Tonganoxie Some of the veterans aged and died. Some stopped paying their dues and coming to meetings. Others just sent their money directly to the state and became members in name only.
And Lester Hamel Post No. 41 of the American Legion withered to inactivity. Its 14 members carry their Legion cards in their wallets but may go weeks, sometimes months, without seeing each other. Even then, the meetings are chance.
"It's kind of an inactive post," said commander Pat Sparks, a 55-year-old Vietnam War veteran who joined the post 36 years ago. "I guess you'd say it's probably a post in name, mainly for an American Legion baseball program, and I'm not even sure that's still operating."
But Jim Rogers wants to resuscitate the post, which opened in 1958 and had 25 members at its height in the early 1970s. Rogers, a Vietnam vet who lost his legs in a land-mine explosion in February 1969, lives in Tonganoxie but drives to Kansas City, Kan., to be part of an active legion group. Logic tells him that the community would be better served if its veterans stayed close to home.
So, with help from the American Legion Department of Kansas, Rogers has scheduled a membership rally for 7:30 p.m. June 19 at the Tonganoxie Masonic Hall, 311 Delaware St., to revive interest among longtime members and get new people involved.
Tired of traveling
"We could kind of help out our veterans and our community as a whole instead of taking our manpower to a different community," said Rogers, who also belongs to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
That organization's membership requirements are more restrictive than those of the legion, another reason Rogers is pursuing the Tonganoxie legion effort.
"I found that there's a lot of veterans in the area that are not eligible for the VFW that would like to participate in veteran-type activities," Rogers said. "We also have some elderly people here in Tongie who are members of different American Legions. They didn't want to travel to Leavenworth or Kansas City or Lawrence to go to the meetings."
Don Dalquest, post commander of American Legion Dorsey-Liberty Post No. 14 of Lawrence, said six of his 764 members were from Tonganoxie.
"We're glad for any legionnaire to come to us," he said. "We get them coming in from all over the place. Some of them come because they don't have a chapter, some come because they like our post better."
Chartered by Congress in 1919, the American Legion is the largest veterans organization in the world, with nearly 15,000 posts and close to 3 million members. Legionnaires support their communities through volunteering and fund raising. They also work on behalf of veterans' rights.
Tonganoxie's story isn't rare in Kansas. Ralph Snyder, assistant adjutant for the state Legion, said his department was helping with similar revival efforts in small towns across the state.
"We think we can rejuvenate the programs if we get the membership back," he said. "It's just going to take time. It (membership) didn't go down overnight, and you're not going to get it back up overnight."
At American Legion posts across the country, World War II veterans are dying at an increasing rate. The same is true in Kansas. That, combined with the fact that younger veterans don't seem to have as much interest in belonging to veterans organizations, has sent membership levels plummeting in the past few decades.
Kansas Legion posts had 65,000 members in 1971, Snyder said. Now, they're down in the neighborhood of 50,000 and holding steady.
"We are basically signing up new ones to replace the ones that are passing away," he said. "But we are not increasing. There's still 240,000 veterans in the state of Kansas."
It's those veterans who still don't belong to an organization or who have fallen away from their post who Rogers hopes will respond to the membership call in Tonganoxie.
Post commander Sparks said he was happy Rogers was attempting to get the local chapter back on its feet, an effort he just doesn't have time to pursue.
"I'm sure that there's some that have the drive to keep this thing going. I just don't have the time myself," he said. "To be honest, I think it's great that someone's trying to take an interest in it."