When John Flynn unexpectedly became the new commander of the struggling Eagan American Legion last spring, he said he began recruiting new members by phone with a standard — and humble — speech.
“I’m the new commander of the Eagan American Legion,” Flynn would begin. “I’m sure you’re probably not even aware we exist.”
The calls paid off, he said, estimating that about nine out of 10 veterans he contacted joined the Eagan Legion.
It’s just one sign of Post 594’s renaissance. Through Flynn’s efforts, including dozens of calls, door-to-door visits to local businesses and more frequent meetings at a new location, Post 594 has gone from a 77-member group on the verge of folding to an ambitious service organization with 167 veterans.
His post had the largest growth rate in Minnesota in the past year, according to Rolanda Herron, the American Legion’s assistant membership director.
“I couldn’t allow Eagan or the veterans to not have an opportunity to do something for the community,” Flynn said. “That’s how I felt — somebody’s got to take ownership here.”
The Eagan post started in 1989 but had become inactive, he said, with just two or three people attending meetings, held twice annually. Flynn increased the membership without the visibility and fundraising resources provided by a typical American Legion bar-and-restaurant set up.
Flynn and the post’s adjutant, Wayne Beierman — both Vietnam War-era veterans — have led members on a number of community service projects and have more in the works.
“We don’t believe in the beer, brats, and those types of things, [though] we certainly like to have a beer once in a while,” Beierman said. “I want us doing outreach in the community and helping other veterans.”
Membership in the American Legion has decreased nationally over the past few decades as the total number of veterans has fallen.
“Unless our market penetration increases dramatically, we’re going to get a smaller organization,” said Randy Tesdahl, state adjutant for the Minnesota American Legion.
The Legion has a program to revitalize posts that need help. Other times, a leader steps in and breathes life into a stagnant post.
“We’re always looking for that one veteran that can be that spark,” Tesdahl said.
In Eagan, Flynn took on that role. After being active in the American Legion in California and Connecticut, he was a member of Minnesota’s at-large American Legion for more than 15 years. Just over a year ago, he got a phone call asking him to join Post 594 in Eagan. He had no idea it existed, he said.
Things had been quiet at the post for a while. The commander had tried to shut down and merge with the Rosemount post in 2015, Flynn said, but state leaders wouldn’t allow it.
Spurred on by the call and a mailing, Flynn attended an Eagan meeting last spring and walked out as the post’s new commander. After having coffee with several members, he figured out areas that needed improvement.
“The first thing I realized when I took this responsibility was, we have no presence,” Flynn said.
There were communication issues, along with a bank balance of just $263. Flynn, who is semi-retired, began calling local members of the statewide American Legion and asking them to join the Eagan post instead.
The calls drew about 70 new members from the Vietnam War-era along with five new Korean War veterans, one World War II veteran, about 15 new recruits from the Lebanon and Grenada conflicts and 18 new members from the Persian Gulf wars and other Mideast conflicts. Those numbers include members who have signed up but not paid, Flynn said.
Flynn also met with city leaders and visited local businesses — gas stations, restaurants, and a Tires Plus — to share information and drop off brochures. His efforts took 70 hours a week last summer and fall, he said.
Because the post doesn’t have a commercial office, Flynn decided to gather the members every two months at a bowling alley.
“I didn’t want to go to a bar because I was afraid our mission would turn into tequila sunrises,” Flynn said.
Not having the responsibility of running a bar and restaurant can actually benefit some posts, Tesdahl said, adding it’s not unusual for posts to be without a home base.
The three meetings so far have been well-attended and members have organized a number of service activities, including distributing 100 flag etiquette books to first-graders, packing food for the food shelf and raising money to sponsor the Eagan American Legion youth baseball team. They’ve also started programs to supply new flags to the community and properly dispose of tattered ones.
Plans include recognizing high school seniors who enlist in the military and developing a color guard to represent Eagan.
Paul Kovach, an Eagan High School teacher who served in the Marine Corps Reserves from 1983 to 1989, is the latest recruit. Kovach didn’t know he was eligible to join, he said, and “just thought it was just a bunch of old guys” anyway. Now he’s excited to assist veterans, he said, and credits Flynn with signing him up.
“He’s persuasive,” Kovach said. “You can’t help but want to help out.”