ELYRIA — For 100 years, an American Legion post has served veterans in Elyria and Lorain County, contributing to charity and supporting the goals of patriotism, youth mentorship, national security and support for fellow veterans of the U.S. armed forces.
Chartered June 11, 1919, by 25 original members, American Legion Post 12 has 600 dues-paying members — fewer than it had at its peak but still strong, Post Commander Dave Sieker said.
“This is the place for veterans,” he said. “I’m very proud of this post and what they do.”
One hundred and thirty-four people attended the post’s birthday celebration dinner Monday, Sieker said. Elyria Mayor Holly Brinda and Jacob Smith, a representative of U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s office, made special presentations — Brinda a proclamation and Smith a flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol on June 11, the post’s official 100th birthday.
According to a history of the post read at the anniversary dinner, two uniformed strangers arrived in Elyria from Cleveland in February 1919 to form an American Legion post in the city. Recruiting began in April and the first officers were selected during a meeting May 6.
The first public appearance of the post was on Decoration Day — the predecessor of Memorial Day — in 1919, and the post was granted its charter two weeks later. A $1 initiation fee was charged, with monthly dues of 25 cents.
A color guard was formed in 1924, and the current post was built in 1929 at Gulf Road and Ohio Street on land donated by William Ely. During World War II, Legion members helped organize civil defense and air raid drills, ran scrap iron drives for the war effort and raised money for tuberculosis care and the Red Cross and to buy war bonds.
Since then, thousands of young people have played American Legion-sponsored baseball and other sports or benefited from Legion charity and fundraising programs.
Now in his third year as commander, Sieker — a 74-year-old U.S. Army veteran who served in Germany during the mid-1960s — said he’s fully committed to keeping Legion Post 12 alive.
“If I didn’t feel 100 percent into it, I wouldn’t be doing it,” he said. “I’m proud of this post, which is under the great care of its officers and executive board.”
Recruiting new, younger members is one of the post’s goals. Some new or recent veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been attracted, but with World War II veterans dying at the rate of more than 300 per day nationally according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Legion is losing members faster than it gains them.
Sieker said he believes only about 26 Post 12 members remain from those who served during World War II, and most of those often don’t make it out to events anymore. The number of Korean War veterans also is declining, with members in the low 100s, Sieker said.
Still, “people are saying this is a great place to be a member,” Sieker said. The hall was full during Lenten dinners this spring, and the post is aiming to attract youths and young families with the thought that “if you get the kids involved, the parents will follow.”
Membership fees are $32.50 a year, which accounts for a small amount of the estimated $100,000 the post gives to charity efforts each year, Sieker said.
Some of those donations go directly to assist veterans and possible future veterans with their education. Sieker said the Legion donates $500 per month to Lorain County Community College to assist veterans, as the college helps “fill that gap” between active-duty military service and the return to civilian life.
The post also gave two $500 grants to two recent Midview High School graduates — one who is going into the U.S. Air Force and a second who is attending Ohio State University.
College is expensive, Sieker said, and the post is willing to do “whatever we can do to help.”
“It’s a big enjoyment, as commander, to give to the college for vets to continue their education,” he said.
Legion Post 12 also collects razors, slippers, clothing and toiletries for the Ohio Veterans Home in Sandusky; participates in Marine Toys for Tots and Coats for Kids drives at Christmas; gives about $2,000 a year to The Chronicle-Telegram’s Not-Forgotten Box Christmas toy drive; helps handicapped veterans; and supports the Salvation Army.
“If you’re a 501(c)3 (charitable organization), we’re trying to help you,” Sieker said. “We try to keep the money local.”
Rental fees from parties and events keep the lights on and the water running.
“We’ve got a good location, with lots of parking,” Sieker said. Elyria Schools rents the parking lot for overflow parking for employees at Ely Elementary School across the street, he said.
The United Auto Workers use the Legion hall for meetings, and other fundraisers and charity events take place there. Then, of course, there are the meals: Wings on Wednesdays, burger baskets at lunch on Thursdays, fish dinners every Friday and $12 steak dinners on the third Saturday of every month, along with the occasional spaghetti dinner.
(The Legion orders 1,600 pounds of Lake Erie perch every year for its fish dinners, paying up front to keep local fish suppliers going, Sieker said.)
There’s an active American Legion Riders group made up of motorcycle enthusiasts that runs a public breakfast two Sundays a month. The ladies’ Legion Auxiliary is always “very supportive,” providing snacks, desserts and assistance with events.
Also a past district deputy with the Elks Club, Sieker said he worked in the past to resurrect lodges that found themselves in financial trouble. He said he doesn’t want that to happen to the Legion.
Sieker said prudent spending, fixing what needs fixed and staying on top of maintenance at the 93-year-old building is the key. The building is mostly run by volunteers and a few paid employees to keep costs down. It turns a profit without having to subsidize its operations with gambling proceeds, which can instead go into a “rainy day fund” for the future.
The old building even got a fresh paint job last year, and Sieker said the white “makes it stand out.”
“I want to keep this building,” he said. “I want to make it last and survive.”