On Nov. 9, 2008, when Nathan Lehr attended the charter presentation for Newfoundland and Labrador Command’s newest branch, Pasadena No. 68, he was carrying on a family tradition. His father, also named Nathan Lehr, was a charter member of the province’s last new branch, Gambo No. 67, when it was established in 1976.
Although 375 kilometres and a generation separate the two events, they are a testament to how memorial and commemoration serve as strong motivation for Legionnaires throughout the generations and across the land.
In November 2007, after the dedication of Pasadena’s Peace Memorial, a few citizens with military experience began discussing founding a new branch in the town of about 3,500 in west Newfoundland. “I had been a 26-year member of the Legion some 20-odd years ago,” says Past President Ralph Rice, a charter member. “I was interested in re-establishing my roots.”
The hard work of a dozen or so like-minded individuals resulted in granting of a charter in September of 2008, followed by election of officers in October and presentation of the charter and consecration of the colours in November. The branch’s first major event—its first poppy campaign—culminated with placing a wreath on Remembrance Day at the town memorial. Commemoration continues to be a priority, with plans to start a Memorial Wall in the branch and to get Legion members out again this year to speak to students leading up to Remembrance Day and encourage entries in the literary and poster contests.
From 14 charter members, the branch grew to 25 ordinary and associate members before the official ceremonies in November of 2008 and to more than 70 in just 18 months. For the first year the branch shared space with another organization, but then was able to buy a building that formerly housed an antique store and tea room. The branch occupies one half of the building and leases the other to a popular fast food franchise, providing a steady income to help support the mortgage.
Tapping into Newfoundland’s strong military tradition has helped build membership, said President Sid Kennedy, himself a veteran. A lot of people were members of branches in nearby towns, “but as they aged, they didn’t like to be travelling on the road so much.” Some had allowed memberships to lapse.
Although about a dozen members are transfers from Deer Lake and Corner Brook, 22 and 30 kilometres away respectively, the majority are new members, including current membership chairman Jim Humber, who mistakenly thought military service was a prerequisite to Legion membership. After being told the only requirement is Canadian citizenship, he signed on. “I love being out in the community and…talking to the public. It’s one of the big reasons why I joined.”
Humber’s strategy is simply to chat people up. “There are a lot of joiners, and a lot of seniors” looking for something useful to do. The community also has a few serving military members, emergency responders and Royal Canadian Mounted Police members who work in nearby towns. “I spend a lot of time out in the community anyway talking to people; this is how we’re recruiting.” It seems to be working—seven more new members were awaiting initiation at the time of the interview.
For First Vice Clyde Foote and Sergeant-at-Arms Jack Stuckless, a hometown branch couldn’t be more ideal. Both are locals—Stuckless was born in Corner Brook and Foote in Pasadena—and both chose to settle in Pasadena after their military careers. The symbols of the Legion are also important to both. Foote provided the piece of solid oak his friend artist Gerald Baker fashioned into a torch, symbolically used in initiations. The branch poppy vessel is an inverted First World War helmet fixed atop a shell casing donated by Stuckless.
The wide age range among members—the youngest is 21 and the oldest 90—is due in part to an open door policy, says branch secretary R.J. Williams. “We keep the doors open…and try to have a lot of friendship/membership nights, where people can bring a friend. We try not to put a dividing line—anyone can come in and experience what we have to offer.”
It took hard work to get the branch up and running. “We scrounged, we begged, we borrowed…the only thing we didn’t do was steal…to get ourselves to the point where we’re workable on the ground,” joked Williams, also a charter member. Mary Foote, Clyde’s wife, introduced as ‘the best scrounger you’ve ever seen,’ praises the generosity of the community. Dishes were donated by another organization that was disbanding, and potlucks were held to raise money to equip the kitchen and bar.
The community has responded enthusiastically to the monthly fish fry, the occasional fine dining candlelight dinners and bingo nights. The branch is now expanding into catering. As well, the branch offers free designated driver service for events where alcohol is served. “On poker nights or darts nights, players are dropped off and we take them home,” said Williams.
The investments have paid off: people come to sample the fare, tag along to play darts or cards and some become members.
After 18 months of securing a financial footing, the branch is now focusing on community service. “If I were to give advice to another branch,” said Rice, “that would be to start out as small as you can, take it as slow as you can, reach your goals and move on.”
The branch service officer is looking after interests of local veterans—including at least three Second World War veterans and many modern veterans— “and we’re learning what we can do with the poppy fund,” says Lehr. In the fall, Legion volunteers will help out at a school breakfast program. Mary Foote was looking forward to volunteering with the Grade 12 graduation. “Volunteering is a way of giving back to the community—and [young people] are the future of our organization.”
“I can see this time next year, we’ll have 100 members,” says Clyde Foote.