More than 1,000 members once belonged to the Pvt. Leonard Post Jr. VFW Post 6251 in Cheektowaga, a social and cultural hub in the community where its headquarters and banquet hall were busy seven days a week.
Those days seem long ago for the post, named for a Cheektowaga soldier who died on D-Day and founded one year after the end of World War II. Old members are dying off and new ones are few and far between, a dilemma confronting VFW posts across the country. With revenues in a free-fall due to Covid-19, the Leonard Post is considering selling its building.
Those discussions have brought unforeseen consequences: The state organization in Albany has suspended the Leonard Post's charter and put the post temporarily under its authority.
The action was taken because the post failed to formally notify the state organization that it is mulling the sale of its building at 2450 Walden Ave. In military parlance, it did not follow the chain of command.
The state organization informed Post Commander Carl Carbone of its decision July 30 and made its views known to members and trustees at a contentious Aug. 12 meeting at the post.
"The post suspension is for failure to follow the national by-laws and department policy for the sale of post property," said the letter signed jointly by Commander Thomas Howard and State Adjutant Harold M. Burke Jr. of the VFW Department of New York State.
Carbone said he wasn't authorized to comment about the situation, referring questions to Burke. Carbone acknowledged preliminary discussions about putting the building up for sale and said membership at the aging post is in decline.
"Our numbers are down," Carbone said. "We can't get anybody anymore. If I had 10 new members in the last five years I'd be lucky."
Burke also declined to discuss the issue with The News, saying it was a confidential post matter being handled by an administrative committee.
As a result of the suspension, the letter advised the post that it can't hold meetings or take actions without the state organization's permission. The chairman of the administrative committee is Daniel McMahon of Post 9249 in Grand Island.
Mike Williams, a member of the post for 50 years, said he is angry about the state organization's action.
"All the things we did, all the awards we won for state and national and all the dues money we sent them -- we did a lot, and this is our thank you," said Williams, a 73-year-old Vietnam War veteran who lives in Clarence.
Last week's meeting, in which the state chapter administrators explained their decision, didn't go over well with a number of the 50 or so people in attendance, Williams said.
"It was quite contentious and got ugly for awhile," he said.
George Peters, the Leonard Post's quartermaster, believes the charter's suspension was due to poor communication. He said the state organization follows a chain of command and wasn't notified the local post was considering a sale, possibly fearing a sale was imminent.
"They feel they weren't notified officially by letter about what our intentions were, and were afraid we were going to sell the place without having them sit at the table," Peters said.
"Someone probably should have been notified by letter, and it wasn't done," he said. "But I don't know why they didn't communicate before removing our charter. I don't know why they didn't contact the commander of the post and reach out."
Peters said the post has sought legal advice on selling the building, which the post has called home since 1988. The facility includes a banquet hall that can seat 250 and is rented for social functions, weddings, meetings and shows. There also is a smaller hall and bar area.
Peters, who oversees the post's finances, said he believes it's only a matter of time before the building is sold because of declining membership. He expects a vote to be taken by the general membership in the near future.
"We are going to move into a smaller place," Peters predicted.
Chartered in 1946
The Pvt. Leonard Post Jr. VFW Post has been a community mainstay for many since it was chartered on June 14, 1946, by 33 Polish veterans.
The post still retains links to those early days. Leonard Goszewski, who at 97 remains an avid fundraiser for the post, joined in 1947 after being told to wait a year.
VFWs were created in the early 20th century to foster social camaraderie among soldiers who fought in overseas conflicts. The post is named for Leonard Post Jr., who lived on Wanda Avenue. The 20-year-old infantryman died in the Battle of Normandy in June 1944.
A Ladies Auxiliary was chartered in 1950.
The post's previous headquarters on Walden Avenue was purchased by the backers of the Walden Galleria in 1988. As part of the deal, they paid for the post's present headquarters.
Carbone, who has been commander for 10 years and a member for decades before that, remembers a time when there were more than 1,000 members. Others put the number considerably higher, though records to prove it were not readily available.
Membership now stands at 382 members, Peters said, down from 850 in 2011. At least 35 members are 95 and over.
"In 10 years, look what's happened," Peters said. "In five years who knows what's going to happen? We may have 100 guys left."
Peters said the post is still on solid financial ground, but that won't continue unless it downsizes.
"We are in good financial straits," Peters said. "It's not like we're going to be bankrupt or anything like that."
But Peters said the post is no longer able to do what it once did.
"We have fewer people now, and less and less who can volunteer their time," Peters said. "Years ago, the place was packed, the bar, the food, the banquet halls were all going all the time, every night of the week."
"When it's like that you can make ends meet rather easily and donate some money," he said. "It's not like that anymore."
Peters said the reduced use of the lounge, bar and kitchen in recent years, even before the coronavirus hit, showed current operations were no longer sustainable.
"You can't hire a caterer when you have 20 people," he said.
The wake-up call, Peters said, was Covid-19.
"When Covid hit and we couldn't have bingo every week, it just devastated everything," he said.
Meanwhile all of the costs associated with owning and operating a large banquet facility continue to mount -- with no end in sight.
"Last year was real slow," Peters said. "This year was a jolt."
Williams also believes selling the building and moving into a smaller and less expensive building is necessary.
"We just can't afford it," Williams said. "Sooner or later we are going to be broke and then we're done."
Goszewski reluctantly reached the same conclusion.
Last Sunday, he organized a chicken barbecue that brought out 300 people to pick up to-go meals outside of post headquarters. But the $1,500 raised was still a drop in the bucket compared to the facility's monthly expenses, he said.
"We cannot keep that building," Goszewski said.
Before that issue is resolved, Goszewski, a member of the post for 73 years, wants to see the state organization remove a suspension he felt never should have happened in the first place.
"Our charter was taken away, and it really upsets me," he said.
This article is written by Mark Sommer from The Buffalo News and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.