Memorial Day celebration at American Legion Post 416 in Encinitas, Calif., on Monday, May 29, 2017. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker for The American Legion)

Post 416 reinvents itself with passion, community events

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George L. Barlow’s affiliation with American Legion Post 416 in California began innocently enough.

One night Barlow’s date wanted to go for a walk with him and her dog before heading out. On the walk, Barlow noticed an older gentleman carrying boxes into the post. Barlow’s offer to help was immediately accepted.

After he completed his task, bartender Louise told Barlow that he should join the post “because all of us old suckers are dying.”

That was about 10 years ago, a time when the post was stagnant. At the time, the post offered Saturday dinner and Sunday brunch. Now the post offers meals six days a week in addition to creative functions that attract younger veterans, their families and other community members.

“The more I learn and the more I am engaged, the more I love the place,” said Barlow, a Navy veteran who was elevated to post commander on June 10. “It’s been wonderful how many people have been involved with The American Legion over the years and what the Legion does for veterans.”

The post is located in downtown Encinitas, outside San Diego, and one block from the Pacific Ocean. “We’re the post at the coast,” Barlow surmised.

While it’s a prime location for the post, it hasn’t always been able to attract members. In fact, several years ago its future was in question. The post wasn’t generating revenue. Few people were dropping by. Post members were not participating in community activities.

“The post was not in great shape,” said Steve Lewandowski, who served as post commander for the past three years. “It was pretty bleak. We were going to have to shut the doors within a year. And there was no plan to save it.”

But Legion members — including Lewandowski and Barlow — set out to change things. They presented a positive outlook, started networking and recruited other veterans. “A lot of opportunities presented themselves for a lot of different things,” Barlow said. “Everything began to progress. We saw attendance at meetings go from five to 10 to 15 and now we’ll have a full room of 30 people for our meetings. That is very encouraging.”

Also encouraging is the number of volunteer hours by post members. Those went from several thousand annually to 17,000 hours last year, Lewandowski said. “There’s a whole new cadre of newer people who are volunteering,” he explained. “You know energy begets energy. Negative energy begets negative energy. Positive energy begets positive energy. Now there’s an abundance of positive energy.”

That energy has helped power new initiatives that are helping to transcend the post. For example, one of the post’s most successful events is serving as a place to watch the annual Army-Navy football game. Navy veterans in the area had difficulty finding a location that would be large enough to host a watch party.

In stepped Post 416.

“We became the unofficial headquarters for the Army-Navy football game,” Barlow said. “It’s grown. We had 200 people the first year, and 400 last year.”

Brady Beauchamp, a post-9/11 veteran who served in the Navy for 13 years, joined about 18 months ago after attending the Army-Navy viewing at the post. “It was a very inviting atmosphere,” he said. “We all tell fun stories. It’s fun to be in that atmosphere. When I came to The American Legion and experienced this – it was the exact opposite of what my original perceptions had been.”

The post has also made a commitment to serving as a community spot for Memorial Day. Hundreds of veterans, community members and others visit the post for a patriotic event that is part remembering veterans who have passed and part street festival.

“Last year (2016) was the first year for Memorial Day that we closed the street out front of the post,” Barlow said. “We had 15 to 18 band members, a half dozen bagpipers, politicians, food, rides for kids, and stuff for families so that people could honor the fallen.”

The post also started a quarterly Living History series, featuring a veteran sharing his or her story. “Our first was Lester Tenney, who was a POW-MIA who survived the Bataan Death March,” Barlow said. “He came to speak to our post and there was not a dry eye in the post. He was one heck of a special guy.”

Other speakers have included Medal of Honor recipient and Navy SEAL Michael E. Thornton and World War II flying ace Col. Dean Caswell. “We get that information out in the media and it attracts people who can become Legionnaires, Auxiliary, Sons and even Riders,” he said.

Post leaders realize they also need to refurbish and expand their building, which dates back to 1932. They have raised some money to improve the first floor, add a second floor and increase parking. Up next is a public fundraising phase.

“It has gotten to the point where we understand that as membership grows and expectations increase, we feel that we need a better facility to do our community outreach and come together as a family of veterans,” said Beauchamp, who is the post finance director.

Community support is what won over Peter Rolf Ohnstad when, as a single father, he took his sons to the post for home-cooked meals. “The Legion post was here for me when I needed it, as a single parent,” said Ohnstad, who played American Legion Baseball as a youth in Minnesota. “I got involved off and on throughout my career. As a result, I got the Legion Riders chapter started here about four or five years ago.”

A member for 20 years, Ohnstad has seen the lows of the past and the highs of today.

“We’re growing, we’re expanding,” he said. “We’ve got great people here. We’re becoming more Legion-like. We are doing more of the things we should be doing. Our volunteer hours here are second to none. The volunteerism has been exceptional. We are not money-rich, but we are hours-rich. And that has been a real key to this post.”

Another asset is the dedication exhibited by members like Ohnstad and Lewandowski, who have long ties to the Legion, or are somewhat new like Barlow and Beauchamp.

The passion Lewandowski shows for the Legion can easily be traced back to his roots. Both of his grandfathers were World War I veterans, and they — like his father and uncle — were Legionnaires.

“I was around the Legion my entire life,” he said. “One of my grandpas gave me an American Legion lapel pin, and I used to wear that to school when I was a kid. Both my grandpas had The American Legion Magazine on their coffee tables and they went to Legion meetings and marched in parades. Since it was both grandpas, I kind of thought everyone grew up that way.”

The Legion’s commitment to service also left an impression. Lewandowski recalled a story his grandfathers shared about a severely cold winter back in the 1930s in his home state of Iowa.

“The Dubuque American Legion went out and got all this coal and wood so that families wouldn’t be cold during that winter,” he said. “That’s during the Great Depression. We have pictures of the cars and trucks lining the main street of Dubuque. The Legionnaires — many in their great coats from World War I because they didn’t have the money to buy stuff — were loading up those trucks and delivering the coal and the wood to families in Dubuque that needed it.

“The Legion was the organization that took it upon themselves to make it better. So the Legion has always had kind of a special spot in my heart.”