Dan Dellinger is a history guy. Always has been.
A lifelong resident of Vienna, Va., he'll tell you how, in an early Civil War skirmish, Confederate forces ambushed Union soldiers moving by train toward the town, the first time a railroad was used tactically in combat. Just up the hill from American Legion Dyer-Gunnell Post 180, where he's a member, Dellinger can point out the barely visible outline of a star-shaped earthen fort likely built and used by the Union Army between 1863 and 1865.
He enjoys personal connections to the past, too. Dellinger's father somehow inherited the sword of Confederate Gen. Barnard Bee Jr., who at the First Battle of Bull Run gave Brig. Gen. Thomas Jackson his famous nickname ("There stands Jackson like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!"). "We always heard about that," Dellinger says.
His appreciation for history is the thread running throughout his own story – service as an Army infantry officer, stints as Vienna's vice mayor and town councilman, and a construction career that's included renovation of centuries-old churches. Call him old-fashioned, but he's a man who wants to protect and preserve the community and country he loves.
Dellinger likes that the Legion has the same purpose, and he's all but made it a second profession. He cut his teeth at the post level, as vice commander, commander and adjutant. His enthusiasm and reputation earned him more responsibility – district commander, department commander, department membership chairman, and a dozen or so other positions. Nationally, he's headed the Economic, Legislative and National Security commissions.
"The reason I first joined was to help out," Dellinger says. "I never really sought office. There was always somebody calling and saying, ‘We need you to do this.' The opportunities I was given, I did to the best of my ability."
After a two-year campaign that's taken him to nearly every one of the Legion's 55 departments, he now has the top job. In August, Legionnaires elected Dellinger national commander at their 95th National Convention in Houston. But he's the first to say it's not about him. It's about continuing a legacy that stretches back to the Great War.
"We have a lot of people doing good things for our veterans and our communities around the country," he says. "I just want to be a part of that."
Born to build Dellinger's family came from Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and, before that, Germany's Black Forest. They were cabinetmakers, and Dellinger followed in his father's and grandfather's footsteps by becoming a carpenter.
By 9, he was delivering Vienna's Evening Star, and his route expanded tremendously when 4,000 new houses went up. For signing new subscribers, Dellinger won a trip to the 1964 World's Fair in New York – the farthest he'd ever been from home.
"A guy and I snuck into Shea Stadium to see part of the All-Star Game," he says. "That was fun."
At 13, he was drafted into the family trade. Grover Dellinger, a World War II Navy Seabee who had built airstrips in the South Pacific, put his sons to work sweeping floors and laying tile. Eventually Dellinger would start his own construction business, but not before he went to school and spent time in the military.
His older brother, David, was a tech sergeant in the Air Force, flying into Vietnam on a C5A transport. Dellinger, the first of his parents' four children to go to college, took the ROTC path.
He graduated with a criminology degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and thought he might be sent overseas, too.
"I was ready," he says. "I had no qualms at all about going to Vietnam to fight for our country. Isn't that the American way? Doesn't everybody feel that way?"
It didn't happen, though. The United States was withdrawing its forces, and Dellinger stayed at Fort Benning, Ga., where he was an officer of the day with the military police. There was occasional excitement, such as the trial of 2nd Lt. William Calley, who'd been charged with murder for his role in the My Lai massacre and was under house arrest. Dellinger and his MPs made sure Calley got to the courtroom and back.
He was assigned to the Army Reserve's 80th Training Command for the rest of his service, teaching drill instructors and conducting NCO academies as a weekend warrior. He separated in 1984 with the rank of captain.
Meanwhile, Dellinger had tested to become a police officer, but the reality was that he made more money at his father's company. He worked his way up to superintendent and decided to become his own boss in 1979.
"I built the Arlington County jail, so I did use my criminology degree," he says, laughing. "But you know you've really got to get out of the field when they implode your building and build a new one because it's out of date."
Hometown pride Dellinger and his wife of 25 years, Margaret, live in a 90-year-old colonial-style home in old Vienna. As befits a history buff, they've stuffed it with antiques, some made by or handed down from family – a three-wood table and children's rocking chair crafted by Dellinger's grandfather, a turn-of-the-century cherry china cabinet from Margaret's grandmother, a wooden refrigerator (1910), a hall tree (early 1900s), and a barley twist table (1880s). On the kitchen counter is an old piglet's trough they use as a spice rack.
The couple briefly dated in the early '80s, but the relationship didn't go anywhere. Five years later, they met again, playing co-ed softball. After the game, they went out for a couple of beers, and something clicked.
"We got to talking and danced a bit, and I said, ‘What do you think about trying to date again?'" Dellinger says. This time it lasted, and after asking Margaret's mother if he could have her daughter's hand, they wed. They have a son, Scott, and daughter, Anne.
"When we got married, I wanted to live in Maryland," Margaret admits. "He said, ‘No, we're going to live in Vienna. You'll love it.' And I really do. It has a small-town feel in a big city."
They've invested time and energy into helping the community maintain its appeal. Both are members of Historic Vienna, a group that promotes and preserves the town's heritage, and Dellinger was on the board of directors. He was also vice mayor and served three terms as a town councilman.
"Dan has been part of the fabric of the town for many years," says Mercury Payton, Vienna's town manager. "He has an outlook that is town first and service oriented. He is easy to talk to and positive about every aspect of the town. I can always pick up the phone and ask for his insight, because he has so many deep roots here."
Dellinger's civic career started more than a decade ago, when he went before the town to get permits and zoning for a building. Concerned that Vienna's architectural review board was headed in the wrong direction, Dellinger said he wanted to be on the board – and before long, he was appointed. "There was such a mismatch of buildings and no cohesiveness," he says. "It just wouldn't have been attractive."
Fifteen miles from Washington, D.C., Vienna manages to hold onto the character and activities of everyday America, with enviable schools, clean streets, and holiday parades and celebrations that swell the town to three times its size. That's why it's a popular place to live and raise a family, Dellinger says.
Best-kept secret For decades, Dyer-Gunnell Post 180 has been serving the people of Vienna, a fact that helped reel in Dellinger when he was recruited to join the Legion 32 years ago.
He loves to tell the story. One of his employees needed to borrow a wheelbarrow, and asked if he'd mind dropping it off at the local American Legion. No problem. Dellinger figured he'd grab a drink while he was there. Inside, three guys sat at the corner of the bar watching "F Troop."
"Are you a veteran?" one of the men asked. Dellinger nodded, and they started talking.
"After a while, he says, ‘You have $15 on you?'
I say, ‘Yes, I do.' He says, ‘Congratulations. You're the newest member of Post 180.'"
As Dellinger was leaving, Joe Bare, an old high school buddy, was coming in, and they quickly caught up. Bare headed the post nominating committee, and wondered if Dellinger would be interested in volunteering a couple of hours a month. Sure he would. At the next meeting, he was initiated as a member and promptly elected post adjutant.
"The best part is that the three guys sitting at the bar were all World War II veterans and past post commanders," Dellinger says. "They took me under their wing and taught me everything about The American Legion and what it did in our community: playgrounds, a children's Christmas party, Legion Baseball, the flags up and down Main Street. Those are put up by the Legion, not the town. We do a lot."
In the years since, he's spearheaded a number of additions and improvements to Post 180, including putting a second floor on the building. Dellinger floated the idea as post commander in 1986 and 1987, requesting permission to pay for studies. In 2002, the post finally got a permit to raise the roof and opened Patriot Hall, a spacious room that can accommodate 200 guests for weddings, parties and other events. An adjoining foyer has two large display cases – one for military uniforms, helmets, patches and photos, and another for the trophy collection of the post's Legion Baseball team.
"I got the idea from a post in Connecticut," Dellinger says.
He adopted another post's idea of a brick campaign, paving the entry to Patriot Hall with bricks purchased and placed in the memory of deceased veterans or as a tribute to the service of those still living.
Norm Fisette, a World War II and Korean War veteran who serves on Post 180's executive committee, says these kinds of projects – and his firm grasp of Legion policy and procedure – make Dellinger a valued leader and mentor among local veterans and across Virginia.
"They know Dan has done a lot of work for this post," Fisette says. "People rely on him to keep us straight in a lot of ways. He'll make an excellent national commander. He's extremely qualified and will serve the Legion well."
Dellinger's theme for his year in office is "Builiding for Tomorrow – Today." In a way, being commander isn't too different from his job as senior project manager at Chamberlain Construction, the general contracting firm from which he retired in June.
There, he specialized in rebuilding and restoring aging churches – work that required him to respect and revere the original structures while figuring out how to make them fresh and functional for new generations.
Thanks to a user-friendly website and social media, the Legion's message is reaching more veterans than ever before. But Dellinger is concerned that potential members simply don't know enough about what the Legion has done. They don't know that for nearly a century the Legion has been veterans' truest friend.
"I always say we're the second best-kept secret than the Masonic Lodge, and it's true," he says. "We're not promoting ourselves enough. We have a rich history, but is that enough to keep going forward? We need members if we're going to help our veterans and help our communities."
The problem is that we're just not asking, Dellinger continues. "You'd be amazed how many times people say, ‘Oh yeah, I've read about you. I've been meaning to join. I just haven't done it.' That's because nobody's come up to them and asked them. Our veterans aren't the same veterans who joined the Legion in 1919 or 1945. We have to do some evolving and adapting as we swing toward our 100th anniversary.
"We have a great foundation, but now it's time to do a little renovation."
Matt Grills is managing editor of The American Legion Magazine.