Back in the spotlight

A little over a year ago, the future of American Legion Post 594 in Eagan, Minn., was uncertain at best. The post commander at the time had reached out to district and department leadership and said that despite having just under 80 members, there was little or no participation by post members and that he was going to step down. Turning in the post’s charter was discussed, but district and state leadership didn’t want that to happen.

A post meeting was scheduled to discuss the situation. John Flynn, who had been an active Legionnaire in Connecticut and California before moving to Minnesota and becoming a member of the department’s headquarters post for 17 years, was one of the Legionnaires who attended.

Flynn had joined Post 594 earlier in the year after receiving a revitalization effort phone call. And after the spring meeting, he was the post’s commander. Flynn hit the ground running and, working with Post Adjutant Wayne Beierman, has completely turned things around at the post located just outside of the Twin Cities area.

“He’s taken off and just ran with it,” Minnesota District 3 Commander Mike Maxa said. “It’s been a tremendous effort. His success is over the top. He’s recruited and brought members into the post. He’s got the post visible out in the community. A lot of the people in the community didn’t even know a post was here.”

Flynn was one of those people. “I’d been a member of the Legion for 32 years, and I’d never realized that Eagan even had a post,” he said.

At the meeting last spring, Flynn learned more about the post’s situation. “I asked a lot of questions, offered some suggestions, and at the end of it the commander said, ‘I’m ready to step down,’” Flynn said. “There was an election held, and I became the commander.

“The first thing I did was meet with the past commander and asked what the challenges were: What worked well, what didn’t work well. Then I made a decision to get a hold of possibly 10 post members and invite them out for coffee. I introduced myself and asked them the same questions.”

What Flynn heard was that where the post – which doesn’t have a facility – was meeting was “kind of a drag” and that the post wasn’t having regularly scheduled meetings, getting together sometimes as little as once a year. Members also said the post did very little in its community, and communication from post leadership had been poor.

Flynn saw an opportunity and then went to community leaders to offer the Legion’s services in helping with flag etiquette and displays on municipal buildings and parks. “It made a difference,” he said. “That kind of got us in the spotlight.”

Flynn began visiting local businesses to ask them to help promote the Legion, which also resulted in word-of-mouth advertising for the post. And Flynn worked out a deal with Cedarvale Lanes bowling alley to host the post’s meetings in its banquet room.

“The first meeting we had, the place was set up like the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom,” Flynn said. “It was that nice.”

Flynn also reached out to department headquarters post members to get them to transfer to Post 594, stressing the importance of numbers. “If I go to the cities and I say I have 70 members, I might get ‘Oh, OK,’” he said. “If I say I have 150 members, I probably have their attention.”

Between that and his other efforts, the membership has grown to more than 200 members.

But Flynn insists on sharing credit with Beierman, who became post adjutant after Flynn took over as commander. Beierman joined the Legion originally in 1971, had been inactive for a period of time and then rejoined in September of 2016.

“It was time, I felt, in my life for me to give back to other Legionnaires,” Beierman said. “At Rolling Thunder in 2015 I realized there were veterans there – younger veterans – who needed just somebody to talk to. Veterans can talk to veterans, and we seem to have a camaraderie, no matter what service we’ve been in.

“When John called me … I went to the first meeting and they asked to have an adjutant. I gave it about 10 days. Nobody signed up, so I said ‘I’ll sign up.’ If you’re going to get into something, do it.”

Flynn and Beierman have worked to raise the post’s profile by conducting a 9/11 tribute in Eagan for the first time since 2002, by creating a post color guard, sponsoring an ages 16 and over American Legion Baseball team, purchasing a flag etiquette book for the school district’s first-grade classes, and both helped out and raised funds for a local food pantry. This July, Post 594 will be the first veterans group to lead Eagan’s Fourth of July parade.

A recent example of raising the post’s profile was its sponsoring of a program to honor students at Eagan High School who have chosen to enter the military after graduation. With the parents and friends in attendance, each student was introduced and explained why they chose the military. They were presented with pins and plaques, and Post 594 will cover the price of their first year’s membership dues once they are on active duty.

The ceremony was a collaboration between Post 594 and Eagan High School teacher Paul Kovach, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. Kovach joined Post 594 earlier this year after meeting Flynn while the two were serving on the local Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Committee, which aims to create awareness for the purpose of connecting servicemembers and their families with community support, training, services and resources.

“I’m a teacher in this building, and every year I am so proud of the kids that do join the military,” Kovach said. “When John suggested it, it was a no-brainer.”

Flynn and Beierman say events like the high school program both show that the post cares about its community while getting the post on its community’s radar.

“We both had the vision that we wanted to help veterans,” Beierman said. “We’ve worked community service … to be out there showing what vets can do. My thing has been just to get people involved. If you get people involved and they feel a part of it, they come on board. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Maxa said he makes sure to share Post 594’s successes with other posts in his district, whose membership currently sits at 97 percent. “I use (Flynn) as an example when I’m traveling post to post and use his success story,” he said. “This can be done. You just have to put forth some effort and work the program. Here’s the results.”