ELGIN, Ill. » At first glance, the humble American Legion Post 57 just off Liberty Street in this tired river town near Chicago seems like a perfect slice of Americana — careworn, cozy and forever preserved in the amber of its ale and old-timey, wood-paneled charm.
But with the Elgin post’s membership nose-diving to roughly 750 members today from a high of 1,200 members in the 1980s, post officials said they were fighting to remain relevant and financially solvent.
On a recent morning, as a few veterans in their 60s huddled at the bar, drinking beer and awaiting the chicken-fried steak luncheon special, the Post 57 commander, Norman Bellows, frowned over a handwritten message taken from an early-morning phone call. An auxiliary member of the post had died, he said, an all-too-frequent event given that some of the legion’s most loyal members are World War II veterans, 640 of whom die each day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"The younger veterans are so busy with work and raising their families, they don’t think they have the time to get involved with the legion," said Bellows, 76, a Korean War veteran and retired truck driver.
This month Bellows was heartened after the local City Council finally approved the post’s request to install five video poker machines — "entertainment" that is expected to generate desperately needed extra revenue to help the post pay its bills, which include about a $4,000 monthly tab for maintenance of the spacious 14,000-square-foot building.
The Elgin post’s struggles are reflected at American Legion halls across the United States, where the enemies these days are old age, apathy and budget deficits. Long serving as hometown hubs where veterans and nonveterans alike gathered for beer, bingo and camaraderie, many American Legion posts have grown quieter, with total membership nationwide down 11 percent since 2000, to less than 2.4 million members in 2012. The legion has also seen a decline in the number of operating posts, dropping from 14,700 posts in 2000 to just under 13,800 this year, officials said.
According to Joe March, a spokesman at the American Legion headquarters in Indianapolis, officials are confident that the membership decline can be reversed, and they have recently begun a campaign to bring the legion’s ranks back up to 3 million members by its 100th anniversary in 2019. While many service organizations are struggling to survive the ravages of an aging membership, March is hopeful that the legion’s post-World War II glory days can be realized again, especially given that there are 22.7 million veterans nationwide, most of whom are eligible for membership.
"It’s true we are losing our World War II comrades, who are going to what I call the ‘post everlasting,’ and we are regretful of that," March said. "They were the greatest generation. But now, the younger veterans need to pick up the gauntlet and continue the tradition."
Mark Sutton, a spokesman for the American Legion Department of Michigan, said that while it was important for the organization to continue offering community outreach programs like Boys Nation, a civic and leadership program in Washington whose alumni include former President Bill Clinton, a drastic overhaul of the legion’s public image was long overdue.
"For many of the younger veterans, when they think of the American Legion, they picture the building on the corner where the old guys go to drink beer," said Sutton, whose state’s membership is down from 100,000 members in 1994 to 86,000 members in 2012.
While many posts have lost membership in the past few decades as veterans of World War II and the Korean War have died, legion officials said that many leadership roles were now being embraced by veterans of the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, who are reviving the organization with their energy and with technical skills that can be used for recruitment via social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Nonetheless, Sutton said the legion needed to do a better job of getting the word out that it was there to help veterans with things like filing medical claims and applying for VA loans and GI Bill benefits — regardless of whether the post has an actual building or not.
"I know we have some growing pains, but the mission of the organization is sound, and it’s all a matter of changing the public’s perspective," Sutton said.
Legion officials say they are encouraged by growth in some areas, like Post 24 in Alexandria, Va., and Post 459 in Grand Rapids, Mich., which are experiencing a surge of interest from younger veterans.
Still, money and members are in short supply at legion halls in many rural communities, like Burlington Junction, Mo., which is home to Rolla Dicks Post 315.
In February, the collapse of a damaged wall in the century-old building that had served as the American Legion hall there since the 1940s reduced it to rubble, said Sheriff Darren White of Nodaway County.
The building was empty, and no one was hurt, White said. In the days after the collapse, veterans and volunteers managed to retrieve decades of local history from the wreckage, including scores of high school class portraits dating to the 1930s.
Residents with memories of all the graduation parties, weddings and funerals they had attended over the years at the old hall — not to mention the legendary ham and bean dinners — were unwilling to let their local post die.
White said that within weeks of the building’s collapse, residents had rallied together and raised $100,000 to build a new community center, which will be run by a nonprofit group and will serve as a new home to the legion post and other service organizations by this summer.
"In this county, we have all these little agricultural farming towns with populations under 500 people," he said. "At the legion hall, everyone can come together and feel like they’re part of one family. It helps keep this community alive."