Dramatic Comeback for Shore’s American Legion Post

American Legion Post 56 Meeting Hall was repurposed from a Cheriton grocery store. (Photo: Wendy Martin)

American Legion Post 56 Meeting Hall was repurposed from a Cheriton grocery store. (Photo: Wendy Martin)

Cape Charles Wave

February 2, 2015

Viewing Gordon Campbell’s aerial photographs of the barrier islands, you become aware of the chaotic and fractal geomorphic patterns that define them. As you descend closer, and ultimately land, some of this chaos gives way to patterns of complexity. The randomness of nature is somewhat mediated by the actions of the people that inhabit the peninsula that those islands protect.

When I think of those actions, nothing stands out more than the work being done by American Legion Post 56 in Cheriton. Post 56 was originally chartered back in 1922 to serve Eastern Shore veterans. With WWII and the Korean War, more veterans  joined the ranks until the late 1950s, when a fire destroyed the Cape Charles meeting hall. Left homeless, the Post struggled to maintain membership.

An odd bit of luck occurred when, in an attempt to find a new home and rebuild membership, the Post bought an old car dealership building in Cape Charles. The new building did little to alleviate the membership issues, but after selling it, the Post was able to maximize profits, add to existing assets, and put over $300,000 in the bank.

With active membership stalled at 76, Walter Dellanbach, Jim Chapman, and Joe Vaccaro assumed the task of finding Post 56 a new home. In what appeared to be another serendipitous event, the search party located an old grocery store in Cheriton. It was apparent to all that this was the perfect location. Although the store was still filled with the original contents, by donating to the local food bank, the SPCA, and directly to local residents, Vaccaro and team had it emptied out in eight days. The building also served as a training exercise for what has become Post 56’s most important work: community outreach, support and charity.


What many feared would become just another rowdy beer hall has instead turned out to be one of our community’s most important partners. “The fact is, this has been a gathering place for the community seven days a week,” Post 56 Commander Joe Vaccaro says. “We have other groups who come here to meet. It’s a very family-oriented post.”

With 250 Legionaries, 60+ Sons of American Legion (SAL) members, and a vibrant Women’s Auxiliary, Post 56, while embodying “duty, honor, and Country” has become an important member of the Lower Eastern Shore family. The Legion has now boosted its membership to over 230.

In 2013 the Post showed its stripes by raising almost $7,000 for a woman who was viciously assaulted and abducted in Oyster. This winter the Post collected 570 dry and canned food items for the Cape Charles Food Pantry.

Commander Vaccaro and Post 56 understand, however, that even as it is so important to act locally, this kind of work is without borders. This is highlighted by Post 56’s efforts to secure a Community-Based VA Clinic that could help service the more than 5,000 veterans living on the Shore, as well as establish a model of service that could be replicated in other rural and underserved areas of the country.

Just as Gordon Campbell’s aerial photography documents the dynamic nature of the barrier islands, Post 56 is also in a constant state of dynamism and change. Member Bill Payne is leading the American Legion Middle School Essay Contest, “I like living in America because . . . .” As reported elsewhere in the Wave (CLICK) Elizabeth Reid wrote the winning essay and will receive $50, while her teachers also receive a stipend to buy classroom supplies.

Dr. John Schulz is leading the American Legion Oratorical Contest, which presents participants with an academic speaking challenge that teaches “important leadership qualities, the history of our nation’s laws, the ability to think and speak clearly, and an understanding of the duties, responsibilities, rights and privileges of American citizenship.”

Post 56 Commander Joe Vaccaro conducts Veterans Day ceremony in Cape Charles.

One of the most critical (and fun) endeavors is being led by Bill Stramm, who has taken the reigns as chairman for American Legion Boys State. Dating back to 1935, the Boys State is an educational deep dive program of government instruction for high school students. These students are trained on just what it means to be a franchised citizen — the rights and privileges as well as the duties and the responsibilities. This is a hands-on exercise with city, county, and state governments operated by the students elected to the various offices. The program is open to high school juniors (selected by local American Legion Posts) with expenses paid by a sponsoring American Legion Post, sometimes in conjunction with a local business.

Members of Post 56 are also involved with a mentorship program, donating their time, experience, and expertise for many of the underserved young men and women of the Eastern Shore.

All this fine work has not gone unnoticed. Post 56’s Jim Chapman is on his way to becoming the next American Legion’s Department of Virginia Commander. Current Post Commander Joe Vaccaro is also occupying a leadership role as the Deputy Judge Advocate for the State of Virginia.

So many times, from on high, rural communities like the Eastern Shore appear desolate, dying on the vine, with little hope, and have the odds stacked against them. What we miss are those boots on the ground that refuse to accept those odds, that realize that those of us that inhabit these little communities, if we are to survive, have to work together to accomplish common goals. Joe Vaccaro sometimes describes Post 56 as a Phoenix risen from the ashes. However, the Phoenix has magic at its disposal, and I don’t believe that metaphor accurately describes all the dedication and hard work, nor does justice to what this small group of men has accomplished in this rural outpost.

Just as Post 56’s efforts to establish a Community Based VA Clinic may produce a workable model for the rest of the country, their outreach, community awareness, open dialog, mentorship, and charity can also serve as an example for other organizations — civic or governmental — up and down the Eastern Shore.



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