Once-busy Legion hall goes dark in Fostoria

Membership in veterans’ groups falling

7/1/2013
BY VANESSA McCRAY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
American Legion Cmdr. Jim Nusser, left, and Finance Officer Gary Kackley talk about closing down the Earl Foust Post 73 in Fostoria.
American Legion Cmdr. Jim Nusser, left, and Finance Officer Gary Kackley talk about closing down the Earl Foust Post 73 in Fostoria.

FOSTORIA — The beer cooler was nearly empty, like all but a handful of chairs clustered around the bar at the American Legion hall in Fostoria.

A flag in a custom case hung on one wall. A strand of colored lights glowed above the bar.

But the vast meeting room was dark, the dance floor deserted, the jukebox silent. The commercial kitchen where volunteers once prepped for steak fries is no longer a hub of activity.

On July 9, the Earl Foust Post 73 will auction off its sprawling, 12,000-square-foot clubhouse. The post is just one of many veterans’ groups facing tough times caused by the economy, declining membership, and other challenges.

Fostoria Legion members in 1996 opened their building on the city’s south side near a big blue water tower and railroad tracks that crisscross this fading factory town.

The hall cost about $1 million, and the post paid mostly in cash and quickly paid off the rest, Cmdr. Jim Nusser said. But over the last five years, the Legion started to falter. It owes money to the bank — Mr. Nusser declined to say how much — and about $19,166 in taxes.

Membership has slipped from a high of more than 400 to 235 veterans on the active roster. Participation is lackluster, Mr. Nusser said, and hard-hit Fostoria’s job losses hurt the post too. The state’s smoking ban scared off some who once hung out at the canteen, and changes to bingo rules dented revenue, he said.

After listing the property for sale and dropping its price from about $625,000 to $275,000, Legion members decided to put their building on the auction block.

“There’s been people [asking], ‘Well, what are you going to do?’ Well, I don’t know until the sale’s over,” Mr. Nusser said shortly before the post’s last scheduled day of operation Friday.

The post plans to use auction proceeds to pay off debt. If there’s any money left over, members could try to relocate to a more modest facility in Seneca County.

On July 9, the Earl Foust Post 73 will go on the auction block as other American Legion and veterans' groups seek younger members.
On July 9, the Earl Foust Post 73 will go on the auction block as other American Legion and veterans' groups seek younger members.

Monthly meetings will continue at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Fostoria, and members will continue to participate in military funeral services, which the Legion has done since 1948.

Veterans groups around the nation are concentrating on recruiting younger veterans as the deaths of stalwart World War II members contribute to declining membership.

Total membership in the American Legion dropped from slightly more than 3 million members in 1989 to about 2.4 million presently, said John Raughter, a spokesman for its Indianapolis headquarters.

There are about 13,900 American Legion posts, down from roughly 14,700 posts in 2000, he said. The Legion estimates the average age of its members at about 60.

Veterans of Foreign Wars membership dropped from about 2.2 million in 1973 to 1.4 million now. The VFW has lost about 700 posts in the last four years, with about 7,200 operating now, said Randi Law, spokesman at the organization’s national headquarters in Kansas City.

Post consolidations and closings have occurred amid declining membership and economic struggles, officials said.

But Mr. Raughter is “cautiously optimistic” about the American Legion’s future. He pointed to media coverage in the 1970s bemoaning membership trends — back then, it was aging World War I veterans — and wondering about the organization’s fate. The Legion survived those fears.

“It’s like with any group, there’s an ebb and a flow ... We’re [in] a transition because we have new people coming on,” said Roger Hight, American Legion Department of Ohio adjutant. “I think we’ll be around awhile.”

In Ohio, there are 571 American Legion posts, down from more than 600 posts about 20 years ago, Mr. Hight said. Some posts are selling larger halls and relocating to smaller facilities or consolidating with other posts.

Two American Legion posts in Putnam County agreed to consolidate. A 36-member Pandora post is merging with one in Gilboa with 46 members. After the Korean War, the Pandora post had 126 members, said Cmdr. Louis Risser, a Marine veteran who joined the post in 1949.

Members will continue their traditions, such as the flag ceremony at high school football games. Mr. Risser said it was a challenge to find officers willing to serve, and it made sense to join the Gilboa post because the two villages are roughly six miles apart.

The Pandora post sold its building about four years ago on a land contract.

Attracting younger members is difficult because many of those veterans are busy making a living, Mr. Risser said.

“They just don’t have time for these different service organizations,” he said. “It’s the older folks, and most of these folks are coming to the meetings are the retired people.”

In Toledo, the Conn-Weissenberger American Legion Post 587 has absorbed several other posts in recent years, said John Heath, a former commander who serves on the board of trustees.

The influx of members from other posts helped the Alexis Road post avoid drastic measures, he said. The post has about 500 members, though at one time it had 800 to 900, he said.

Mr. Heath said many younger veterans do multiple tours of duty, which makes it difficult for them to join a post.

“That’s our biggest push right now, to bring in the younger veterans. We’ve had some luck at that in the last year or so,” he said. “We’re pulling out all the stops now trying to find every way we can to bring in the revenues and keep up our work in the philanthropy area.”

The VFW Lucas County Post 2898, also on Alexis, experienced an overall membership increase of eight members last year, said Ron Cox, who was to serve as commander through Sunday. While membership has declined during the last two decades after peaking at about 350, the post has focused on recruiting younger veterans by explaining benefits of membership, such as scholarship opportunities for their children.

Back in Fostoria, American Legion members are preparing to say good-bye to their post as well as its furnishings. The kitchen and bar equipment, furniture, and a host of other items will be auctioned off.

But what remains are the members and photographs of all those fun times at the hall.

“A lot of good memories,” said the Gary Kackley, the post’s finance officer.

Contact Vanessa McCray at: vmccray@theblade.com, or 419-724-6065, or on Twitter @vanmccray.