When the charter for Hope Post 229 of the American Legion was signed on January 4, 1920, times were very different and so was the interest in such organizations. Today, as the organization struggles to keep up membership numbers, area veterans say they have hope for the future of the organization locally.

A.C. Reeves says he was invited to join the American Legion by the late Rusty Stewart, who had been a friend of Reeves’ late father. When Reeves returned to Hope in 1968 after serving two years behind the Iron Curtain in Berlin, Stewart told him that he would pay Reeves’ dues if he would join the Legion. It is what Reeves’ father would have wanted him to do, Reeves recalls Stewart saying.

Now, more than 50 years later, Reeves is still actively involved and says that though American Legion meetings have dwindled from monthly to quarterly the organization is still very active in Hope and surrounding communities.

In addition to its annual Memorial Day celebration, the Legion is also well-known for its effort to honor fallen heroes.

Beginning in 1953, the organization began stenciling the name of deceased veterans from the Hope, Hartsville and Clifford area onto white wooden crosses. The annual placing of the crosses, which began on the Hope town square and later moved to the Moravian Cemetery, soon became a more time-consuming process as the names exceeded 500 and there became the new issue of how and where to store the crosses between displays.

Today there is a permanent granite memorial located in the Hope Moravian Cemetery that was dedicated November 12,2000, and currently displays the etched names of nearly 800 service members, Reeves says.

“I would say, another one of the things we are proud of the American Legion sponsors the American Legion Boys State and American Legion Auxiliary Girls State where kids learn about government,” Reeves says.

Started in 1937, American Legion Boys State and American Legion Auxiliary Girls State are summer leadership programs offered to high school juniors where they have the opportunity to gather in person and learn about the mechanics of American politics and government.

Veteran Kurt Heilman is a programs officer with the Legion and actively involved with the organization’s programs for students.

“We also have a once a year flag etiquette program, called ‘Our Country’s Flag,’ with the fourth graders at Hope Elementary School,” Heilman says. “It is a comic book we pass out to the fourth graders that they study and then take a test.”

The historical material starts with the War of 1812 and continues on through to present day with the proper display of the American flag, Heilman explains. The tests are graded and the highest scoring boy and girl are recognized.

Marty Kildren has been a member of the American Legion for more than 15 years and says he has most enjoyed his involvement with the Honor Guards, which offers military honors for deceased military veterans. Upon request, Honor Guards members travel to service members’ funerals to perform the playing of taps, as well as to fold and present the American flag to the member’s family.

“A substantial number of members of our post are members of the Bartholomew County Veterans Honor Guard and we do military services for deceased veterans,” Kildren says. “Our dwindling membership at the moment makes it difficult to participate in every activity. Most of our members are in the senior citizen group.”

Post 229 Post Commander Larry Wheeler says he’s remained involved with the Legion for more than 50 years and the biggest challenge and change he recalls is the ebbing of interest among retired and discharged service members.

“These guys coming home now just don’t seem to be too interested in joining the Legion or VFW,” Wheeler says. “Back then the Legion sponsored little league baseball teams and held fish frys. We are pretty hard pressed to do that these days, but we try to stay involved in the community and the schools.”

Wheeler says despite lessening interest the Legion’s goals and mission have not changed in any way, however, immediate focus has shifted somewhat.

“We don’t have all that much business to take care of anymore to have meetings every month,” Wheeler says. “Instead we meet every three months, unless something comes up and we call a meeting. Lately, a lot of our work has revolved around the legion’s function itself and to keep the building and property up.”

One thing Wheeler enjoys is the camaraderie of his fellow veterans, he says, as well as, staying active in the community and doing things that not only promotes the ideals of the Legion, but helps the community, too.

Currently, the Legion’s local membership stands at more than 75, Reeves says. The 78-year-old Columbus resident says despite concern over the future membership of the organization, the Legion’s focus on its mission to educate youth, honor the fallen, and continue with its charitable work isn’t lost.

“People just don’t do these types of things anymore,” Reeves says. “We do have a membership chairman. We try to come up with ideas, but again, I’ve found with recruiting people for the Honor guard, it takes personal contacts.”

Wheeler echoes Reeves’ concern, but says with continued effort he is hopeful membership numbers will grow.

“It’s about keeping membership up,” Wheeler says. “And on a state and national level we need to continue to lobby for veterans benefits, stay active in the community and do things that not only promote the ideals of the legion, but helps the community, too.”