Penn Hills American Legion post steadily marching toward end of road
Mostly empty stools surround a medium-sized bar as you walk into the dimly lit American Legion Post 351 on Verona Road in Penn Hills.
Hung at the end of the bar is the first dollar spent there, with the date the doors opened displayed prominently below it — May 15, 1973. When the last dollar will be spent and the last Pabst Blue Ribbon served remains to be seen, but post officials say it likely will be sooner rather than later.
“We're mostly worried about our veterans, so we're not a bar trying to make a ton of money,” post manager Ron Metallo said. “This is a space where vets can come to talk because they have something in common, but with our bills and what we're bringing in, it's just not doing enough to stay open.”
Bill and Donna Charlesworth of Verona sat at one end of the bar recently watching football highlights that flashed on the television screen to their left. The couple comes to the post every afternoon except Sundays.
Donna Charlesworth motioned to the rest of the bar, pointing to the post's commander, manager, bartender and three other Vietnam veterans, including her husband, who occupied stools.
“This here is the afternoon group,” she said.
The evening group isn't much bigger, she added — a result of a continuing decline in membership at the Legion.
The problem isn't just in Penn Hills or with the American Legion. The Veterans of Foreign Wars has seen its numbers go from 2.1 million members to 1.3 million. The American Legion, once 3.3 million members strong, now boasts just 2.4 million. The problem, in its simplest form, is that members are dying off and aren't being replaced by younger veterans.
“The younger fellows are a problem,” Pennsylvania VFW commander Thomas Brown, a Navy veteran who served in the Korean War, said earlier this year. “They come back and have their families and don't have time. Even I was close to 50 when I joined, and I'm the state commander.”
The Penn Hills post — one of the oldest in the state — was established in 1919 in Homewood and moved to Verona Road in Penn Hills in 1967. Membership has gone from about 800 in the 1970s to 200 now. But even that number doesn't tell the whole story about the once-thriving club.
“Most of them are older and can't get up and walk around, so they don't get down here often,” former Penn Hills commander Walt Gledhill said in the spring when the post was having trouble finding enough volunteers to put flags on the graves of veterans on Memorial Day. “Most are in their 80s and 90s. The younger guys, they don't have the time to put in, so we're short on members. They're not joining the Legion anymore.”
Nearing the end?
With limited space, the bar that opened about six years after the post moved to Penn Hills is the Legion's only consistent source of revenue. But whatever profit it generates is drained to pay bills each month, leaving no money to fix the aging building's many structural problems.
The plummet in membership means less money generated by dues, fewer folks drinking at the bar, fewer dollars coming in overall — and that forces Metallo to face the reality that the post's long run may be coming to an end.
Metallo said a leaking roof caused severe damage to what used to be a money-generating hall rented out for wedding receptions and other events. The roof was patched, but the reception hall sits unused because the post doesn't have the money to repair damage done by the rainwater. And the problems for the post don't end there.
The roof is leaking again. A broken air conditioner would cost $12,000 to get fixed. New ceiling tiles that would be about $5,000 are needed.
To address these issues, a GoFundMe account titled “Save Our Legion” was created nine months ago with a goal to raise $30,000 in donations. But only $1,130 has been raised — and that includes money from two fundraisers at the post. Closing the post could be the only option if things don't pick up soon, Metallo said.
“It's costing us $1,000 a month more than what we're making to stay open, and we have around $13,000 in savings,” Metallo said. “So that's 13 months left.”
The Charlesworths, who for 20 years have been enjoying the comfort and convenience of the post, are holding out hope that things can turn around.
“It's like our home away from home because everyone here is so friendly,” Donna Charlesworth said.
Nodding, Bill Charlesworth agreed immediately.
“They're like family to me, to both of us,” he said. “It's always going to be a fight until new members begin coming through the door.”
Christine Manganas is a freelance writer.