Time runs out on Charleroi VFW

Charleroi VFW Commander Gus Caterini, left, and Quartermaster Dave Zuzak, sit at inside the club Sunday, Dec. 22, in front of a sign that reads 'Thanks for the memories'. After nearly eight decades of operation, the club will close its doors Jan. 31 due to lack of participation.
Charleroi VFW Commander Gus Caterini, left, and Quartermaster Dave Zuzak, sit at inside the club Sunday, Dec. 22, in front of a sign that reads 'Thanks for the memories'. After nearly eight decades of operation, the club will close its doors Jan. 31 due to lack of participation.
Photo by Rick Bruni Jr. | The Valley Independent
| Monday, Dec. 23, 2013, 12:16 a.m.

The Charleroi Veterans of Foreign Wars post once was a social hot spot featuring live bands and national acts. It was packed wall to wall every weekend.

In eight days, the local landmark at 609 McKean Ave. will shut its doors because of a lack of participation.

In one final attempt to save the post and its club, officers ran advertisements in The Valley Independent pleading for members to attend a meeting last Wednesday. Only seven members showed, sealing the fate of the post and its “cantina.”

Commander Gus Caterini said that's when he knew it was time to close – despite verbal guarantees there would be a larger showing.

“That's an indication right there nobody is interested, and there's a lot of veterans in Charleroi, let me tell you,” said Caterini, 73, a U.S. Marine Corps and Vietnam War veteran.

“We mustered up just enough guys to hold a meeting. I wish I knew why. I really wish I knew. Wednesday night, we were so damned depressed it was unbelievable.”

Caterini said he and two remaining active officers — Junior Vice Commander Rich McBurnie and Quartermaster Dave Zuzak — will notify the national VFW organization of the decision Jan. 1.

Requests for help three months ago to the VFW's district command have gone unanswered, he said.

“Once we turn it over to the national, they'll take care of it from there,” Caterini said. “I hope we don't lose our charter.

“To run a post, you need committees. … You need more than three guys to operate, and that's all we've had for awhile — me, Dave and Rich.”

Caterini said that when he joined the VFW in 1968, the organization boasted approximately 1,800 members. Since then, active membership has dwindled so dramatically that the post can no longer round up a firing squad to honor deceased members.

“We've been trying at this for the last couple years. We had a number of members that passed away and older gentlemen who no longer came out,” Caterini said.

“They leave it up to us old-timers, and we can only do it for so long. We needed younger guys to step in and it hasn't happened.”

Arden Calvert VFW Post 167 received its charter in 1935. Ten years later, the Mid-Mon Valley – and the entire nation – was basking in the afterglow of a World War II victory. The club rode that vigor into the 1950s and 1960s.

Every weekend, the Charleroi VFW hosted comedians, singers and bands – including national recording artists such as The Skyliners, the Cadillacs, The Four Aces, and Bill Haley and the Comets.

The cover charge ranged from 50 cents to $1.

“They had dances there and some class acts,” said McBurnie, 73, of Long Branch. “It was really the place to go on Fridays and Saturdays.”

In fact, downtown Charleroi was “the place to be,” with the VFW often taking center stage.

“Between the VFW, Sons of Italy and the Moose, that place was a jumping jive,” Caterini said. “When I first joined, we had so many members that we didn't need any social members to support it.”

When the Pittsburgh Steelers used California State Teachers College for its preseason training camp in the late 1950s, many of the players were in the crowds for Saturday night dances.

That trend continued into the 1960s.

Post 167 was renowned for its annual Christmas parties for children, hosted by “Uncle” Al Palumbo.

Over time, membership slipped.

Caterini said the decline began in the 1980s and has plummeted ever since. It's gotten to the point, McBurnie said, where any profit the club made was used to support itself instead of the post.

“We've all suffered over the years, but I can't speak for the other clubs,” McBurnie said. “The guys have all gotten older, and the Valley's not what it used to be.”

At 44, Zuzak is the youngest member by several decades. Despite recruiting efforts by Zuzak – a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom – veterans who served in Iraq and Afghan have not responded.

“Guys my age or younger could've come in, helped out and taken over to help keep this place open,” Zuzak said.

“I've recruited younger guys; they're out there, but they seem to have other priorities. They're either getting their education or they're raising young families, and they just don't have the time to devote to this place.

“I don't want to use the word apathy; they just seem to have other things going on.”

The bar will close and the building's future will rest with the national organization. The Charleroi VFW will host one last blast – a private affair for members on New Year's Eve.

“The social members deserve that. They've been with us for awhile, and the veterans we do have deserve that, too,” McBurnie said. “We don't want to (close), but you can't run a place with two or three guys. Believe me, we tried.”

Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rbruni@tribweb.com or 724-684-2635. Freelance writer Ron Paglia contributed to this report.

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