When Dominic D. DiFrancesco was campaigning for American Legion national commander, one of his stops was in Massachusetts. It was there that Past National Commander John P. “Jake” Comer, knowing DiFrancesco’s Italian heritage, took his guest to the North End, known as Boston’s Little Italy.
“He was a great lover of Italian pastries, and when he came to Massachusetts … we took him down to a pastry shop that was one of the best in the country,” said Comer, who served as national commander four years prior to DiFrancesco. “He really loved the pastry. So when he became (national) commander, I brought to the (national convention in 1991 in Phoenix) quite a bit of the pastries. When I walked into his room, he and his wife and family all thought it was the greatest thing. He loved it.”
Comer’s friendship with DiFrancesco, who passed away Sept. 6 at age 88, spanned five decades. Comer called the Pennsylvania Legionnaire “a wonderful, good, decent human being. I’m very sorry for his loss. I really am. He was a good friend.”
A Korean War Navy veteran and 67-year member of American Legion Post 594 in Middletown, Pa., DiFrancesco spent 38 years as a federal employee, retiring as a Plans and Resource Specialist. He told The American Legion Magazine in 1991, "My father handed me my Legion card the day I returned home after my discharge. My hometown of Steeltown, Pa., was always an American Legion town, and I grew up knowing about the Legion's community involvement."
DiFrancesco’s involvement in the organization grew, as he served in leadership positions at the post and department level, serving as Pennsylvania’s state commander from 1986 to 1987. The man who succeeded him as department commander, Ronald F. Conley, would later serve as American Legion national commander from 2002 to 2003.
Conley said his friendship with DiFrancesco preceded their service as department commander and continued through the years, despite DiFrancesco living in Harrisburg and Conley on the western side of the state.
“Dominic was very dedicated, and he truly was a Legionnaire’s Legionnaire,” Conley said. “He loved The American Legion, and he loved working for the veterans of our country. And I think our connection to the veterans of Pennsylvania was important as we traveled together. I did my thing, and he kind of did his thing. When he was national commander he went to Boston and visited a homeless shelter there. When I was the state commander I started a homeless program here in Pennsylvania. So we kind of traveled the same path.”
DiFrancesco went on to chair the National Legislative Commission and National Membership & Post Activities Committee and served on the National Executive Committee before being elected national commander.
While leading the organization – and using the theme "Success is a journey and not a destination” – DiFrancesco raised awareness about the veteran homelessness issue, called for a Department of Veterans Affairs budget that kept up with the need presented by an again veteran population, and called for legislation “to assist our newest cadre of veterans, the Desert Storm troops. We must secure adequate benefits for these young veterans as quickly and decisively as the Persian Gulf War was won, because as we all know, the nation, and especially the Washington politicians, tend to forget the brave deeds of veterans all too quickly. We must press the Congress to enact the new GI Bill for Desert Storm veterans while the nation still basks in the victory of the Persian Gulf War.”
DiFrancesco also brought attention to the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. "It took 20 years for our government to recognize post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans of combat,” he told 1991 National Convention delegates. “We need not wait another 20 years to treat this condition. We must provide the help that is needed immediately for those who have experienced the horrors of war and the stress of family separation.”
Another issue DiFrancesco spoke often about during his tenure was for a full accounting of American prisoners of war and those missing in action. "The American Legion will continue to intensify our efforts to resolve the POW/MIA issue,” he said during his acceptance speech. “And I mean not only the POW/MIAs unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, but in all wars. There is an apparent lack of responsiveness on the part of some government officials who are responsible for resolving the POW/MIA issue. This must stop now.”
Months later, in a March 1992 Commander’s Message, he called the nation’s quest to repatriate its Vietnam POW/MIAs “a failure. Nineteen years after President Richard Nixon declared that ‘...all of our courageous prisoners of war [have been] set free and [are] here back home in America,’ 2,267 American families still live in a twilight zone of anxiety and uncertainty. The war is over, but their loved ones have not returned. Their lives are on hold waiting for answers that may never come. America is at peace, yet they have no peace.”
Comer remembers DiFrancesco’s passion for bringing home U.S. POWs and MIAs, as well as another issue close to his heart. “That was one of his main speeches as he traveled throughout the country,” Comer said. “The other thing he was very involved with was the flag amendment. Dom stressed that very heavily, along with the POW issue.”
Under DiFrancesco’s leadership, American Legion membership reached 3,115,340 – the third-highest membership total in the history of the organization and the highest total since then.
DiFrancesco was inducted into the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs’ Hall of Fame in 2001. Along the way, Conley said his friend was good at making sure those behind him in The American Legion got the training they needed.
“He ended up telling me about potential leaders from his area,” Conley said. “He would work with and promote people. That’s the type of person he was.”
Comer said that concern for the future of the organization that DiFrancesco showed is one shared by Comer and was emphasized by Past National Commander John H. Geiger, who headed the organization from 1971 to 1972 and passed away in 2011.
“It’s so important,” Comer said. “John Geiger’s theme to all of us coming along, and I sort of carried the same ball, is when you go around the country and you go into these states, ask them to introduce you to those that they feel would be future leaders. You’ve got to stop and talk to the Legionnaires that are coming along. You’ve got to let them know that they can stop you in the hallway and discuss something.”
A viewing is scheduled for Sept. 12 from 2-5 p.m. at Wiedeman Funeral Home, 357 S. Harrisburg St., Oberlin, PA 17113. A visitation is scheduled for 10 a.m. and a Mass for 11 a.m. Sept. 13 at Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, 280 N. Race St., Middletown, PA 17057, followed by lunch at American Legion Post 594 in Middletown, 137 E. High Street, Middletown, PA 17057.
Condolences may be sent to the family at 227 E. High St., Apt. E2, Middletown, PA 17057-1925.