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Hometown U.S.A.: Hellertown, Pa.

American Legion post returns to its rightful home

The veterans lost their 1926 building after a treasury scandal. But after four years of fundraising and renovating, the men are back where they belong.

March 10, 2013|By Daniel Patrick Sheehan, Morning Call
  • The American Legion Post building in Hellertown, Pa., closed in 2008 after it became too expensive to maintain, partly because the post’s treasurer had embezzled tens of thousands of dollars.
The American Legion Post building in Hellertown, Pa., closed in 2008 after… (Emily Robson, Morning Call )

When the Edward H. Ackerman American Legion Post 397 in Hellertown closed in 2008, the public story was that the aging building had become too expensive to maintain.

In a sense, that was true, but one of the reasons it had become too expensive was because the post's treasurer had embezzled tens of thousands of dollars, diverting membership dues into his own pocket and forging signatures to cash checks. The post also owed back federal payroll taxes.

The sad details of that episode don't need to be recounted. Suffice it to say the Legionnaires were forced to auction off every blessed thing in the building, including furniture and floor tiles. And while they retained ownership of the place, they had to relocate their meetings to the community center.

The treasurer went to jail, but the damage done was far more than financial. It cut deeply into the morale of men who had served their country and found happy camaraderie with fellow veterans in the handsome brick sanctuary on Main Street in this eastern Pennsylvania borough of about 5,900.

But it turned out the esprit de corps of the Hellertown Legionnaires was an irrepressible thing. After four years of heavy-duty fundraising and renovating, American Legion Post 397 is home again.

Members raised the flag and gathered for the monthly meeting there in February. It's been an emotional return to a landmark building that, through years of vacancy, had threatened to fall into irreversible decline.

"It was empty," said John Higginbotham, 63, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War in his fourth year as post commander. "There was mold all over the floors."

Losing the building to a wrecking ball would have been a communal tragedy. Built in 1926 and named for Hellertown's first casualty of World War I, the three-story post has hosted weddings, fundraisers and movie showings.

It's been a disaster shelter and a temporary high school, too.

"You'd hate to see a building like this go to waste," said Navy veteran Jack Davco, a retired electrician who volunteered his expertise to rewire the place. "You can't build a building like this anymore."

The mold is gone and the building is returning to the comfortable look of old. There's still plenty of work to do, but the barroom — the social centerpiece of any Legion post — is back in business. A wall-sized painting of the Iwo Jima invasion is out of storage and hanging again, and the new U-shaped bar has been polished to a warm gleam.

This was all accomplished by post volunteers, who begged and borrowed to restock the building with furniture and decor. A lot of borough businesses made donations or gave steep discounts on materials.

"Everybody was wicked cooperative and helpful," said Higginbotham, using a word that betrayed his Massachusetts roots but seemed just right to describe the members' keen desire to come home.

With that goal met, the post wants to start growing again. Some members drifted away after the turmoil of 2008. Some moved; some died. But the membership roll still boasts more than 600 names, plus an additional 200 or so social members invited to join by the veterans. There's a women's auxiliary, too.

"People used to say it's just a bunch of old men sitting around at the bar telling war stories, but it's more than that," insisted John Mulholland, the post's adjutant, eager as his fellows to spread the gospel of the American Legion to young veterans who might find friendship through it.

Higginbotham said the post is crammed with memories, but has plenty of room for more.

"People bring the spirit of the Legion alive when they come in," he said. "All that history, all that energy, is in the walls, and it's just laying there dormant until somebody comes in and remembers."

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