How many times before this year has The American Legion had its national convention in Houston?
Twice. The city is a relative newcomer to the roster of Legion convention destinations. The first national convention here, the 53rd, was in 1971. Some 13,000 registrants took in the convention and related events, shuttling between the hot outdoors and air-conditioned buildings – a recurring theme in Legion press coverage of the event.
A source of much debate and controversy that year was what position the Legion should take on the burgeoning relationship between President Richard Nixon and China. A 38-point policy to combat drug use in the United States was approved. Shimon Peres, now president of Israel, addressed the floor; at the time, he was Israel’s Minister of Transportation and Commerce. That year, more than 50 Vietnam War-era Legionnaires from across the country conducted a multi-platform American Legion Vietnam Veterans Workshop, focusing on reintegration, education and employment, Legion involvement and more for returning U.S. servicemembers – not dissimilar to workshops offered at this year’s convention.
And John H. Geiger of Illinois was elected national commander; years later, Geiger was instrumental in the building of the Legion’s operations facility in Indianapolis, and following his death in 2011 the facility was renamed in his honor.
The national convention, the 61st, returned to Houston in 1979. Nearly 20,000 attendees again braved the heat while doing the business of The American Legion. Sessions were conducted in the downtown Sam Houston Coliseum, which was demolished in 1998 and whose site now hosts the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. The starting Vietnam War date affecting Legion membership eligibility was pushed back from 1964 to 1961. Hamilton Fish, the 91-year-old co-author of the Legion’s Preamble, addressed the floor. The National Convention Parade covered two miles of downtown and went on for four hours. Legionnaires attended an energy forum to discuss the then-current “crisis.”
And sadly, the 61st National Convention saw the loss of a great link in the Legion’s history – Past National Commander Harry Colmery, considered the principal architect of the GI Bill, died at the end of the convention after participating in a founders luncheon.