Culver VFW Post 6919: 65 years of community service (part 1)
All things considered, Culver's VFW Post 6919 – along with the services it performs and its offerings, locally and beyond, may be one of the best kept secrets in Culver.
For 65 years (as of this month), the Washington Street-based Post and its various related organizations -- including the Ladies Auxiliary and, more recently, Men's Auxiliary -- have contributed thousands of dollars to local, state, and national causes; served food, drinks, and entertainment on a near-daily basis to both members and the public; and supported and promoted patriotism and, of course, the veterans of foreign wars their name suggests. In fact, the challenge in considering the long history of Culver's VFW isn't in discovering the story to tell, but knowing where to begin (for the actual beginning, please see the accompanying article this issue, on the history of the Post and Auxiliaries).
Longtime Post member (since 1976) and past Commander Rich Kelso says the VFW -- locally and nationally -- has three main thrusts: service to veterans, to the community, and other organizations.
The VFW as a national organization (which can trace its history back to 1899) prioritizes making sure American veterans of foreign wars are taken care of, says current Post Commander Tom Schmidt -- especially wounded vets. In addition, the national group keeps track of, and proposes, laws which affect veterans, with an eye on their long-term care.
Locally, says Schmidt, among the Post's many priorities is donating money to the families of deployed servicemen or those not deployed but struggling financially. Such efforts, he notes, stay in members-only meetings and are not made public.
"Maybe some of the people wouldn't care," he adds, "but our (Vietnam-era) generation had to hide the fact that we were veterans, and maybe that's stuck with us a little longer than it should have."
Schmidt holds a formidably lengthy sheet of at least 39 local and national causes to which the Post contributes financially, including Culver High School's Business Professionals of America, local emergency services (fire, police, and EMS), children's Christmas parties and other children’s-related endeavors, and national causes such as the VFW's National Home for children (www.vfwnationalhome.org), to name just a few. Such broad contributions carry on the Culver Post's vibrant legacy of similar services, which have ranged from annual Christmas parties for the local elderly, to placing a fishing pier in the park, to a laundry list of school, scouting, and emergency-related causes (see the aforementioned article on the history of the organization in Culver).
"What we do when we gather, most of the time, is talk about ways to support our community and its children," says Kelso. "When the school comes up with another program to enrich the academic experience of the students, they frequently come to us to kick in a little extra funding."
Of course, many of the Post's approximately 150 members are certain to be present at Memorial Day, Veteran's Day, and other veterans-related observances at Culver's Masonic cemetery and elsewhere. Further, says Schmidt, members may take charge of grave decoration or place flags on the headstones of veterans, not only at the Masonic, but many lesser-known cemeteries around the area. When requested, they are also present to add rites to the funerals of area veterans. Members visit veterans in the local nursing home as well, both as a group on Veteran's Day, and as individuals at various times.
As a retired teacher, Schmidt says the annual Patriot's Pen and Voice of Democracy contests for local students -- with which the Post joins the Men's and Ladies' Auxiliaries to facilitate -- are of great importance as well.
"These kids write from the heart," he says of the 70 or 80 essays turned in by local students, many of whom may have parents (mother or fathers) or siblings deployed overseas. The same has been true for many students with whom Schmidt interacted personally as a former teacher at Culver Community High School.
"As veterans, you see and go through a lot of things that nobody else can relate to," he says, "and it just gives a chance to talk with somebody else that at least has half an idea of what you feel like."
Schmidt and other Post members have been heartened in recent years by invitations to participate in the high and middle schools' observance of Veteran's Day each year, a relatively recent phenomenon. At last year's event, veterans were given a standing ovation by students.
"That's a change for us Vietnam vets," Schmidt says. "It really came about since the first Iraq war. The students are more receptive because a lot of them have brothers, sisters, or next door neighbors signed up with the military...it's much more personal."
Among other things, Post 6919 is visible yearly for the Lake Fest parade as well. This was especially true last summer, when a litany of military vehicles -- including some going as far back as World War II -- rolled through Culver, an effort Schmidt's son Jon was a central part of (a nonlocal project near and dear to Tom's heart is his work with creating and promoting a museum for Vietnam-era Huey helicopters near the Grissom Air Museum at Peru).
In general, however, many of Post 6919's contributions to the community fly under the radar.
"We don't have a big, flashy presence in the community," Schmidt says. "(Often), the check gets written and sent, and that's the end of it."
The Post as community space
Another lesser-known facet of the Culver Post's offerings are what's available in the building itself.
The facility may be commonly thought of as providing a gathering spot for local veterans and their families to eat, drink, and socialize -- which of course it does – but it's also a restaurant open to the public, in addition to the availability of meeting space in its upper floor.
The Post is open for lunch daily, notes Schmidt, and it offers a wide variety of "very good meals." And everyone's welcome, he adds, regardless of style of dress or background.
During a lunchtime conversation with Kelso and others, a group of workers from a local contracting company stroll in for lunch, one of many groups from local businesses who stop by around noontime. Kelso's daughter Sandra, and other cooks and servers, work to prepare box meals for pickup or delivery to a number of employees nearing their lunch break at Medallion Cabinetry, several blocks away. Two Culver police officers find a table and place an order, all a regular part of the crowd at the Post at lunchtime.
Kelso emphasizes the affordable prices of the meals, and most importantly, that proceeds "go right into all the (community contributions) we've been talking about. They add up, and that's where that money comes from to support all these things we do."
Immensely popular have been the Post's weekly bingo nights each Saturday (in case you didn't realize why the streets around the Post are lined with cars that evening). These family-oriented gatherings have been ongoing since 1991, and were originally launched by Kelso.
"It's become community event," Kelso notes. "We have the attitude that we're here to have fun with it. Yes, the Post makes a little bit of money on it, but not as much as most bingo operations."
Then there are the Friday meals, another popular community event. The various branches of Culver's VFW -- including the Post and Ladies' and Men's Auxiliaries -- take charge of different nights. The Post, says Schmidt, is on hand cooking on first Fridays. Fifth Fridays, when they occur, are always the prime rib meal.
As might be expected, Schmidt credits several devoted members with "keeping this whole thing operating" from a facilities standpoint, including Kelso, Brian Linhart, and Herb Newman, among others. There are around five paid employees, he says, who handle some of the cooking and bartending as well.
All in all, though, "everybody puts in a lot of time, even though it's not seen by a lot of people."
Next week: more on the Post, plus profiles of the important roles of the Ladies and Mens Auxiliaries through the years.