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American Legion seeks new members

Our Town Iron Mountain

THE UREN-COOPER-JOHNSON American Legion Post 50 in Iron Mountain had its first Friday fish fry of 2021 last week. Shown helping to assemble meals are, from left, Terry Burgess, Steve Abramson, Jim Richards, Jerry Hicks and Tyler Wittock. (Theresa Proudfit/Daily News photo)

IRON MOUNTAIN — The Uren-Cooper-Johnson American Legion Post 50 in Iron Mountain could use some new faces in its ranks.

Struggling with flagging membership and shrinking revenue amid the pandemic, 67-year-old Post Commander Jim Richards and former commander Jerry Hicks, 80, has called on the community to become part of the organization founded more than a century ago.

“We’re hanging on by our teeth right now,” Richards said. “We’ve had to restructure loans, we had to do several things. We did what we could to save money.”

The American Legion started as a war veterans’ organization in Paris, France, on March 15, 1919, and was chartered by Congress on Sept. 15 the same year.

The organization focuses on the well-being of U.S. Armed Forces veterans through health care assistance, political lobbying and community outreach, among other things.

“Used to be that you had to be involved in a conflict in order to be able to join the Legion,” Richards said, but Congress changed that requirement in 2019.

The Let Everyone Get Involved in Opportunities for National Service Act, or LEGION, extended recognized wartime service to cover unrecognized eras of military conflict dating back to Dec. 7, 1941.

The act allowed honorably discharged veterans whose service did not fall into defined war periods to join the American Legion.

“If you’re a veteran, you’re eligible,” Hicks said.

“I think they did it because of membership,” Richards said, noting that remains the single biggest challenge the Legion faces.

Legion membership has dwindled in recent years. According to the Legion’s 2020 national membership records, the organization had a little more than 1.8 million members in 2019. That is about 600,000 fewer members than in 2010 and about 890,000 fewer than in 2000.

Finding a seat at the bar in Post 50 used to be a challenge, Richards said.

“Now, we can’t even open on weekends because nobody comes,” Richards said.

At one time, Post 50 membership hovered at about 400 people, Hicks said. Now, it has 200 members on the roster, not including those who have died since paying their $45 annual dues.

“We just can’t get the young people involved. All the clubs are in the same boat,” Richards said. “It seems like all the young kids, they’re just not interested.”

“They got their four-wheelers, their side-by-sides,” Hicks said. “That’s their weekend. That’s their time.”

But children and youth are two pillars of the Legion, Hicks explained, along with national security and Americanism.

“Years ago, we used to sponsor bowling teams. The Cub Scouts used to meet here,” Hicks said.

“Pool leagues. Baseball teams,” Richards added.

“We sponsored a lot of things,” Hicks said. “At one time, we had the money to help veterans in need. Paying their water bills, gas bills. We just can’t do that anymore. We don’t have the income.”

The post makes most of its revenue through fundraisers such as bingo, raffles, spaghetti dinners and monthly all-you-can-eat breakfasts — all of which were hobbled this past year by the coronavirus pandemic.

“This pandemic has raised hell with us,” Richards said. “Last year, we were open for two months in the bar. We were shut down the rest of the time. Our bingo, we’ve been shut down over half that time.”

The bar, which is only open to Legion members, will reopen March 2 from 3 to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.

The post hosts bingo sessions for the public at 6 p.m. on Tuesdays, with doors opening at 4:30 p.m. Attendance is limited to 65 people under current Michigan restrictions.

The breakfasts, which normally begin the first Sunday in October and continue through Father’s Day, include scrambled eggs, pancakes, French toast, ham, bacon, sausage, fried potatoes, biscuits and gravy, milk, juice and coffee.

If the post can serve breakfast this year, they likely will have to increase the $9 admission cost charged in the past. Richards anticipates at least a $10 fee going forward.

The post’s Friday fish fry, which began last week and will run through Lent, offers either a half-pound of smelt or eight pieces of shrimp with french fries, coleslaw, baked beans and a slice of bread for $10.

Orders are taken at 4:30 p.m., with dinners served between 5 and 8 p.m., takeout only.

“We’ll see how it works out,” Richards said.

Continuing to lose revenue would be bad for Post 50, which is also home to the Sons of the American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary.

The SAL is an organization of male descendants, adopted sons and stepsons of veterans of the Armed Forces. Similarly, the ALA is an organization of mothers, daughters, granddaughters, sisters and spouses of veterans.

The Upper Peninsula for now has 52 American Legion charters, though not all charters have physical posts.

“There’s many posts closing up already, or combining with other posts,” Hicks said.

Richards and Hicks encourage anyone eligible for membership to join the Legion. Post 50 has applications available at every bingo session, fish fry, breakfast or other event. Anyone interested can call at 906-774-5797.

“There’s a lot of benefits,” Hicks said. “You get hotel rates, car rentals, different stuff you’re entitled to.”

The post also is available to rent for weddings and other activities.

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