Land of 10,000 Stories: WWII sisters cling to failing VFW hall

6:31 AM, Apr 9, 2012   |    comments
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MAPLE LAKE, Minn. -- The pull toward something bigger than themselves has always been strong for Helen Dougherty and her sister Florence Menth.

Both enlisted in the army as nurses and served in Europe during World War II.  And both remain active members of the Maple Lake VFW.  In fact, they are quick to point out, too active.

Florence is adjutant of Post 7664 - at the age of 90.  Helen is just a few months removed as post commander - at age 97.

"There's nobody come to take my job," states Menth candidly. "There's nobody come to a meeting to take over."

Maple Lake's VFW hall is broke, short of volunteers and three months behind on its mortgage.

"To try to pull it out now, I can't see any way of doing that," says Bob Carnes, who recently took over as post commander and is now seeking offers for the sale of Maple Lake's VFW hall. "It's hard," he confides. "It's very hard."

And it's not an isolated case. Menth and Dougherty tick off the VFW closures in their area, Annandale and Buffalo among them.

A bar & grill now occupies the old Montrose VFW, while the Mound VFW hall is up for sale after foreclosure.

Minneapolis, once home to more than a dozen VFW halls, is down to one, in Uptown. St. Paul doesn't even have one left. The placard on the padlocked door of the city's last VFW hall, located on Concordia Avenue, reads: "forfeited to the state for unpaid taxes."

Though its roots go back to the end of the 19th century, The Veterans of Foreign Wars blossomed as a swell of troops returned from WWII.

In Minnesota, VFW membership peaked at 86,000 in 1991, before beginning a steady decline that has left the state organization with 55,000 members today.  Active VFW chapters have fallen from 320 to 238, roughly 100 of which still operate VFW halls in the state. 

Much of the decline can be blamed on deaths among the WWII generation. Fewer soldiers were involved in the wars that followed, meaning a smaller pool of potential members to draw from.

Beyond that, many Vietnam vets steered clear of the clubs founded by the generation before them. "They shunned the VFW clubs, because we weren't welcome," says Lee Ulferts, a Vietnam vet who will take over as state commander of the VFW of Minnesota, in June. "They really didn't want to see us. It was their club, their post," he says about the WWII vets who once populated VFW halls.

For Ulferts the challenge is pulling in the next, next generation: the Skype and Facebook immersed Iraq and Afghanistan vets.

"They're used to email, they're used to texting, none of that is face-to-face. It's all electronic. That carries over into their social fabric when they come back. They are not joiners," he says.

Ulferts says many of the remaining VFW halls are in need of updates, including big screen televisions and the type of decor popular at sports bars, which might be more inviting for a younger generation of veterans.

It's different for Dougherty and Menth, who are happy just for the opportunity to grab a bowl of soup and socialize Maple Lake's VFW hall. In fact, so important is their gathering place that Dougherty has dug into her own pocket several times to keep the hall afloat, including at $6000 donation in December.

"The bills had to be paid and so I paid them,' she says.

Carnes knows that's not sustainable. "We don't want to operate on that kind of money, it's a band aid."

So barring a miracle, Maple's Lake's VFW, a gathering space for veterans and community events, will close - saddening the members who still consider it a second home. "It's been kind of a family you know," says Menth.

But before anyone locks the doors, Post 7764 plans to salute Dougherty and Menth with party on Saturday, April 21st at 4 p.m. In a flyer publicizing the event, the sisters are described as the post's "last active WWII sweethearts." The sisters laughed, when asked about the "sweetheart" designation.

In truth, it takes sweet hearts to care for a place as much as Dougherty and Menth have loved their VFW hall.  Now they must face the reality it's time to say goodbye.

"It will be missed when it's gone," says Menth.

(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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