It didn’t take Courtney VanZanten long to fulfill the national commander’s goal of three new American Legion members.
VanZanten simply attended the first high school football game of the year. “All three are post 9/11 veterans and all three came up to me and wanted to join our post,” said VanZanten, commander of Arthur T. Peterson Post 136 in Chester, S.D. “They have seen what we have done. We primed them and now they were ready.”
That’s what happens when a post establishes itself as an active leader in a small, close-knit community like Chester. There are now 85 members in the post in the unincorporated town that has a population of 250.
Every November, the post holds its Feather Party. Between 300 and 400 people play “turkey bingo,” vying for about 50 turkey or ham prizes. “For a town of 250, it's a great turnout,” VanZanten said. “It's our annual fundraiser that funds our Boys State, our oratorical programs and our scholarships throughout the year.”
It’s far from the only community activity for Post 136.
“The Legion presents colors at the local games, we do the funeral honors, but we also take on some bigger projects,” VanZanten said. “Every year we take on Paint South Dakota, which is a program where the state provides monies for paint and we provide the labor. We pick a veteran’s house and we go out and paint it, make it look pretty.”
Post member Dennis Kreul spends the winters in Arizona so he doesn’t hold an office but he’s eager to volunteer, including for the annual house-painting project. “I enjoy the painting — it’s really fun, not really work,” he said. “I like it when everyone gets together. It’s great for the community and it’s something that everyone sees.”
Kreul is even more passionate about his duty with the post Honor Guard. “These veterans have earned and deserve a proper funeral,” he said. “To me, that’s a big thing. The funeral needs to be done right. That’s my driving force.”
He credits VanZanter and post Adjutant Miranda Krumm for spearheading the post’s resurgence. When Krumm joined the post more than 10 years ago, members were not engaged.
“When I joined, we were pretty desolate,” she said. “Membership was in the low 30s. Now we are over 80. There were a handful of active members then and now we have 20 to 25 who are getting together for community events. We just had to have one or two people stand up and be a voice and that kind of adrenaline wore on to other people and all of a sudden it kept going.”
Krumm followed her grandfather, Rod Smith, into the post.
“My grandfather is still active in the post today,” she said, adding he is the commander of the 7th District. “He really didn’t give me a choice. He said, ‘Hey, there is an event going on. We need you to come and do this. Your help would be appreciated.’ Now it is a way of life. It’s expected.”
Post members range from a 22-year-old veteran to 93-year-old John Foster, a Marine who served in the Pacific during World War II. Foster, an American Legion member since 1946, has served as commander of the posts in Chester and nearby Hartford.
“They are doing a wonderful job,” Foster said of VanZanten and Krumm. “It’s unbelievable that the post has 85 members. This is a great post. I am proud to be an American Legion member.”
Foster and his wife, Betty, still live in their own home. In fact, during a spring ice storm, they were the recipients of the post’s commitment to serving its community and veterans. The county lost power for eight days. Roads were impassable for several days. It took a couple of days, but it did not stop members of Post 136 from helping out.
“Right in the heart,” Foster says, describing what it meant for post members to rally to evacuate him and his wife to safety. “That means you have someone there looking out for you.”
It’s all part of the vision for VanZanten, Krumm and others. “We're doing our best here to be an active post, to be relevant to the community and do things that our veterans really care about doing,” VanZanten explained.
Looking back, Krumm said that such involvement was a goal as the post was struggling.
“I think it was a goal. There’s always goals and hope. But I don’t know if it was a reality that would happen so soon. Now that it has become a reality, I know that we will always keep it this way.”
Like many rural states, South Dakota is dealing with a “brain drain,” losing younger professionals to more affluent areas. VanZanten sees a correlation between both the state and posts working to woo the younger generation.
“The thing that brings people back to a home post is a tie,” she said. “Maybe that is what we need to do in South Dakota. Get people volunteering. Get them active. I will always be tied to this post because I believe in this post. I am invested in this post. It is my family. It is my happy place.”