Saving the Legion
BRADLEY — The date was April 17, 1941.
America was at peace, but war was coming. Pearl Harbor was more than half a year away. Newspaper headlines that day announced a 400-plane Luftwaffe raid over London, part of the “blitz.” Selective Service notices were sent to 50 Kankakeeans.
In local news, Humphrey Bogart was starring in “High Sierra” at the Paramount. The state president of the Women’s Relief Corps (the wives and daughters of Civil War veterans) was visiting Kankakee. The local chapter of the Woman’s Temperance Union announced plans to open a “milk bar.”
And in Bradley, the current home of American Legion Post 766, 835 W. Broadway St., was dedicated. The post was sort of a communal labor of love. The members, veterans of World War I, did much of the work themselves, bit by bit, scavenging, cleaning and using bricks from other sites — notably the Kankakee Post Office. It was built, brick by brick, beam by beam, tile by tile, over years.
Now, there is a drive to repair, rehabilitate and refurbish the nearly 80-year-old structure. Spurred by a letter from post bar manager Judy Sapp, a team of concerned individuals, skilled workers and businesses is forming to save the building. The drive has been taken up by Tim Milner, of Milner Broadcasting, WVLI; and by Lisa Dugan, the former state representative.
Dale Piggush, of Piggush-Simoneau Inc., is acting as the lead technical organizer. He’s donating his time and labor. His inspection shows the building needs an estimated $75,000 in work.
“The coolers are shot. The air conditioning is shot. The signage is gone. The awning is down. The roof leaks. The bricks need tuckpointing. There are just a lot of loose ends,” he said.
HOW TO HELP
The hope is that businesses will donate materials and supplies, skilled labor will give time and ordinary citizens will contribute cash. Persons wanting to help or get involved can call Dugan at 815-953-9754 or Milner at 815-933-9287.
“I wanted to be part of this,” Piggush said. “It will be an honor.” The contractor’s father fought in World War II. He has a nephew who is a U.S. Marine major now.
Rende Langlois, of Langlois Roofing, has pledged to donate the roof repairs.
“I’m for anything that has to do with veterans. We have been in business for 58 years. We have an obligation to give back to the community.”
Sapp has spent 40 years managing the legion bar. She grew up there. Her father, Jack Tuteweiler, was a member and post commander. She remembers running through the post as a child. She could reach around the one-armed bandits; and if she found a nickel to keep, that was a big deal.
The post, she noted, technically serves its members. There are 119, according to Jeanne Walling, the post adjutant.
But the post, Sapp said, also has had a “heart of gold” for all veterans. Those who have shown up down on their luck often have received good advice or a hand-up from other veterans. It also remains an active post, one of the last of the Mohicans. Google “American Legion closings” and you will find stories from across the country.
In recent years, the World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans have aged, and the younger veterans of the Gulf wars have yet to join in great numbers.
Located right on the main drag in Bradley, Broadway Street, the legion post has been a community meeting place. Countless weddings, dances and events have been held there, everything from Lions Club breakfasts to Illinois Veterans Home at Manteno rummage sales to the Rolling Thunder Patriots bike ride. Right next door is the memorial park that honors the Bradley veterans from all wars.
Still, the post struggles to bring in new business and faces, whether veteran or civilian.
Post sergeant-at-arms and 2-year board member Lallo Kirk, an Army veteran, said the state of the legion could be seen as a reflection of the downward trend both in membership and community patronage — forgotten.
The post was founded in September 1934 by the Rev. Harris Darche, the Rev. R.F. Chapler and Walter Heinze. Heinze was the first post commander. Darche and Chapler were both World War I chaplains. There were 15 charter members. An auxiliary was founded within months.
The group met at the Odd Fellows Hall in Bradley until the post could be completed.
In the years after World War II, the location was immensely popular. Bradley had 520 men and women serve in World War II. It was the third highest percentage of service of any municipality in the nation. Nineteen Bradleyans died in the war.
Membership grew rapidly. A 1987 Daily Journal story cited 481 members at the post those 30-plus years ago. Sapp hopes a renovated post will draw more vets in.
Throughout the years, the post supported a wide range of community activities, Christmas baskets, Boys State, Girls State, Little League and POW-MIA families.
Clayton Erickson, a Marine Corps vet who served in Japan, Guam and the Philippines, among other spots, said the post feels like home.
“It’s a spot where everybody knows everybody,” he said.
Another patron, John Schultz, is not a vet, but appreciates those who are.
“This is a home,” he said, “not a bar. If it was not for vets, the world would be a different place.”
The downstairs has a ledge that’s a sort of shrine to the past. Pictures date back to World War I. There are several funeral cards from the services of deceased members. Ronald Reagan once sent a proclamation to the post, and it’s there.
“This building was placed in the middle of Bradley, not by mistake,” Sapp said. “It is here for all the returning soldiers. This was and is their post. It welcomed home the Korean vet, the Vietnam vet and the Desert Storm vet. Now, we see the returning vets from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. We must keep a place for them.”