Two years ago, American Legion Post No. 24 in Columbus was like a wounded soldier — and so wobbly that it had to buy its fish and sandwich buns on credit for a lifesaving fundraising fry.

The structure had closed in September 2013 riddled with debt and a lack of volunteers. It looked like it had lost the battle to stay relevant to a strong segment of Bartholomew County’s 7,000 military veterans.

“But that fish fry pitch-in kept us going,” said Dempsey Ferguson, the post’s finance officer who served in Vietnam.

That initial step to get the post back to financial health made a considerable impact in reducing the facility’s debt.

Story continues below gallery

And its financial strength keeps improving, last year donating more than $16,000 to local causes. Nonprofit efforts ranged from a gift to Our Hospice of South Central Indiana to funding for the Boys and Girls State youth leadership training and money to the Columbus-based Pregnancy Care Centers of South Central Indiana.

The post’s financial firepower comes from events such as dinner fundraisers and selling cash-prize chances for $1 and $5 each.

Vicky Stainbrook, serving as president of the post’s women’s auxiliary as a salute to her military veteran grandfather, mentioned that that group has pushed hard to see the post on solid ground again.

“Sometimes we may be here eight hours working,” she said of the auxiliary members. “Sometimes we may be here what seems like 18 hours.”

As much as anything, post leaders and its 400 members still are trying to remind the general public — and not just members — that they are open for lunch and dinner most days.

The public is welcome for all activities such as 6 p.m. Tuesday bingo, 7 p.m. Wednesday karaoke, 6:30 p.m. Thursday Texas Hold ‘Em, karaoke, or occasional 8 p.m. Friday live entertainment, ranging from country to classic rock bands.

Post Commander Al McKown, who worked alongside Ferguson and others to reopen the post, sounds an optimistic tone about the present and future.

“We are finally on our feet,” said McKown, another Vietnam veteran. “And we are doing exactly what we feel we should be doing (supporting the community).”

Post member Jim Peters, 91, who served as a flight engineer with 27 missions with the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II, moved from Arizona to Columbus in 2003 and joined the local legion soon afterward.

“I love the camaraderie,” said Peters, who eats lunch there several times per week. “Everybody knows me there and calls me by first name when I walk in.

“The only real problem I can see right now is that I’m not seeing very many of the new group (of veterans).”

McKown acknowledged that leaders “are beginning to see little glimmers here and there” of the younger veterans.

Ferguson mentioned that even mild support from within the veterans community could keep the post strong.

“If each one of the county’s 7,000 veterans came in and bought only a Coke each month, that could amount to almost $5,000 more in the till, and cover our monthly payroll,” Ferguson said.

Gordon Lake, a local veteran of the Army National Guard from the 1960s, said he appreciates the Legion leaders’ perseverance.

“The veterans definitely still do need a place,” Lake said.

And now that place offering them a social outlet also offers county causes a stable, helping hand.

About American Legion Post No. 24

Address: 2515 25th St., Columbus.

Phone: 812-376-7036.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday-Friday: 8 a.m to 11 p.m. Saturday; and noon to 8 p.m. Sundays.

Welcome mat: Open to the public for lunch and dinner daily and breakfast from 8 to 11 a.m. Saturdays.

Menu sampling: Cheeseburgers for $5, fish sandwiches for $5.50, tenderloins, $6.25; beer for $2.25 per bottle.

Current active members: 400 (had once dipped below 100).

ANNUAL DUES: $45 for veterans. $25 for sons or daughters of service personnel. $20 for women’s auxiliary members.

Monthly profit 30 years ago: $30,000.

Monthly profit needed regularly today: $8,000 plus.

Open to donations: Leaders say they’re open to various expressions of support, including financial gifts that can be sent to the post with a zip code of 47201.

The next fundraiser

What: American Legion Post No. 24’s next fundraising event: a meal with proceeds to benefit Columbus-based Our Hospice of South Central Indiana.

When: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday.

Where: At the post, 2515 25th St. in Columbus.

Cost: $8 (includes fish sandwich, drink and choice of two of the following: cole slaw, potato salad, or baked beans).

Information: 812-376-7036.

Legion leadership

Al McKown, commander; Larry Durnil, first vice commander; Dempsey Ferguson, finance officer; Paul Miner, chaplain; Matt Taylor, judge advocate; and Roger Leason, Ernie Armstrong and Gene Hayes, house committee.

Author photo
Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.