Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By A. R. Vander Vegt
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

American Legion Posts 361 & 163 named WR grand marshals


A. R. Vander Vegt

Carl Hischer, Bob Paulson, Dick Stepan, Victor Doboszenski.

"It's my honor to do this," Dennis O'Brien says to me after the Denham-Sturgeon Lake American Legion Post 361's monthly meeting.

Dennis, or Denny as he introduces himself, is one member of Post 361. That post, along with Willow River American Legion Post 163, are Willow River Days' Grand Marshals for 2018.

To be chosen as grand marshal is to be recognized as a pillar in the community. These American Legion Posts are no exception.

Denham-Sturgeon Lake's charter places their inception in 1937 - with the Great War in the past, the Great Depression in the present and unrest in Europe, which led to World War II. Willow River chartered around the same time, members said.

The American Legion was officially chartered by the federal government in 1919. According to their site, "It is the nation's largest wartime veterans service organization." They are devoted to local needs and grassroots support. "The American Legion's success depends entirely on active membership, participation and volunteerism. The organization belongs to the people it serves and the communities in which it thrives," their site states.

O'Brien introduces himself as the taps player for the Honor Guard. When he talks about the honor of being part of the American Legion, he means this: "What better honor (is there than) to support our troops when they pass away."

While the posts are involved with the community - Willow River Post 163 sponsors two scholarships each school year - a primary way they serve is by providing military honors at funerals of veterans and conducting Memorial Day services.

Bob Ketchmark of Denham-Sturgeon Lake says they will be part of the funeral of anyone who has been part of military service. The posts have taken part in funerals from Rush City to Cloquet - "Anyone who wants it, we'll do them for."

Ketchmark has been part of the American Legion for 45 years. "I believe in the military," he says with conviction. He also believes in ensuring a proper send-off for those who gave much in service for their country. Ketchmark adds that each time they serve at a funeral, they always have a full contingent - at least a 13 gun salute. As long as he's been part of Post 361, though, he doesn't remember being part of funeral with less than 16.

Membership numbers are dropping for both posts. While Post 361's membership is 67 strong, that's still down from previous years. Willow River Post 163 is at 20 members for 2018. The two posts often come together and supply support to ensure a full contingent at each funeral.

Why is membership dropping? Ketchmark has several theories, but it hinges on the observation that "younger people don't seem interested." As a member asks during their monthly meeting, "Who's going to fill our shoes?"

Many of the members of the American Legion are aging - they served in Korea, Vietnam, and one even served in World War II. There are a few who served during the Persian Gulf War and the Panama invasion but members from those conflicts and beyond are in the minority - not enough to carry on in the coming years if the numbers don't start changing.

Members Dick Stepan, Victor Doboszenski, Bob Paulson and Carl Hischer of the Willow River post acknowledge that volunteerism is dropping everywhere and rural areas feel it the most. Fire departments, American Legion Posts, other societies around town ... they all have dropping numbers. So what makes joining the American Legion attractive?

Hischer says the "togetherness and community" are important to him.

O'Brien of Post 361 calls the American Legion the "greatest group of people to be a part of."


The Hanson-Anderson American Legion Post 361 of Denham-Sturgeon Lake at a Memorial Day service in 2017.

The two posts of Denham-Sturgeon Lake and Willow River are considering a joint-charter. Willow River's charter would become inactive but could become active once more in the future if membership levels improved.

Consolidation of the two posts is an ongoing conversation for the future. If the posts want to continue providing a full contingent for the funerals of veterans, consolidation may be a good option with the option to separate once again in the future. For now, Ketchmark says, "As long as we're able, we'll continue to do it."

This coming weekend at Willow River Days, the posts will be handing out 200 pennant flags along the parade route. From funerals, gravestone memorials to parades, these local posts are fulfilling the preamble to the American Legion's constitution "to inculcate a sense of individual obligation to the community, state and nation, ... to promote peace and goodwill on earth, ... to consecrate and sanctify our comradeship by our devotion to mutual helpfulness."


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