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Ligonier woman devotes 65 years to VFW service

| Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016, 9:54 p.m.
Dalona L. Leonard, 87, of Ligonier poses for a portrait at the Ligonier VFW on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016. Leonard has been a prolific volunteer with the VFW for more than 60 years.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Dalona L. Leonard, 87, of Ligonier poses for a portrait at the Ligonier VFW on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016. Leonard has been a prolific volunteer with the VFW for more than 60 years.

Dalona Leonard may be the busiest 87-year-old you've ever met.

Leonard has devoted her life to volunteering, be it for the election board, her church, the Salvation Army or through the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 734 Ladies Auxiliary, where she has served since 1951.

“I just keep busy all the time with the vets,” Leonard of Ligonier said.

In June, U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, issued a citation from the House of Representatives commending her longevity of service. “That meant a lot. It was a pleasant surprise,” Leonard said.

She received a plaque that same month for being the 2016 Outstanding Hospital Volunteer by the Department of Pennsylvania Auxiliary to the VFW of the United States and got a certificate of recognition from the post in April.

“She's a doll. She helps out any way she can,” Post Commander John Balega said. “She's pretty much one of a kind. We have other ones who help out, but they haven't been around as long as she has, and she's really ... involved.”

Leonard keeps her mementos — citations, newspaper clippings and photos of crafts she's made — in clear protective sleeves bound in a blue binder tucked in an American flag tote bag.

For Leonard, working for veterans is personal. Her late husband of 32 years, Wilson, served in the Navy during World War II while other relatives served in other branches of the military.

“We wouldn't be as free as we are if not for (veterans),” Leonard said. “They've sacrificed a lot for us.”

A strong woman

The daughter of a schoolteacher and farmer in Fairfield, Leonard graduated from Bolivar High School in 1947 among a class of all girls “because the guys went into the service,” she said.

Leonard is a feisty, headstrong woman who taught herself to drive a tractor at age 12 and hasn't let surgery or cancer slow her down over the years.

Even more, she doesn't mince words. She recounted that once when a man slipped his finger under her shirt collar, she asked, “Do you want to keep your goddamn fingers? Then keep them to yourself.”

“She can tell you what she means in no uncertain terms,” Balega said.

‘I just keep going'

Leonard's service to the VFW began at 22 when a woman from Post 734 knocked on her door, encouraging her to join.

Today, Leonard fills her days volunteering at the H.J. Heinz III Progressive Care Center in Aspinwall, working the gift shop weekly at Bethlen Home in Ligonier Township and accompanying a veteran each September for Sharing and Caring Inc.'s annual Pittsburgh river cruise.

She sews neck pillows and bags to hang on the back of wheelchairs. She cuts postage stamps off envelopes for Stamps for the Wounded, a nonprofit that offers veterans a hobby.

Leonard collects aluminum can tabs to raise money for the VA Pittsburgh Fisher House in Oakland, which provides a place for veterans' families to stay while their loved ones are in the hospital. Her last haul, 56 pounds of tabs, netted $19.60, so she tossed in 40 cents to make an even $20.

Then she made a motion at the Ladies Auxiliary meeting for the members to add another $25, and they did, she said, because members know how much she puts into the project.

“Most people are hands out; mine are the other way,” she said.

Each Christmas, Leonard buys and wraps gifts, sponsored by the Ladies Auxiliary, for veterans in Bethlen Home and Ligonier Gardens Personal Care and Retirement Center.

Two years ago, when she was laid up after a hip replacement, one of Leonard's daughters shopped for the gifts so Leonard could wrap them on her bed. On Christmas Day, still in a wheelchair, she visited each veteran to deliver his gift.

“I just keep going,” Leonard said. “I don't pity myself.”

Leonard lives in her own apartment, drives a car and shows no signs of slowing down.

“Where I live, they don't do anything there. I trim the bushes,” she said. “I'm gonna keep going as long as the good Lord will let me.”

Kari Andren is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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