By Ron Hayes
Drive by just a little too fast and you will probably miss it.
Slow down and look to your left. There.
Huddled among the much younger offices and condos in the 200 block of Northeast Fifth Avenue in Delray Beach, the Milton-Myers American Legion Post 65 is a Mission-style building with white stucco walls, a tar and gravel roof and, gracing a parapet above the front doors, the American Legion insignia, also stucco.
Built in 1921, it is the oldest American Legion post in Florida that has always been an American Legion post.
Now it’s struggling to remain one.
“We need about $6,000 a month,” says Gary Cisco, 69, the post’s finance director. “We’re cutting expenses by about a third to eliminate items.”
It’s closed on Sundays and Mondays now, and the cleaning service comes once a month instead of weekly. The television over the bar offers fewer channels, and the bartenders had to take a cut in pay. The $5 soup and sandwich lunch on Wednesdays and $10 dinners on Friday nights bring in a little.
“Some winter months we’re making the $6,000,” Cisco says, “but it’s still difficult to stay above ground.”
On Feb. 2, they signed up for GoFundMe.com, a fundraising site that will take 8 percent of any money donated.
“Money will be used to help pay everyday operating expenses,” the post promised potential donors. “Slowing participation has made it hard to keep up with financial demands.”
And now, on a pleasant Saturday evening in February, the Legionnaires are holding yet another fundraiser. The bar is packed and the $20 raffle tickets for a 55-inch TV are selling, but not fast enough. The patio grills in back fill the air with sweet smoke.
That’s Post Commander Walter Sykes, 61, carving the 65-pound pig he donated.
“We’re hoping this fundraiser is going to be a big shot in the arm for us,” he says.
NOW: Tony Zunker, USMC, a member of the American Legion Post 65, grills burgers and hot dogs during a recent fundraising pig roast. The post is housed in a historically registered building in Delray Beach. As most Legion posts around the country are struggling to survive, they are having fundraisers to foot the associated costs. Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Come on in. Have some pork. Drink a beer and meet the men and women of Post 65. They are friendly. They are patriotic. And like the local post they love, they are old, or getting there, and younger vets are not lining up to join.
When Don Stubblefield, 78, was the post’s commander from 2009 to 2012, he could claim 240 active members. Now they’re down to about 160.
Barbara Gardiner, left, Sandi O’Neill-Shine and Ken Van Arnem talk during a fundraising pig roast at the American Legion Post 65. O’Neill-Shine shows off a 1948 photo of her uncle, Elvin Schutz, an Army colonel during World War II
“The young guys who are getting out of the military don’t want to join for some reason,” he lamented amid the din of the drinking, dining crowd at the bar. “I ask them and they say, ‘It’s a bunch of you old guys telling war stories.’ I tell them, ‘We want you in here telling your war stories.’”
Membership is not difficult. Dues are only $30 a year, and any veteran of the U.S. Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, Navy or Coast Guard is eligible.
Still, the younger vets aren’t joining, and Post 65 is not alone. In 1946, as World War II ended, the American Legion could boast 3,325,000 members. Between 2000 and 2012, national membership dropped to fewer than 2.4 million, and the number of operating posts fell from 14,700 in 2000 to under 13,800 in 2013.
Tony Zunker left the Marines in 1991.
“I got married and had a family and I had other things to do than join a veterans organization,” he says. “Being younger, it seemed like it was for someone older than I am.”
Three years ago, at the urging of friends, Zunker paid the $30 annual dues. Today, he’s the post’s vice commander and, at 48, one of the youngest and most active members.
“There’s a camaraderie in the military that’s unlike any other job you’ll ever have, and I found the camaraderie here that I’d missed for so many years,” he says. “I’ve tried to get people my age to join and it’s just not there.”
Post chartered early
Now slip around to the side of the building where the front portico meets the main wall. Just above the ground, barely legible beneath the whitewash, you’ll find:
In Honor Of The Delray Boys Who Served In The World’s War. Dedicated By Milton Myers Post No. 65, American Legion, Nov. 11, 1922
In March, 1919, Col. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. and other members of the American Expeditionary Force met in Paris to establish an organization that would serve veterans returning from World War I, and on Sept. 16, Congress granted the group, now called the American Legion, an official charter.
A year later, in November 1920, Post 65 received its charter, and a year after that this building was erected by a local contractor named John I. Thieme with help from the 15 founding members.
The formal dedication came at 11 a.m. Nov. 11, 1922 — four years to the exact time, day and hour when the Armistice ending World War I was signed.
THEN: Barber Albert L. Miller (on left), the post’s first commander, photographed at the family business in about 1912. His mother, Mary, is sitting on the steps, and his father, Albert F. Miller, is on the right fixing the bike. Photo provided
The first commander was Albert L. Miller, a local barber who went to France with the 24th Infantry Florida Division and organized Post 65 when he came home.
Two years later, he founded Boy Scout Troop No. 1 and served as its Scoutmaster for the next 25 years. Today, the post still sponsors the troop, now No. 301, at Veterans Day and Memorial Day observances.
Miller went on to open the Dolphin Sport Shop on Atlantic Avenue, where he kept a barber chair in back to accommodate customers. He died in 1960, but his family remains in the area, operating Miller & Sons Office Furniture. His grandson, John Miller, is chairman of the city’s historical preservation board.
Army Pvt. Marvin W. Milton of Delray Beach died of pneumonia on Sept. 30, 1918. He was 28.
Army Private Joseph L. Myers of Delray Beach died of cerebrospinal meningitis on Jan. 2, 1918. He was 24.
They have been dead for nearly a century, and the American Legion Post that preserves their memories is selling pork dinners and raffling TV sets to stay alive.
As of Feb. 23, the GoFundMe site had raised $110 from only two donors.
“Last call for raffle tickets!” Joanie Vertefeuille of the Ladies Auxiliary calls, holding a roll of red tickets over her head as she moves through the bar. Twenty bucks for a chance at the TV, five for one of the gift baskets of shortbread and wine. “Last call for tickets!”
‘We’ve Got Your Back’
Milton-Myers Post 65 is not fancy. It’s nearly a hundred years old, and you can tell. Over the back door hangs the plaque announcing its 1995 listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Beside the door is a small homemade sign that says, “We’ve Got Your Back, American Legion Post 65, Delray Beach.”
There’s a dartboard and a jukebox, a neon Budweiser sign and, on the south wall, a big patriotic painting of an eagle.
In the corner a wheelchair sits alone, with a note on the seat: “Free to a good home.”
And over the bar a scrolling sign is promoting tonight’s fundraiser. “We need the help,” it says, sliding by again and again, “Now is the time … We need the help …”
In the end, the Saturday night pig roast and raffle brought in $1,948, Zunker reported. Probably a little more, once the bar tabs and donation bottle are tallied.
“Is it gonna be enough?” Post Commander Sykes says, even as the dinners are still being served and the raffle tickets hawked. “No, it’s never enough.
“We got to do another fundraiser.”
To give to Post 65’s campaign, visit www.gofundme.com/53msxm8c or the post’s Facebook page at Milton Myers Delray.