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VFW Halls Close as Memberships Decline
Knight Ridder  |  January 28, 2008
For St. Paul's last VFW hall, it's closing time.

On one recent afternoon, 84-year-old Gordon Kirk, commander of VFW Post 8854, was the only veteran in the place.

He drifted past the war memorabilia and a case packed with sports trophies from the 1960s. "We had some wonderful times here," he murmured.

Those memories, like the VFW, are fading. Kirk is planning to sell the building as soon as he can find a buyer.

It will be the last of about 15 halls to close, making all nine of the city's VFW posts homeless, meeting in community centers or libraries.

Across the country, the number of VFW posts is dropping, as an estimated 1,500 World War II veterans die each day. Membership has dropped about 17 percent since 1992 to 1.8 million members.

Minnesota is losing about six VFW posts a year and now has 268 -- down by one-third from the peak.

The exceptions are VFW clubs that successfully recruit veterans of Vietnam and the Middle East conflicts, and the American Legion posts.

The most visible sign of decline is the closing of halls, which once served as a nationwide social network. Minneapolis, which once had about 13 VFW halls, has one today -- owned by Post 246, on Lake Street.

The closing of the last St. Paul VFW hall upsets Zenus Bell, who has volunteered to work in the post kitchen up to 20 hours a week for the past 10 years.

"There are some old men who come here, and this is all they have," said Bell, wiping a countertop.

"These men deserve more. They get no grants, no nothing. They fight for their country and they have nothing?"

A Change of culture

The Veterans of Foreign Wars was formed in 1899, as groups of returning soldiers wanted gathering places of their own. They collected money and formed the fraternal service clubs, comparable to Rotary or Lions clubs.

After World War II, the flood of returning veterans was like the D-Day invasion in reverse. The Army alone had 5 million soldiers -- young veterans eager to volunteer for building and operating VFW halls.

The VFW clubs quickly became as common as fast-food restaurants, with about 10,000 posts operating thousands of halls.

The St. Paul VFW Hall is in the Rondo neighborhood -- in a building that originally housed McGill's Grocery store and a tailor shop. The post bought it in 1962. Kirk said the post thrived, once boasting two generals among its membership.

Lee Ulferts, commander of Post 3915 in Brooklyn Park, said VFW membership surged in the '70s -- when the children of World War II veterans began leaving home, giving their parents more time to volunteer.

But the VFW stumbled, for several reasons.

Ulferts said the VFW, along with the rest of America, belittled Vietnam veterans for fighting in a losing war.

"We told them they didn't fight in a real war," said Ulferts, a Vietnam veteran.

The recent smoking ban hurt the clubs, as did changing attitudes about drinking.

"It's a whole change of culture," Ulferts said.

Today, about 40 percent of America's 25 million veterans are older than 65. The effect of aging can be seen in posts like Post 1678, near Taylors Falls.

Membership has shrunk to 14, and the post will be dissolved this year.

Commander Leland Rivard, 83, said monthly meetings consist of perhaps seven old men sitting around a table in a meeting room.

Rivard says he is lucky to get three members willing to participate in honor guard ceremonies.

"We would like to have six," he said.

"We can't get anyone to join the post any more," Rivard said. "As time moves on, we forget."

No love

One recent afternoon at the St. Paul club, the bar needed paint, the light bulbs needed changing, and the business needed customers.

Of the six patrons, none was a veteran of anything more than a hard day's work. They watched TV, drank and teased each other -- "Go back to your nursing home!" "Sit up straight!" -- as the bartender listlessly nibbled fries.

"I like this place. There are no gimmicks," said Mark Young, 40, of St. Paul.

Through the Dutch door in the kitchen, volunteer Bell waited for veterans who -- this day, at least -- never showed up.

Instead, a mother walked in. She ordered macaroni and cheese for her two children.

They commiserated about the club's demise.

"It's just that there's no love. If you have no love, you have no love coming back to you," Bell told her. "No one takes love and puts it into an historic place like this."

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