Out and About (Sort of): “If We Build, They will Come” by Howard Freedlander

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For 42 years I’ve driven by the southwest corner of Glenwood Avenue in Easton and never bothered to go inside American Legion Blake-Blackston Post 77. And then I did last week.

I met with Walter Black Jr. and Willis Scott in the meeting/event hall I knew Black only by reputation because of his longtime service as a civil rights leader in Talbot County. I’ve known Scott for more than 40 years from the time we belonged to the same Presbyterian Church in Easton. Of course, he was a longtime and pleasant presence at the Easton Post Office.

Why did I ask to meet with these gentlemen? Because I wanted to learn about Post 77’s plans to expand and raise more than $900,000 to finance renovation of a building, part of which dates to 1958.

What struck me about the planned renovation was the reason. American Legion posts throughout the country are facing diminishing membership numbers. Younger members either are not interested. or are joining conflict-specific organizations like the Vietnam Veterans of America or the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans of America. Black and Scott hope that modernization of the building will draw younger veterans and provide a community center for weddings, banquets and meetings.

Through its slot machines, Post 77 raised enough money the past year to donate $131,000 to non-profit organizations in Talbot County. These include Talbot Hospice Foundation, Channel Marker, the Neighborhood Service Center, Critchlow-Adkins Children’s Centers, Talbot County Historical Society and many others.

Also, of course, Post 77, like others, provides help to veterans seeking much-needed physical and mental health services. I have long known that the American Legion is an invaluable cog in the often complicated business of gaining veterans’ benefits from the federal government. A “friend in court” can alleviate the stress of gaining promised medical benefits.

The image of American Legion posts is often one of portraying a place where veterans gather to drink and tell war stories. While it’s true that Legion and VFW posts and Elk lodges have bars, I don’t believe the common image reflects the services and donations integral to these worthy organizations.

Willis Scott, left, and Water Black Jr., at American Legion Blake-Blackston Post No. 77

As President George W. Bush said on March 6, 2007, at the American Legion’s national convention in Washington, DC, “American Legion halls have been mainstays of our communities and neighborhoods for generations. You have taught millions of young people the importance of good citizenship and the values of “God and country.” And I appreciate these valuable lessons in America. I saw them first hand when I was the Governor of Texas. After all, you sponsor Boys State and Girls State. They’re great programs.”

Bush also said, “People who know something about the Legion understand firsthand how much this organization does for our men and women in uniform, for those who have been wounded on the field of battle, and for their remarkable families. Our Nation has been able to call upon the Legion in times of promise and peril, and our Nation is grateful for your service.”

As I’ve read about PTSD and the comfort and empathy felt by veterans, I suspect that American Legion and VFW posts provide a safe haven to talk about common experiences and maybe to try to make sense of them. If this is the case, as I suspect it is, then these venues serve a valuable purpose.

When I went with my friend Paul Cox the past March to Dunedin, FL to watch the Toronto Blue Jays during spring training, I eyed an American Legion post as we walked through a commercial and residential neighborhood to the ball park. While at first I was surprised by its location, I then thought it fit just right, a symbol of military allegiance.

About the renovation, Scott said, “If we build, they will come. It will provide greater access to veterans and youth. We can provide additional counseling for veterans.”

Black said, “The modernization will enhance and add programs. It will help attract new members.” He also said the renovation will be adjacent to planned redevelopment of the Port Street corridor.

Currently, Post 77 has 148 members.

On the verge of initiating a public awareness and fundraising campaign, Scott is optimistic about receiving state funds.

As readers know, I believe that noir-profit organizations undergird the strength and vitality of a community. In many instances, they cater to the daily needs of residents seeking vital help, whether it’s child care, mental illness assistance, youth mentoring, addiction and recovery support, senior citizen activities, ministering to the dying—and a slew of other critical services.

Often overlooked and misunderstood, American Legion Post 77 plays an unsung role in Talbot County. I was unaware and unappreciative. Now, I feel a bit more enlightened.

Maybe when readers use Glenwood Avenue to enter and depart Easton, they will take time to salute an organization that serves children, youth and veterans. It does so with little fanfare.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

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