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The VFW in Culver: a brief history - Part 1

May 25, 2011

Marching to the cemetery Culver Memorial Day in the early 1950s, with members of the Post and the Ladies Auxiliary on the March down Main Street (the then-State Exchange Bank building is at left). PHOTO COURTESY VFW POST 6919

The genesis

The beginning was April, 1946, when a group of World War II vets "anxious to strike out on their own" (says part of the Post's official history -- see accompanying article in this edition) rather than join the existing American Legion post (#103, the Alexander Fleet Post) announced the formation of a VFW post in Culver. Initial membership was 75 men, and on Sunday, May 26, in Culver's community building, the Finney-Shilling Post (#6919) of the Veterans of Foreign Wars was officially born, named for two local casualties of that second Great War in Europe. Frank Timmons was the first Post Commander.

The Post took possession of its new home at 108 E. Washington Street less than a year later, in January, 1947, when the Culver Citizen vacated what had been its home base (it would move to the building which is today the town hall, at Washington and Plymouth Streets). The VFW, of course, has remained at the site -- though with major improvements and renovations through the years -- ever since.

Initially, the Modern Cleaners continued to operate on the building's now-removed third floor. The main floor was divided between meeting space and the kitchen facilities, while the basement -- once home to the Citizen presses, was to be remodeled into a canteen.

As the Post's official history notes, such timely progress was remarkable considering most of the founding members were young men in the process of putting their lives back together after two to even five years of service in World War II.

The Post formed in spite of the well-established existence of a local American Legion Post in Culver (it has since concluded its operations). Longtime member Roger Wise recalls founding members telling the two organizations grew from somewhat different wishes on the part of members.

"A lot of the young guys wanted to drink and have dances, and that sort of thing," says Wise. "The Legion didn't have a bar or anything. Originally they wanted to have a joint Legion and VFW together, but the young guys said, 'This won't work,' so they went on their own. Most of the Legion at that time were mostly World War I vets. So mainly after (the VFW was launched), mostly (Culver Military) Academy guys belonged to the Legion. Most of the younger guys went to the VFW."

VFW Post 6919 was named after two local veterans: Patrick L. Finney (1915 - 1941), a 1933 Culver High School graduate who -- after enlisting in 1940 -- was a member of the 26th Bombardment Squadron, killed at the Japanese raid on Hickam Field December 7, 1941. John Richard Shilling (1924 - 1944) graduated from Culver Military Academy and enlisted in July, 1943 as an Infantryman. He was killed during an attack on a German-held hill in Gesso, Italy, in October, 1944. The two are commemorated in a display in the Post building.

Post 6919's roster of Post Commanders often reads like a who's who of local family names active in Culver's past. They include Frank Timmons (1946-47), (Judge) Bill Riggens, Norman Baker, Joe Morrison, Ted Strang, Olen Osborn, Mark Steinberger, Jack Sanders, Wayne Hissong, Shirley Carter, Kenneth Tasch, Maurice Bennett, Robert Gibbons, Emil (Bud) Ruhnow Sr., C. Art Bennett, Robert Lemar, Gene Reister, Ray Houghton, Leonard Sherwood, Ora Reed, Allen Cornett Sr., Roger Wise, Edward (Joe) Miller, Robert Albert, Robert Kibbler, Jack Washburn, Kenneth Walter, Charles Kesmodel, Gordon Uyttebrouck, Rich Kelso, Dennis Geiger, Ed London, L.B. Montgomery, and others in more recent years.

Activities and contributions through the years

The early years of the Post included a variety of activities, some in conjunction with the American Legion as well as the VFW Ladies Auxiliary, which formed just a year after the Post itself (more on that organization shortly, in addition to the Father's Auxiliary which was chartered January 1, 1953, for fathers, step-fathers, and foster-fathers of servicemen (that organization, on a national level, has since fallen by the wayside).

Early activities included organization of VFW basketball (starting in 1946) and baseball-softball teams (starting in 1947), partnering with Culver's fire department for a carnival in the park, observances of Decoration Day (today's Memorial Day, as the Post observed it later) and Veteran's Day via parades (many of which for some years centered around the Memorial Veterans' plaque on the stone in front of the Culver Public Library, where it was dedicated at Memorial Day, 1950, and still resides) and rites in the cemetery, Poppy Day, patriotic essay contests, local youth Christmas parties, and a host of charitable and civic endeavors.

These included the 1950 refurbishment of the emergency and metabolic rooms of Parkview Hospital in Plymouth, an annual Toys for Tots Christmas drive, erection of "Welcome to Culver" signs at strategic locales at the edge of town, presentation of American flags (and in 1959, a publication warning of the dangers of Communism) to local students and other entities, sponsorship of Little League teams, sizeable contributions in the late 1970s through the early 1980s towards Culver's ambulance fund, placement of a fishing pier annually in the town park, as well as extensive and regular support of local school, Scouting, and other civic activities.

In July, 1976, among local observances of the nation's bicentennial, the southeast corner of Culver's Masonic cemetery was deeded to the Post. Flag poles, canons, and other memorials honoring local and national veterans were placed at the site, which today remains the central location of the Post's annual observations of Memorial and Veteran's Days.

Notably, many of the most active leaders in the Post and its Auxiliaries were also consistently recognized as leaders in civic and charitable work by the community at large, through the years.

Of course, social activities ranging from dances, dinners, and annual picnics, to fish fries and holiday parties, were lively and quite well-attended over the decades. Interestingly, in February, 1955, the Post joined the Ladies and Father's Auxiliaries for a fish fry, but public notices were explicit that the event was "members only." In ensuing years, Culver VFW fish fries have become annual community events.

In June, 1958, after several years of denials, the Post received its three-way liquor license, members arguing theirs had always been a private club (such as a country club) and thus not subject to typical town laws regarding serving of alcohol.

Facing changing American attitudes

As an interesting sign of the times, a Congressional Act first proposed by the national VFW in 1930 to combat the spread of Communism, Loyalty Day took on new meaning in the early 1970s as a vehicle to combat dissident sentiments spreading across America. Culver was designated in April, 1972, as the site of the VFW's Third District. Residents were asked to display the nation's colors for an entire week during the May Day observation.

The war in Vietnam, of course, forever altered American perceptions of the military and its members, something not lost on Culver VFW members who served in that conflict. Past Commander Rich Kelso remembers the Post appointing an officer in the 1970s and early 80s whose mission was simply to get the Culver Citizen and other media to cover the Post.

"It was a struggle," recalls Kelso, who served in Korea as well. "The same was true in the schools at that time. We saw a change (in attitudes about veterans) about the time of the first Gulf war.

"When I first came back to Culver (in the 1970s), that was right there in the post-Vietnam era. Vets were not particularly popular. We (in the Culver VFW) fought hard to improve our image in the community. We weren't getting good press, even though we were doing all the good things we do now."

Even with the ups and downs of popular American sentiment regarding veterans, the enormity of Post 6919's contributions did not go unnoticed, either by the national, state, and regional levels of the VFW organization, or by an array of state, regional, and local organizations and institutions, ranging from service clubs such as Lions, to the Culver Academies, to the town itself. These are far too numerous to mention individually, but provided a steady stream of plaques, awards, citations, honorary declarations, and more.

The building

In May, 1969, the Post suffered extensive fire damage to its interior, enough that it was decided to remove the third floor of the building. Roger Wise recalls that floor at the time had an apartment occupied by Tom Walker. Members took an interesting approach to converting the three-story structure to a two-story one.

"They built the roof inside the third floor (before removing that floor)," says Wise, "and then tore down the third floor."

This allowed uninterrupted use of the building while adding the convenience of roofing a building while still indoors!

Mary Lou Wise notes many members made the ongoing upkeep of the Post building possible, citing the work of Jack Sanders, Bud Ruhnow, and others in particular.

In December, 1972, the old house at the corner of Plymouth and Washington Streets (just east of the Post building) was purchased by the Post for $5,700 though for years it was unused by the Post (many will recall it as the home of the Methodist women's thrift store, today on Ohio Street, for several years). By March, 1988, the house had fallen into disrepair and was demolished, and two Post horseshoe pits installed in its place.

Some internal debate within Post membership preceded the April, 1995 decision to seek a bank loan to create an addition to the existing building.

"We'd been wanting to do it for many years," says Rich Kelso. "Some members were afraid we couldn't afford it. Finally when L.B. Montgomery was Commander, one year he managed to politic it enough to get enough support among members to stick our necks out and take a chance. I was right behind him.

"We wanted to have a bigger kitchen...and a little more seating for diners."

The addition of a handicapped ramp to enter the building helped convince some reluctant members of the value of the move, recalls Kelso (prior to that, he remembered members physically carrying disabled vets down the stairs to the basement). The creation of the full kitchen downstairs also allowed for expansion of meeting space on the upper floor (the space has become a popular spot for affordable group get-togethers such as reunions and banquets).

Later this week, we look back at the more Post history, as well as that of the VFW Ladies Auxiliary.

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