In 1979, Richard J. Santos was sworn in as commander of American Legion Post 136 in Greenbelt, Md. Twenty-two years later, on the stage in the Harry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio, Santos was sworn in as American Legion national commander.
And both times, American Legion Past National Commander Clarence M. Bacon was there to swear Santos into office. It was a part of a 44-year friendship in which Santos viewed Bacon – who passed away Nov. 10 at age 95 – as a trusted mentor.
“It would behoove anyone to have a Clarence Bacon behind them to always talk to him,” Santos said. “It would be a mistake to not take advantage of the knowledge and the perspective he had of The American Legion, and of life, too.”
Bacon, who was the last living American Legion national commander to serve in World War II, was elected to the position in 1984 and was a 68-year Legionnaire, most recently at Greenbelt Post 136. Prior to and following his year as national commander, Bacon served in dozens of other positions within the organization from the post to the national level. Along the way he developed friendships with other Legionnaires across the nation.
Past National Commander John P. “Jake” Comer said he attended multiple American Legion Department of Maryland conventions because of his friendship with Bacon. Those trips included visits to famous seafood restaurants. “I’ll never have another crab cake without thinking of Past National Commander Clarence Bacon,” Comer said with a laugh. “He took us to the best restaurants in Maryland.”
Comer praised Bacon as “a gentleman. There’s nothing wrong you could ever say about Clarence. Most of the time he was dressed up in a suit. He was just a gentleman personified. And he was a blue-cap Legionnaire personified. And they loved him wherever he went.”
And Bacon loved the blue-cap Legionnaire. In an interview with The American Legion Magazine in 1984, Bacon said, "The blue capper represents the Legion in the community, and it's there – in them and in what they do – that the Legion either lives or dies."
As his tenure came to a close during the 1985 National Convention in New Orleans, Bacon again praised Legionnaires working hard at the post level. “And the 2.6 million Legionnaires in our 16,000 posts around the world who roll up their sleeves and make our programs work receive my most grateful appreciation," he told convention delegates. "It is the grassroots volunteers who make this organization go. We all owe them every ounce of support we can muster."
Santos said Bacon’s love for The American Legion at the grass-roots level was evident. “He felt the post was the foundation … and any kind of issues you had at the post would definitely affect everything going up,” he said. “He melded in well with blue-cap Legionnaires. Maybe two years before going in as national commander, he was still bowling in a Friday night (American Legion) bowling league. He always kept that contact.”
Santos said Bacon was the leader of the Department of Maryland “and was always the one trying to keep everyone in the middle of the road and concentrate on what our mission was in The American Legion. He was the helmsman. He steered the ship by being adaptive. He was one hell of a planner.
“He always worked behind the scenes to get things done. He wasn’t there to embarrass anyone or put them in a bad light. He always did it in a gentleman’s way. I wish we had 10 million more like him.”
As national commander, Bacon called on Legionnaires to rally in support against proposed cuts to the Veterans Administration. "On behalf of all 2.5 million Legionnaires and 1 million members of The American Legion Auxiliary, I extend this challenge – this call to action," Bacon said in The American Legion Magazine. "Write your senators and representatives in Washington. Call your congressional district offices, or visit them and make sure they understand where you, as an American veteran and citizen, stand on these issues.
"Make your message clear! As Legionnaires, veterans and Americans, we are strongly opposed to VA benefit cuts. Sacrificing the nation's 28 million veterans is not the way to balance the budget!"
Bacon also called for VA benefits for veterans exposed to Agent Orange and was able to announce the first round of results from a Legion-sponsored independent study by Columbia University of Vietnam veterans who came into contact with the defoliant chemical. He also saw the need for women veterans to receive proper treatment and care from VA, writing in The American Legion Magazine, “The special needs of examination and health care for the woman veteran also have been a primary focus in recent years. We are heartened by the efforts directed toward health-care techniques involving privacy of treatment and an awareness of gender-related disorders. We intend to see these veterans receive their full range of benefits and services.”
And seeing a surge across the nation in missing children, youth suicides, and teen drug and alcohol use, Bacon urged American Legion posts to “become focal points for community action and provide the coordination and guidance necessary to successfully counter these problems.”
Bacon also was a Korean War veteran with a 30-year career in the Department of the Navy. After retiring in 1980, he founded C. M. Bacon Associates, a firm specializing in computer logistical planning and management consulting. Utilizing the GI Bill, Bacon earned degrees in accounting and business management, and also completed graduate work at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces and the University of Maryland.
Past National Commander Daniel A. Ludwig first met Bacon while serving as a district commander in the Department of Minnesota during Bacon’s national commander visit to the state. “He was an unbelievably brilliant man,” Ludwig said. “He certainly had a passion for this country, for The American Legion and for veterans.”
Ludwig said Bacon was similar to other World War II veterans who had served as American Legion leaders. “They all were great thinkers, and they all were voices of reason. Clarence was in that category as well. From deep experience, they saw things in a logical light that sometimes some of us folks who were younger and less experienced didn’t seem able to grasp.”
Past National Commander Ronald F. Conley also saw in Bacon a trusted leader and advisor who “always gave advice to make sure you stayed on the right path. I appreciated his advice that he would give. I appreciated his support that he gave. He’s truly going to be missed, that’s for sure. He knew his Legion, that’s for sure.”
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Bacon will be laid to rest on Nov. 20 in a private ceremony at Crownsville Veterans Cemetery in Maryland. The Department of Maryland is planning a life remembrance ceremony when restrictions have eased.
Condolences can be sent to the Clarence Bacon Family, 5450 Whitley Park Terrace, Apt. 705, Bethesda, MD 20814.
To view Past National Commander Bacon’s PNC Perspectives video, click here.