SELMA — Hard rain quickly gave way to sunshine at a fun run to mark the 75th anniversary of the town’s American Legion post.
But by the time the skies parted, only two runners remained.
“One’s going to be in first place; the other’s going to be in second,” quipped American Legion member Pete Parrish.
But Saturday’s event was more than a fun run. It was a celebration of one of the town’s cherished institutions – American Legion Post 141. Established in 1938, it has long been a gathering place for the town’s veterans, including James Oliver, the father of Mayor Cheryl Oliver.
“I’m proud of each and every one of you and those who came before you,” Oliver told a crowd of about 30 post members. “I’ll always have fond memories of my father and fond memories of the Legion.”
Mostly, Oliver said, she remembers the food. Her father was, unofficially, the post’s chief cook, and he always marked the family calendar for get-togethers at the Legion hall on Webb Street. “Dad was really faithful to it,” Oliver said. “He knew when it was American Legion night.”
But the Legion post is more than a social outlet for veterans. It is heavily involved in military-related charity work, including scholarships for veterans and the children of soldiers who died in combat. Many members feel the charitable work gets overlooked.
The stereotype of Legionnaires is far from accurate, said Ron Parrish, vice commander of the Selma post. “A lot of people think Legion guys get together to drink beer and tell war stories,” he said. “But we do a lot of things for our community; we do a lot of things for each other.”
Commander Mark Peterson agreed that the Legion gets a bad rap. “That’s our reputation, even among veterans – a bunch of old drunks,” he said. “But the Legion is a lot more about civic pride.”
The Selma post includes a group of Legion Riders, who take their motorcycles to parades and ceremonies across the state. They also take part in a monthly POW ceremony at the State Capitol in Raleigh.
“We’re kind of the face of the post,” said Legion Rider Tom Small. “It’s good to let people know what we do.”
Larry Rozier, the American Legion’s national historian, said the organization started in 1919 with a handful of posts for World War I veterans. Since then, it has grown to include military veterans who served in every major conflict and a few who served during peacetime.
But many posts today are concerned they’re not getting enough new recruits. Rozier said that’s mostly because America has fewer veterans. Recent conflicts haven’t matched the scale of the world wars, and those older generations are dying out.
“We’re becoming smaller because we haven’t had many large-scale wars,” Rozer said. “World War I and World War II were huge.”
Buddy Morris, a member of the Selma post for more than 60 years, acknowledged that the local post is having trouble recruiting younger veterans. “We think a lot of them, and I know we’d help them any way we could if they’d join,” he said.
Since he joined in 1951, Morris said, the post has given him a sense of camaraderie he couldn’t find anywhere else. He said it had become an extended family for him.
“We just enjoy each other,” Morris said. “I guess as long as I live, I’ll be a member.”