Forest Park’s American Legion Post 414 and Chicago’s Paul Revere Post 623 have much in common. Both are about 80 years old, and both contend with dwindling membership.
Post 623 not only declined from 300 active members to 26, it lost its longstanding meeting hall near Grand Avenue and Western Boulevard, in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood. This reversal hasn’t discouraged Post Commander Byron Watson or his best friend Paul Knudtson, though. In an attempt to boost membership and appeal to younger veterans, Knudston and Watson created the Paul Revere 623 Community blog, as an outreach effort.
Last Friday, though, Post 414 lent its support by graciously hosting Post 623’s spaghetti dinner at the 500 Circle Ave. headquarters. Benefits from the feast will be used to launch an American Legion baseball team.
After this youth baseball organization was started in 1925, half the major league players apprenticed by playing American Legion ball. Post 623 is partnering with Chicago’s Lane Tech High School to field the first new Chicago-area team in a decade.
Knudston said the Post made a small profit, bringing in about $200, but it needs much more in order to fund a full season for the 15- to 19-year-olds who will be playing on the team. The season will cost about $6,000-$8,000, and the Post has raised about $1,200, thus far, Knudston said.
The Paul Revere Post was founded in 1931, primarily by Italian-American veterans. Knudtson’s late grandfather, Joe Stacy, was a longtime post commander. “I was mentored by my grandfather,” Knudtson said. “We used to have dinner with him every Wednesday night.”
The American Legion, founded in 1919 by World War I veterans, is an organization that promotes solidarity amongst former serviceman, and advocates for veterans’ rights. It also helped bring the GI bill that made college and home-ownership affordable to solider returning from World War II.
Superb Italian food is one of the continuing traditions of Post 623. On the evening of Nov. 4, the hall was filled with the aroma of mostaccioli, spaghetti and meatballs, and sausage and peppers. Women in the post’s auxiliary prepared the food, using Knudtson’s grandmother’s recipes, and kids and teens that belong to the youth auxiliary served it up.
During the dinner, Knudtson raffled off prizes, including some valuable Bears memorabilia.
First Lieutenant Knudtson, 38, recently returned from his final tour of duty in Afghanistan. He spent off-hours in that desolate country social-networking on his computer and wondering if it could be a tool for recruiting veterans for the Legion.
“We need to redefine community,” Knudtson said, “So we can maintain the level of support veterans need.” He was thinking outside of the traditional post, which had been a neighborhood-centered organization. The result is his Paul Revere blog, which features anecdotal entries, information about Legion activities and news stories about veterans.
Younger veterans are used to such media because it’s commonly used to keep in touch with friends and family members back home.
“The pervasiveness in internet technology in the modern soldiers’ daily life is beyond anything that we can understand,” he said, during a later phone conversation. “I was connected to my community by Facebook, email and other pages … I would literally talk every day.”
Those same men and women are coming home and continuing to use such media, which is why the Post and the American Legion needs to make an effort to reach them via that route, Knudston said.
Longtime Forest Park Legionnaire Neil Scarpelli agreed that the organization needs to rethink how to attract new membership.
Scarpelli noted that World War II vets were draftees. They were taken from communities like Forest Park and the survivors returned to their towns en masse. This solidarity resulted in Post 414 reaching its high-water mark in the 1950s. Since then, the post has scrambled to be a focus for younger vets without much success.
The all-volunteer army altered this model, Knudtson noted. We no longer have communities of men marching off to war and coming home in cohesion. “We’re trying to attract veterans from more recent wars,” Knudtson said, “They need to get their college educations. They’re going to need benefits later in life.” In his quest to reach vets through cyberspace, Knudtsen has a faithful partner in Watson.
The two met in 1996, while serving at Fort Monmouth, on the New Jersey coast. Watson was a medic who had signed up for an eight-year stint in 1993. He finished his obligation on Sept. 1, 2001, just days before he might have had his tour of duty extended.
Watson’s currently pursuing a degree from Northeastern University, while teaching medic training at a local college. And he and Knudtson are not just brothers in arms – they’re brothers-in-law. Watson is married to Knudtson’s sister, Michaelene.
Knudtson is enrolled at Northwestern University, but this doesn’t keep him from actively supporting vets. He and 13 fellow veterans ran the Chicago Marathon to raise $30,000 for the Pat Tillman Foundation. (He writes about the race in a post on the Paul Revere blog.) The foundation, named in honor of the NFL star killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan, is dedicated to funding college scholarships for vets.
Knudston also said that The Paul Revere Post plans to have more of a presence at events like marathons, and 5K and 10K races, in the hopes of recruiting younger veterans.
Meanwhile, back at the Forest Park Post, Scarpelli was impressed with the ideas of Knudtson and his cohorts. For too long, legionnaires have seen their comrades pass away, with no one to take their place. He’s heard these old soldiers complain about their thinning ranks, without offering solutions. Now, someone has come up with a promising strategy that may keep posts like these alive for another 80 years, or longer.
Nick Moroni contributed to this article