Veterans bring life back into historic Florida Post 33

Veterans bring life back into historic Florida Post 33

The historic home of Frank R. Marston American Legion Post 33 in Pensacola, Fla., had been a vital part of the community with its swing dances for all ages, financial assistance to those in need, a safe place for youth to do homework and more. After years of neglect, and the loss of its charter for a year due to an unfortunate circumstance, the post fell into disrepair. But that is all changing thanks to a group of enthusiastic veterans who saw the history and potential of the post home and the need to reinvigorate it back into the community – both inside and out.

“We love that building but not just the building … we love Post 33 and the potential of Post 33 as an American Legion post,” said Nicole Dickson, second vice commander of Post 33.

Thanks to a $140,000 grant from Pensacola Community Redevelopment (PCR), the exterior of Post 33 will be rehabilitated, while volunteer work and fundraising efforts are helping with the cleaning and repairing of the inside to create a safe, welcoming space for veterans, youth and the community.

Dickson said Hilary Halford with PCR helped make the grant possible. “She came to us and said, ‘I care about veterans, I care about this building and I want to save this building.’ So she did.”

Post 33 is named in memory of U.S. Army Capt. Frank R. Marston Jr., who was Pensacola’s first casualty of World War I. At the age of 25, Marston died in the second battle of the Marne on July 15, 1918. Before losing its charter more than 100 years later in 2019, the lack of upkeep and care for many years took its toll on the post. In 2020, a group of veterans not affiliated with Post 33 became concerned with its deterioration and began restoring it by hand. This included Dickson.

“I toured the post and fell in love with the building. It’s beautiful and it has a stage; I’m an actor by trade. I saw the stage, the dance hall and some of the other veterans and I said, ‘this is somewhere I really want to be.’ And I really want to help establish the building as a space for community, as a space for veterans and a space for the arts. It doesn’t look like any other Legion I’ve been in; it’s so special.”

Thanks to the efforts of those rehabbing the post and showing pride in making it an active American Legion post again, Post 33 has its charter back. And construction on the exterior of the post home gets underway in April with a completion time of October.

The grant covers a new roof, paint, rehabbing of doors and windows, and landscaping. And an iron rail, designed by a post member, will be installed outside the post commander’s office with the post number in Roman numerals.

“Watch us grow, watch us change. It’s going to go from the ugly duckling to the beautiful swan,” said Post 33 Commander Rick Cusimano, who rejoined the post to restore the post and to help invigorate it back into the community. “The post is so important because of its age and history, but also because it’s a part of the community. We have to become a part of the community again because if we don’t get into the community, people are not going to know we’re here.”

Right now, the community is seeing Post 33’s presence and wants to help them succeed.

Community support

The Pensacola News Journal recently featured a story about the revitalization efforts of Post 33; as a result, Dickson received an email from an Army veteran who is with an electric contracting firm and said they would like to come help the post with its electrical work. “Now that we are getting the word out people are coming together and saying, ‘Let’s help them,’” Cusimano said.

For the past two years, Post 33 has been the beneficiary of Old Hickory Whiskey Bar’s charity event around St. Patrick’s Day, where cocktails are auctioned off. Last year the event raised $1,800 for the post; this year they almost doubled that at over $3,500.

“Two cocktails went for $1,000. This shows you that the community is supporting this organization. And they should. We are a veteran organization in a military community,” Dickson said. “It just makes sense. But half the work is getting the word out.”

Dickson said it’s thanks to her friend and Old Hickory Whiskey Bar manager Darren Campbell that Post 33 has been the charity of choice for two years in a row.

“Darren has been instrumental in helping Post 33 garner community attention. It’s so important to me to have that community support because they are a very well-known bar in Pensacola, so they have been able to extend our reach beyond veterans, beyond other places in the community.”

Old Hickory Whiskey Bar also supported Post 33 through its involvement with Campari liqueur’s National Day of Service in September. While Campari donated rollers and brushes, volunteers from the bar and Cusimano’s work at Navy Federal Credit Union donated time to paint the inside of Post 33. The painting was completed by students from the JROTC at Pensacola High School.

“It was then that you could really start feeling that you know people do love the building,” Cusimano said. “Every time I’m here people stop in and say, ‘You’ve got to save the building’ because it’s so important.”

Legion mentorship

As mentioned, most of the veterans helping in the restoration are new to The American Legion, including Dickson, and younger – in their 40s and 50s. Cusimano said, “It makes me happy that these younger veterans are coming in and they want to do something with the building, they want to do more Legion things. That’s important because we’re helping veterans, we’re becoming part of the community, and we’re telling people what the Legion is all about.”

Mentorship also has been vital to helping the new members thrive. To help them gain institutional knowledge and understand their leadership roles, Cusimano and Dickson said the support at the post, district and department levels has been outstanding.

“(Western Area Commander) Sonny Decker has been involved with Post 33 from Day 1,” said Dickson. “He’s counseled us, he’s taught us a lot about the organization and how to function as an American Legion. He’s just been such an incredible support.” Dickson added that other support has come in the form of posts providing volunteers or monetary donations. Their generosity “gives us something to look up to and to look forward to doing of our own one day,” Cusimano said.

Even national leadership has visited the post to extend support; National Vice Commander Patricia Harris visited the post with Department of Florida Commander Eunice Butts.

Future of Post 33

The vision of what Post 33 members want to see happen inside the post walls is endless because they have the space. Besides the stage, there’s a kitchen with an original stone fireplace, ballroom, and several large meeting rooms both upstairs and in the basement. “The potential for the building is enormous,” Dickson said. It even can be rented out for events, which is how David Henderson and his wife joined. They were looking to rent the hall and after speaking with Dickson, they joined Post 33 “and jumped in with both feet.”

“I’m excited to be a part of something that is moving forward,” said Henderson, Post 33’s judge advocate and public affairs officer. 

Henderson is looking into establishing programs at the post such helping feed homeless veterans, hosting craft fairs and re-establishing the school program where kids come to the post to do their homework with the help of veterans.

“In rebuilding the history of Post 33, we want to rebuild the school program part and let people know that we are here and that we can help,” he said. “We are focusing on the four pillars of The American Legion and trying to get back to being an American Legion post and service to community through that first and then as a venue second.

“I want to see the American Legion post be that service back to the community. To bring back that reminder that veterans are still helping in the community long after our service ended; we’re still serving where our hearts have been. I would like Post 33 to become that shining example of a place where service happens.”

Overall, creating a supportive, safe place for veterans, youth and the community is a passion for the veterans of Post 33.

“My husband is a 20-year retired veteran,” said Dickson, an Army veteran. “We have seen the difficulty that veterans can have firsthand. For example, navigating the VA or knowing where to go to get VA benefits, to really have a point of contact for something they might need. A lot of us at (Post) 33 feel very strongly about (Post) 33 becoming a place where veterans can go; younger veterans sometimes don’t feel they have a place to go and Post 33 wants to be that place. It’s really hard when you get out to find the people to build a community with and Post 33 wants to be there for those veterans who are just getting out, who don’t really have a community of their own and we want to be able to support them.

“That’s really why we all stuck around … we are that younger generation. When we found each other, we really found a little family and we just sort of got together and was like, ‘OK, we’re going to do this together.’”

The post currently has around 50 members and is actively getting a Sons of The American Legion squadron and Auxiliary unit underway. Cusimano believes ones the exterior of Post 33 is complete it will drive people to join.

“As soon as the outside of the building starts looking nice again, that’s where the draw is going to come in,” he said. “It’s going to start attracting more members, but it’s also going to start attracting the community we belong to and that’s where we’re going to start really accelerating in the things we want to get done.”

What drives Cusimano to continue the path forward with Post 33 is “the memories the building has with people” and the possibility of once again helping the community through financial assistance. A visitor stopped by the post and reminisced with Cusimano when their grandparents did ballroom dancing there 40 years ago. Then a JROTC student helping paint at the post shared that his grandmother told him Post 33 helped her family monetarily in a time of great need.

“I thought that’s the things I want to become a part of again … we can help veterans, we can help the community, we can be a place for kids to come and be safe,” he said. “The biggest thing is just to be a part of everything. Those are the stories that I love hearing and that’s what drives me to continue with what we’re doing.”

If you speak with those helping re-energizing life back into Post 33, you will hear in their voice passion for the post home and a strong drive to be part of the Pensacola community again. This makes it understandable why the community is rallying around them. “Our enthusiasm is kind of infectious,” Dickson said. “If you care about that building at all, you’re going to join.”