Service clubs struggle with rising costs, aging membersby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
Worthington, Minn. — The American Legion in Worthington demonstrates how much times have changed for service organizations like the Legion and the VFW.
As former post commander Tom Tracy leads the way through the club, he says it's a far different place than when he joined in the 1970s.
"First time I came in here I couldn't find a seat in that lounge up there," he said. "And now you've got the pick of the whole place."
Thinking back to the old days, Tracy smiles. He resisted joining the legion at first, thinking it was just a drinking club.
"Finally one of the guys says, 'Well, just come to the meeting I'll pay your first year's dues, just come to one meeting'," he said. "And then I was hooked. Then I knew what it was all about."
'It' was the Legion's community involvement -- baseball, scout programs and contributing to the needs of seniors. Most of the money, though, has dried up.
Tracy said on Saturday nights, the busiest time of the week, the club is almost deserted by 8 p.m. That poor turnout means a big reduction in sales of drinks and pull-tabs. Tracy said that reality forced legion members to a simple conclusion.
"We don't have enough members to support the post to keep this big a building alive," he said.
At one time the Worthington post had more than 500 paying members. Now, it's half that. The biggest problem is a simple calculation: the remaining members are aging.
"The older ones are dying off," he said. "All the World War II guys are expiring. I've heard nationwide it's like a thousand a day."
Those World War II veterans were mostly responsible for a construction boom that left service clubs like the one in Worthington with big buildings. Now many posts find costs are surpassing revenue.
Taxes and utility costs keep rising, while fewer members means liquor and gambling revenues drop.
It's not just Worthington that's in trouble. The American Legion post in Sebeka, Minn., might sell its building. In Fairmont, Minn., VFW members vote Monday on whether to sell their building.
The obvious explanation goes like this: the computer generation wants nothing to do with fuddy-duddy institutions like the American Legion and VFW.
"The myth that younger veterans aren't joining the VFW is just that, it's a myth," said Jerry Newberry, VFW's national communications director.
"Fact of the matter is, we've recruited about 15 to 20 percent of veterans who have served since 2001. And that percentage is higher than any previous war," Newberry said.
He said the the comparable sign-up rate for World War II veterans was 11 percent. Korea and Vietnam about half that.
Newberry said it's true VFW membership is declining, down 40 percent from it's peak; American Legion membership has also fallen.
But Newberry said the real problem is the down-sizing of the U.S. military. He said there are just fewer veterans who served in a war zone and fewer military veterans overall.
"We don't have a huge pool of eligible veterans, that's a big misunderstanding that people have," he said.
Newberry said there are about 2 million eligible veterans since 2001, compared to 11 million following World War II. So even though the sign up rate has increased, it can't overcome the lower raw numbers, meaning total membership declines. The impact is magnified in rural areas which are losing population, like southwest Minnesota.
Outside the soon to be closed American Legion post in Worthington, Tom Tracy walks toward a wagon filled with aluminum cans residents have dropped off. He said the dollars made selling the cans will go to the type of good cause that encouraged him to join in the first place.
"This money goes to the baseball, to Legion baseball," he said.
Tracy said that kind of community work will continue even though the building is closing. He said American Legion members here have decided to keep the post running. The local Elks club has offered them a meeting space.
Tracy said old soldiers are used to serving, no matter what the conditions. The building was nice, but they don't need permanent walls to do their job.
- Morning Edition, 02/15/2010, 7:25 a.m.