The American Legion, the nation’s largest veteran services organization, appears to have learned from its mistakes.
It held its very first national convention in Minneapolis in early November 1919, but its parade of 15,000 marchers through downtown was marred by 11-degree temperatures and light snow, leading delegates to change their minds about putting the national headquarters in the city. They chose Indianapolis instead.
Ninety-nine years later, the Legion returns to Minneapolis for its 100th convention — in August this time — with some 10,000 attendees expected, including about 3,000 delegates, their friends and family. They represent the nearly 2 million members spread among 12,000 posts across the country.
The convention kicked off Friday and continues through Thursday, with a 4 p.m. parade Sunday through downtown along Nicollet Mall. The parade will feature 14 high school bands from Minnesota, six Legion bands from around the country, and a sea of up to 1,000 American flags. The Vikings’ legendary former coach Bud Grant will serve as grand marshal.
Aside from the biting cold first installment, the national Legion convention has returned to the Twin Cities six times — 1924, 1959, 1975, 1994, 2011 and again this year.
“Minneapolis has been one of the most enjoyed convention sites,” said Jeff Olson, state commissioner of Veterans Affairs from 2000 to 2004, and president of the Legion’s national convention corporation for Minnesota, which played a key role in planning this year’s event.
At last year’s convention in Las Vegas, Olson said, one question was common among Legionnaires: whether the 2018 event would coincide with the Minnesota State Fair.
Speeches, events and seminars — many focused on veterans’ employment — will fill up the convention schedule, and Vice President Mike Pence will be among the speakers. Also addressing the convention will be Gov. Mark Dayton, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Rep. Tim Walz, DFL candidate for governor and ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
Other speakers include 2012 sport shooting Olympic gold medalist Jamie Lynn Corkish and Diane Carlson Evans, co-founder of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial.
A rich history
The American Legion was born out of meetings in 1919 in Paris, where many soldiers were still based at the end of World War I as they waited to ship back to the United States. Teddy Roosevelt Jr., the son of the former president, helped coordinate the early meetings.
A large session was held in May of that year in St. Louis to choose the site of the first convention. The plan was to hold it in Chicago, but the gathering grew raucous when delegates learned that the mayor of Chicago had a reputation for being pro-German.
The Chicago posters were ripped from the walls, according to a Legion account, and a large Chicago banner was torn down.
Delegates in St. Louis had a warm feeling for Minneapolis, according to Legion literature, because Lucille Holliday, a singer from Minneapolis, entertained the delegates. Minneapolis was chosen over Pittsburgh for the site in a runoff vote.
While it was mostly men at the first Legion convention, there were 140 women, one of them Virginia Whitmore of San Francisco, a disabled veteran, who came to promote programs for disabled veterans.
Now a woman is at the helm.
Last year, Denise Rohan of Verona, Wis., was elected the Legion’s first female national commander, a one-year post. She served on active duty in the Army from 1974 to 1976, working as a stock control and accounting specialist and repair parts specialist course instructor at Fort Lee, Va.
Rohan, who worked her way up the hierarchy of the Legion after joining in 1984, has taken on a “Family First” focus as commander. Her main fundraising project is the Legion’s Temporary Financial Assistance program, which offers grants to children of Legion veterans. The money helps families in need with housing, food and other living expenses. A retired bursar from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Rohan said she’s proud to represent the organization and to use the platform to serve others.
“I have held national commanders in great awe,” she said Friday. “Now, just to be one, male or female, is an honor.”
This year, she said, the Legion had nine female state commanders, and those numbers continue to increase.
Rohan acknowledged that like other women in the military, she was a victim of sexual harassment while on active duty. She said that the military is improving its response to help victims.
“A lot of [women] think that it is their fault,” she said. “My message is if you need someone to talk to, find another veteran to talk to.”
There are about 70,000 Legion members in Minnesota, said Al Zdon, a Navy Veteran who served in Vietnam and is now communications director for the Minnesota American Legion.
Among the state’s 540 posts, about a fifth of them operate a club or bar, but that’s a small fraction of the organization’s work. The group sponsors youth baseball and summer camp. The Legion also sponsors a professor’s chair for brain science through the University of Minnesota at the Veterans Affairs hospital and devotes thousands of hours of volunteer time helping veterans get to medical appointments or visiting them at the state veterans medical centers in Minneapolis and St. Cloud.
Veterans for Peace
While the Legionnaires convene in Minneapolis, about 300 people who served are in St. Paul for the annual convention of Veterans for Peace.
“War is not the answer to solving international conflict,” said Michael McPhearson, the group’s national director. “The people who send us to fight have the most to gain from the wars, while those of us who fight the wars sacrifice the most,”
McPhearson said it was a coincidence, but joked it might be “cosmic karma” that the two meetings overlapped.
Veterans for Peace will hold a march on Sunday at 9:30 a.m. from the InterContinental hotel to the Landmark Center in St. Paul for a 10 a.m. program to discuss the 90th anniversary of the Kellogg-Briand pact. The 1928 international treaty was written by U.S. Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, a former U.S. senator from Minnesota, and Aristide Briand, the French foreign minister. The international signers agreed that conflict between nations should be settled without war.
Staff librarian John Wareham contributed to this report. Randy Furst • 612-673-4224 Twitter: @randyfurst