Shortly after the end of World War II in 1952, a group of veterans native to Lincolnwood began hanging out at a local watering hole, recruiting fellow vets to join a social club for local armed services members.
Sixty years later, Lincolnwood American Legion Post 1226 has become an institution in Lincolnwood, functioning both as the social arm of the community and as a bonding group for vets.
The last of the 51 founding fathers who started the Post in 1953 — Charlie O’Brien — passed away in May, but over the years a dedicated group of vets has kept the tradition alive by welcoming new members with open arms and by remaining a constant presence at community events like the annual Memorial Day parade and the Lincolnwood Fest, where Post members host popular Bingo games every summer.
The Post’s deep history in Lincolnwood stems back to the early 1950s, when Henry Proesel was mayor. He urged his son Jim Proesel and his friend Alf Kowalski to start recruiting vets to start a Post in Lincolnwood.
Kowalski and Proesel were known to hang out at the “Chicken and the Ruff” restaurant on Lincoln Avenue (Now the site of Lou Malnati’s), where they gathered together a group of young military men willing to join their Post.
The Post originally met in the home of one of the members, and later raised enough money through fundraising to build what today is the Lincolnwood Community Center on Lincoln and Morse Avenues.
The Post headquarters became the social hotspot in Lincolnwood — the go-to place for dances, parties bingo games, pot luck dinners and of course was the site of the Post’s monthly meetings on Monday nights, where members took care of the Post’s business and hung around afterward, exchanging war stories and shooting the breeze.
It was a packed house when former Commander Don Roman used to hold bingo games each Wednesday night for 51 weeks out of the year for 15 years, current Post Commander Ed Smith said.
But over the years, declining membership has waned at the Post, and the building was sold to the village in 1989 to be used as the community center.
The Post moved down into the basement level, where they’ve continued to hold meetings and private social gatherings ever since.
Public events, however, have gone extinct as a result of declining membership and less funding to work with, said Daisy Rivera, junior vice commander of the Post and one of the club’s only two female members.
“We don’t have the manpower to do public events anymore,” Rivera said. “But being here still feels like you’re with your second family — it feels good to be at the meetings and see familiar faces.”
Today, the basement area still looks like a clubhouse for local vets, complete with a TV, worn vintage couches and a cozy bar area.
Card tables that guests long ago used for Saturday night social night caps and late night poker games still sit in the corner, and portraits of each of the Post’s 30 or so commanders line one side of the wall.
“It’s still like a clubhouse where we come down here and hang out, but it’s not the same as it once was — you get no talk of war stories anymore,” said Ernie Scott, a Korean War veteran who has been a Post member for more than 60 years, including with Posts in Ohio and Florida.
A generation gap has caused membership levels to decline in American Legion Posts across the U.S. during the past few decades, said John Socki, senior vice commander of Post 1226.
Despite declining membership, the Post remains a strong presence in the community, and a large part of that is taking regular trips to the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago, where they help educate patients on the benefits available to vets.
Socki said the Post reaches out to younger vets, particularly those returning from recent conflicts in the Middle East, but many of them who have younger families say they just don’t have the time to commit.
“The younger generations see the older guys walking in the parade wearing the (signature Post cap) and they sometimes don’t realize younger people can join too,” Socki said.
Scott compares the attitudes of younger vets today with how the post-Vietnam war vets felt about the WWII era of vets.
“We thought they were the old guys, and that generation gap is still there today between our era and the current one,” Scott said. “Making the Post more attractive socially to the younger generation is a work in progress.”