The weather didn’t always cooperate, but that didn’t stop North Carolina American Legion Riders from finishing what has now become a 10-year tradition during the first week of April.
More than 70 Legion Riders took part in the department’s annual Pony Express Ride, an across-the-state motorcycle ride designed to collect new and renewal membership forms to deliver them to department headquarters in Raleigh.
The ride left Pleasant Island Post 129 in Carolina Beach the morning of April 6 and arrived at Bessemer City Post 243 at approximately 6:15 p.m. April 7. The ride delivered 123 new and renewed American Legion Family members while continuing to raise awareness about both The American Legion and the Legion Riders.
Money also was raised for both the department’s Veterans Service Fund and Colon Furr Memorial Nursing Scholarship, The American Legion Legacy Scholarship Fund and the USS North Carolina.
The Pony Express Ride is the brainchild of Rora Kellis, a member of Post 296 in Vass, N.C., who also sits on the department’s Membership Committee and chairs its Reconnect Committee. The idea started when the department was already doing a membership round-up and Kellis thought bringing the Legion Riders into the mix would help “add validity to The American Legion Riders and show that they’re an asset to the department. The department at the time was a little skeptical of these ‘bikers.’”
The Riders provided an escort to the 2008 membership round-up, “It went well,” Kellis said. Looking at changing the format for 2009, Kellis found that American Legion Emblem Sales carried an American Legion Riders Pony Express Tack. It was decided the tack would be awarded to Riders who took part in the event, and that representatives from ALR chapters would deliver new membership and renewal forms into department headquarters the first Saturday in April.
Three years ago the format changed when then-candidate for national commander Charles Schmidt participated in the Pony Express Ride. Riders began going from post to post to collect membership forms, which has been the format ever since.
“We need to be more about … showing folks we really enjoy what we’re doing,” Kellis said. “That’s what the mindset we’ve had. We do have a good time at it. We get together and see people we haven’t seen before and collect a little membership along the way.”
The ride is a Legion Family project that gets strong support from department leadership. Department Commander Carol Barker, a Legion Rider from Henry K. Burtner American Legion Post 53 in Greensboro, has been on multiple Pony Express Rides and this year rode her trike the entire way.
Joining Barker this year was North Carolina National Executive Committeeman Jeff Joyner, Alternate National Executive Committeeman Patricia Harris and Past National Vice Commander Richard Neville.
“This membership drive brings a lot of Legionnaires together … and we get to travel across the state,” Barker said. “We’ve got our vests one. They’ve got ’American Legion’ on them. People see that. People stop to ask questions, so it’s very out in the public eye. They’ll able to interact with The American Legion in a very positive way.
“We also stop at several posts every day. Most of the time we try to pick small posts that don’t necessarily see us – especially the department commander. “
Department of North Carolina Membership Chairman Bob Barker, Carol’s husband, said interacting with the small posts is a big part of the ride. “We go to these that sometimes think they’re not seen as posts,” he said. “We’re out in these areas visiting these posts. They’ll show up for this event at the hubs where we start. It’s very important that we do this so they know they’re not forgotten.”
Kellis works with Pony Express Road Captain Curtis Cash, chairman of the department's Legion Riders Committee, to plan the route each year. Cash, a member of Post 124 in Apex, N.C., has served as road captain on the past three rides and said planning normally starts in October.
“We look at what we’ve done in previous years, and we try to hit parts of the state that we bypassed last year,” he said. “About 1,000 miles is what we’re looking for everyone to do a round-trip.”
This year’s route traveled 596 miles from start to finish and included stops at 11 Legion posts. Legion posts provide refreshments for the Riders along the way, and a larger Legion post typically hosts an evening reception each day.
Cash said the Legion Riders are the ideal ambassadors for The American Legion on a ride like the Pony Express.
“People who ride motorcycles are probably the most giving segment of the community that you’re going to find anywhere,” Cash said. “When they come into The American Legion, it’s just a matter of “we’re going to ride.’ And when we wear The American Legion patches, it’s just a given that people are going to know immediately that there’s an American Legion in town, and these guys are out there doing it. It’s what we did before we joined The American Legion, and it’s what we do now. It’s inherent in who we are.”
For the department commander, finishing up the ride was “a sense of excitement of the accomplishment that we did – especially for us this year because Saturday was pouring down rain and 40-degree weather,” Barker said. “And I guess there is a sense of sadness. You know you’re probably not going to get to see these people again until next year. But you feel good when the ride’s over.”