By Karen Zautyk
Ninety-five years ago this week — Aug. 19, 1919 — 13 veterans of the Great War, as World War I was then known, gathered in the Kearny home of Fred E. Portz to organize a local chapter of the American Legion.
Along with Portz, those founding members were Alfred Feickert, Willis E. Wood, Dr. John F. Hanold, John Hanly, Asher I. Roberts, Charles Whitehead, Al Downing, Robert Downing, Dr. Edward H. Willan, George Winne, Roland M. Ellis and Alexander Brockway.
We list them all here because it was from this small group that emerged one of the strongest Legion chapters in the country, J.E. Frobisher Jr. Post 99.
With the approval of the hero’s family, it was named for the late Joseph Edwin Frobisher Jr. of Kearny, a U.S. Army Signal Corps pilot who had been shot down over France in 1918.
The Post received a temporary charter in October 1919 and a permanent charter in May 1921.
The meetings were first held at the Arlington Players Club (at the time located off Midland Ave.) and later at Town Hall, then the Exempt Firemen’s Headquarters and then the Elks Lodge.
In 1923, Post 99 could stop bouncing around, its having acquired the Burroughs mansion on Midland Ave., where the Kearny Post Office is now located. The real estate investment proved wise: The Legionnaires bought the property for $15,000 and sold it in 1930 when they received an offer for more than twice that price.
For several years, they met in the Patterson Building on Kearny Ave., and then they moved to the headquarters they still occupy, at 314 Belgrove Dr., across from what is now called Veterans Field.
That structure, by the way, had been the carriage house and stable for the Old Soldiers Home, which moved to Menlo Park after many decades in Kearny. Post members did the renovations — as, thanks to the current efforts of former Commander Anthony Capitti, they are now repairing and renovating the building that has been in continual use as a meeting hall/gathering place since 1936.
Post 99’s primary mission has always been to assist veterans. Even back in 1919, its programs involved vets’ insurance, cooperation with the Red Cross on veterans’ matters, and outreach to the community. But at the height of its activities, between the wars and with an influx of veterans after World War II, it also sponsored student essay and oratorical contests, a competitive drum and bugle corps and basketball, baseball, softball and bowling teams.
In the 1940s, it organized the Kearny Civilian Police Reserve force, which supplemented the KPD through 1946. And following World War II, it was instrumental in the development of veterans’ housing, including 25 homes built on Passaic Ave. The program was so successful, and garnered so much attention, Post 99 received requests for advice from more than 200 localities nationwide.
You can also thank Post 99 for the existence of the veterans’ memorial park between Kearny Ave. and Beech St., north of Quincy Ave. The Legionnaires bought the land, donated it to the town and raised funds for the first monument, the towering World War I memorial, which was personally dedicated by Gen. John J. Pershing on May 27, 1922.
Now, lest you think your correspondent did massive research to collect all this knowledge, she did not. It comes courtesy of Fred E. Portz, the same gentleman who hosted that 1919 organizational meeting.
When he died in 1964, Portz was in the process of compiling and writing the Post 99 history. It was published posthumously by his widow, Jessie E. Portz, who noted she had it “printed unedited.” (You’d never guess. It looks pretty neat to our copyeditor’s eyes.) It was from this booklet that we harvested the information presented above.
Today, like many other veterans’ groups, American Legion Post 99 is dealing with diminishing membership. Over the last decade or so, it has dropped from 325 to 187, primarily due to the loss of the WWII generation. But this is not discouraging current Post Commander Keith McMillan. A lifelong Kearny resident, McMillan is an Air Force veteran who served three tours of duty in Kyrgyzstan, Iraq and Afghanistan. His father and grandfather were both Post members. He joined in 2004, and he is anxious to recruit new blood.
“I understand that most of the guys coming back want to start a new chapter in their life — getting a job, starting a family,” McMillan said, but he has hopes the younger vets will join.
Walter Tomasheski, the finance officer and a Vietnam-era Navy veteran, noted, “The No. 1 thing for the Post right now is getting newer members, younger members. They join, but they do not get active.”
“We’re trying to communicate with the new generation of veterans,” McMillan said, adding, “We are fortunate enough to be next door to the VFW and close to the Marine Corps League, and we’re starting to work more together.”
“Each is unique,” the commander continued, “but we have a common understanding: We all served. And we have a common commitment – keeping the heritage and history alive and helping other veterans.”
In 2012, Post 99 Auxiliary President Mary Alyn Fisher spearheaded the launch of a new project, Kearny VOICE (Veterans Outreach Information Community & Education), which is partnered with the VFW and Marine Corps League. VOICE provides Kearny veterans and their families with information and assistance regarding benefits, claims, counseling, education and job training.
After 95 years, American Legion Post 99 has lost none of its commitment to its founders’ goals.
(Editor’s note: Next month, on the anniversary of his death, we will write more about the man for whom Post 99 is named, Joseph E. Frobisher Jr.)