RENEE ORDWAY

New life for an old institution

Posted July 29, 2011, at 5:20 p.m.

I guess for some, mention of the American Legion summons forth thoughts of smoky bars, bingo and baseball.

For me, thoughts of the Barrows-Skidgel Post 105 in Newport involve Brownie troop meetings, family wedding receptions and anniversary parties and getting a free red hot dog in the parking lot where every Memorial Day parade ended.

Little to do, I suppose, with the organization’s patriotic mission of providing assistance and camaraderie to veterans, but everything to do with the other part of its mission, which is sponsoring and mentoring youth programs in communities and being helpful to all of the residents of those communities.

But like so many other Legion posts across the country, the Barrows-Skidgel Post in Newport has seen a drop in membership as older veterans die. Nationwide, returning veterans of the Gulf War and the War on Terror have been slow to seek the companionship and service the American Legion offers.

Hence many posts have closed down and Legion halls have fallen into disrepair or been sold. American Legion membership has declined nationally by 300,000 in 10 years, bringing membership to 2.4 million.

Not too long ago it appeared the Barrows-Skidgel Post 105, situated on a prime piece of lakefront property in town, might face the same fate.

But three years ago, a small, redheaded, freckle-faced, combat-boot wearing woman walked into the post’s monthly meeting of a small group of elderly men and introduced herself.

She was politely asked whether she would like to join the Legion’s ladies auxiliary, which was meeting in another room, and she politely declined and situated herself with the other veterans.

Today, she and her tall, soft-spoken husband, who also is a veteran, are trying to help breathe new life into the post.

Weekly bingo games have resumed, the deteriorating hall is being spruced up, and care packages are being sent to active duty soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Norman and Kim Lander, 57 and 49, respectively, are the youngsters of the group.

Kim has been a member of the 101st Air Refueling Wing for 28 years. For 24 years, she was an aircraft mechanic and today is a senior master sergeant and flight chief at the Bangor base.

“Our older veterans who make up the Legion have worked hard over the years and been so committed, and it is because of them that this Legion has always been such an important part of this community,” Kim said.

But they are aging and the numbers are dwindling — there are currently 68 members enrolled in the Barrows-Skidgel Post — and it is time for a younger generation to step up and continue the work.

The post is named after Capt. Edward Barrows, son of former Gov. Lou Barrows from Newport and who was killed in action in France during World War II; and Sgt. Donald Skidgel, who was killed in action in Vietnam and awarded the Medal of Honor.

“The Legion offers a lot of services and support for veterans, but especially in a small town like Newport, it also is a large part of the community. That’s sort of dwindled off over time, and we’re hoping to change that,” Kim said.

Norman comes to the table with carpentry and cooking skills. He has been slowly making badly needed repairs to the building and grills up hamburgers during the Tuesday night bingo games.

Kim, only the second woman to become a member of the post, brings her dedication and organizational skills. “I’m sort of the mouthpiece,” she joked from her kitchen just a few skips away from the Legion hall’s front door.

Though not intimidated by the innards of a KC135 refueling aircraft, the petite, redheaded “mouthpiece” in combat boots was a bit unsure of herself when she first decided to “get up in front of the fellas” at one of the first Legion meetings she attended.

“I got up there and started to gently talk about perhaps a few changes being made. It took a few minutes, but soon some heads started to nod and I sat down and thought, ‘well, they didn’t shoot me down,’ and you know, change is hard, but we’re making progress,” she said.

I’m thinking the older veterans of Newport couldn’t have found themselves a better mouthpiece if they had gone searching for one. Instead, Kim found them and nestled herself right in among them.

And I’m guessing the Barrows-Skidgel Post 105 will be around for a long time.

Contact Renee Ordway at reneeordway@gmail.com

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