for space in town, hopping between several locations before securing its first official home in the upper level of the former Ben Franklin store on Main Street, according to a brief history of the group provided by Post Adjutant Tom Scanlon.
It wasn’t until 1954 that Post 27 finally acquired its first permanent headquarters, in a building off Creek Road. That site served the organization well for 40 years, a period during which the group hit its peak of 391 members in 1959.
The Legion moved to its current home base — the former “Main Event” building at 49 Wilson Road — in 1996, after selling the Creek Road property to the Addison Central Supervisory Union.
Members have invested a lot of time and resources into its Wilson Road facility, which includes a large meeting hall the Legion makes available for public and private functions. Post 27 several years ago financed an addition onto the main building that hosts club functions. Two small outbuildings have been added for storage and outdoor activities.
Unfortunately, fewer and fewer Post 27 members are enjoying its amenities. Most are in their 70s and 80s, according to Commander Laura Flint, who this past June became the first woman to command the organization.
Flint said the ranks aren’t being replenished by a new generation of veterans, many of whom hail from households in which both spouses must work to make ends meet. With work obligations, kids’ extracurricular activities, and competing recreational interests, younger veterans from the Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan eras aren’t joining the Legion.
And some of those who do simply pay their annual membership dues and invest little time in the running of Post 27, Flint lamented.
“A large portion of my generation just isn’t part of the Legion right now,” Flint said.
It’s a national trend, one that Flint wants to reverse while in command of Post 27.
Her strategy is sound: Invest in 21st-century amenities at the Legion hall, and ratchet up the number of activities held there each year to boost the organization’s visibility.
And above all, she’s encouraging colleagues never to end a conversation with a fellow veteran without encouraging him or her to join their local Legion.
With support from the Post 27 Executive Committee and core members, Flint has spearheaded changes that included the purchase of a new sound system, new banquet tables, and new registers for the cash bar.
Flint said longstanding members had been satisfied with older furnishings and a paper accounting system for bar purchases — and no music, but she added that’s not the way younger veterans roll.
“Change is scary, especially if you’re not accustomed to it,” she said.
THIS UNDATED PHOTO shows members of Middlebury Legion Post 27 color guard practicing drills at the group’s former headquarters off Creek Road.
Photo courtesy of Post 27
Other measures include:
• Reaching out to prospective members through social media, special events and more activities at the Wilson Road facility. Both of the Subway Restaurants Fling owns in Middlebury and Vergennes will be offering free sandwiches to veterans on both Veterans Day and Memorial Day. She’ll have volunteers on hand to sign up as many new Post 27 members as possible.
• Installing a game room, sponsoring public poker tourneys and holding more dances are also on the Post 27 agenda.
• Digitizing records whenever possible.
Flint reached into a filing cabinet drawer in one of Post 27’s meeting rooms and lifted out a vintage metal box filled with hundreds of index cards. Each card provides a brief bio — including military service data and cause of death — for Addison County veterans dating back to the Revolutionary War.
Someone more than a half-century ago dutifully typed the information onto the cards, Flint said now it should be digitized to ensure area veterans’ vital statistics and stories are preserved in perpetuity.
It won’t be an easy job if the Legion does it with in-house volunteer labor. There aren’t a ton of active volunteers left on the roster.
“Fewer and fewer members are being asked to give more and more (time),” Flint said.
Flint estimated she spends at least 20 hours per week on Legion-related work. A mom and entrepreneur, Flint owns and manages UPS stores in Middlebury, Williston and Rutland as well as the two Subways.
With that kind of a portfolio, you’d think Flint would want to ease into a warm footbath and a glass of wine each evening. But she’s got a lot of energy and hasn’t — until now — been part of a large social network. Flint’s way of de-stressing was attending Wednesday bingo night at Post 27, which she joined a few years ago after having been a long-distance member of a New Hampshire Legion group for more than a decade.
Post 27’s courtship of Flint, ironically enough, began during a bingo evening last year.
“It was like high school. I was passed a note at bingo saying, ‘Hey, we’d like to talk to you at the bar,’” a beaming Flint recalled. “My first thought was, ‘Am I on Candid Camera?’”
MIDDLEBURY AMERICAN LEGION Post 27 Commander Laura Flint and Adjutant Tom Scanlon show off the centennial banner now hanging in the organization’s headquarters at 49 Wilson Road. The national American Legion organization was born on March 15, 1919, and Post 27 was founded on Aug. 4 that same year. A March 10 party will mark the beginning of Post 27’s centennial celebration. Below, Ralph Foote.
Independent photo/John Flowers
She wasn’t. Senior members of the organization point-blank asked her if she’d like to become Post 27 steward or commander.
“They said, ‘We know that you run businesses and we know you understand books and taxes, and we could use some help,’” she said.
Flint asked what the job entailed.
“Oh, it’s not much; you give a couple speeches and you write a couple checks,’” Flint said in recalling the sales pitch. “I thought, ‘Well, that doesn’t sound too bad.’”
She would learn that speeches and checks were just the tip of the iceberg, but that’s OK. Flint isn’t shy about delegating responsibilities.
Which has created an interesting dynamic. Suddenly, the older guys are getting marching orders from the new 42-year-old “kid” on the block. But it’s worked out well.
“It makes me giggle,” Flint said. “It feels like (the men) are more cautious. I get a lot of respect, and I appreciate that. I do feel that since a lot of the members are older, they’re not sure how to react to a younger female — especially one that’s giving out orders. They’re all used to me at this point.”
Flint knows she’s filling some big shoes.
“Joe (DeGray) essentially ran the club for 30 years, and he did a really good job at it,” she said.
Scanlon also serves as commander of the state Legion’s District 1, an area that includes Addison, Franklin and Chittenden Counties. He placed Post 27’s current membership at approximately 250, a fraction of which are active.
“It gets less every year,” said Scanlon, who joined the group in 1999.
He’s a U.S. Army veteran who’s logged a combined total of 34 years in the American Legion, starting in Connecticut.
“I knew its history and what it’s done for so many,” Scanlon said of his reason for joining up.
Scanlon counts himself as among those who’s benefitted from the American Legion’s efforts.
“The G.I. Bill was written on a napkin by a national commander, ” Scanlon noted.
He’s also been impressed with the Legion’s devotion to the veterans’ hospitals and homes, as well as its philanthropic work, which has become legendary.
Through revenues from bingo, break-open tickets and other revenue sources, Post 27 has given a staggering amount to community causes.
Scanlon provided a partial list of recent beneficiaries of the group’s generosity. They include Middlebury’s the Memorial Sports Center ($200,000), Porter Hospital ($50,000), Elderly Services Inc.’s Project Independence ($50,000), and $21,000 each year in scholarships for college-bound students. The Legion also bankrolls Middlebury’s annual New Year’s Eve fireworks and has been a big supporter of the town’s police dog program, among many other things.
Post 27 holds the distinction of being only American Legion group in Vermont that owns and operates a veterans cemetery. The property off Creek Road had been used as a private cemetery until 2003, when the Seeley family turned it over to Post 27, which then renamed it the Farmingdale Veterans Cemetery, according to Scanlon. It contains approximately 600 plots, most of which are still available.
“It gave us the opportunity to take care of all these fallen heroes, particularly from the Revolutionary War, and provide burial spaces for current (Legion) members and veterans,” Scanlon said.
Farmingdale still maintains a section for members of the Seeley family. Post 27 ensures the cemetery is well groomed and that veterans interred there are identified with flags and appropriate markers.
It’s that kind of devotion to veterans that prompted Walter Calhoun to join Post 27 in 1952, after he left the Army. A Korean War veteran, he carried on a Legion tradition started by his dad, one of the Post 27’s founding members.
“It was what you did when you got out of the service,” said Calhoun, now 92.
DeGray joined Post 27 sixty-two years ago. He served a combined total of 21 years as commander, and was pleased to pass the baton to Flint last June.
“It’s a learning curve for her, but I think she’s doing fine,” DeGray, 85, said.
Like his colleagues, DeGray is concerned with the decline in Legion members. There are very few WWII-era veterans, and those who served during the Korean War are now in declining health.
“We’ve got to get new members,” he stressed.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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