New York Mid-Winter Conference

An array of topics from Americanism & baseball to membership & PR,
plus Legion Riders and hospitality by pirates and their wenches

ALBANY, NY, Feb. 2, 2012-- The New York American Legion's Mid-Winter Conference kicked off Friday evening, Jan. 27, at the Desmond Hotel and Conference Center, with a number of committees and groups holding meetings -- membership, rehabilitation, baseball, legislative, Sons of the American Legion (SAL) advisors, bowling, finance, Legion Riders and historians.

Legion and SAL historians -- and those interested in history -- packed a room to hear NY Department Historian Raphael "Buzz" Blevins and NY Legion Historian Association President Mike Duggan appeal for more posts and squadrons to submit history books in the annual contest that takes place during the summer convention.

Blevins said he was hoping to get as many submissions as last year, if not more; and Duggan pointed out that the history book guidelines are on page 160 of the post officers manual.

"If you follow the rules exactly, you'll do well," he said.

Saturday Features Concurrent Sessions

A flurry of concurrent sessions filled Saturday -- with topics ranging from Americanism and Boys State to sports and junior shooting to membership, veterans issues and public relations.

Jim Koutz of Indiana, the leading candidate for 2012-2013 national commander, helped kick off a series of public relations sessions by emphasizing the need for on-going publicity.

"If we don’t have PR," he told a packed room of Legion communicators, "the word won’t get out about the great programs we do." And without the good work of people taking on PR and journalism roles, "we're just spinning our wheels."

Mike Duggan, executive director of the National American Legion Press Association, said the group works with the National Public Relations Department to encourage the development of public relations and journalism skills among members of the Legion, Auxiliary and Sons of the American Legion. Membership in both the national and New York press associations comes with several benefits, including a press card, quarterly newsletters and annual contests for entering newsletters, web sites and editorial writing.

"As a member, you are truly a reporter for the American Legion," Duggan said. The NY Press Association also annually awards a $1,000 scholarship to a Legion family college student studying journalism, public relations or related communications field, he noted.

Department PR Chair Ken Governor coordinated the PR sessions and spoke of the wealth of material that the National Legion provides for communicators, including the new Public Relations Toolkit, Key Message Points of the American Legion, and the pocket- and purse-size Positions and Programs Quick Reference Guide.

The PR Toolkit manual, which comes with a CD, is a complete guide to planning and publicizing events, and working with the news media; plus it provides sample speeches, press releases, ads, TV and radio spots, among other things. It is also available online at

Key Message Points provide an opportunity for local and county legions to talk to the media on a number of issues, Governor said, and the Quick Reference Guide summarizes Legion positions and programs, handy for giving brief speeches and, with key sentences in boldface print, a good source of sound bites for media interviews.

The PR sessions also:

  • briefly covered the creation of newsletters and websites, and the various professional and free tools available for doing both, with Press Association Editor Bob Stronach of Utica Post 229 answering questions.
  • discussed the do's and don'ts of media interviews, with Governor playing a sample training video from the PR Toolkit and SAL Radio Talk Show host Ken Kraetzer emphasizing the importance of "reaching out and building relationships" with the news media. Kraetzer noted that doing press releases was important to starting to build relationships. "If they get to know you as a local contact, the media will call you" when they have questions about veterans-related events and issues. "Never speculate when talking to the media," he said. "Just give them the facts, and if you don't know the answer to a question, say you'll get back to them."

Kraetzer also plugged the use of online social media. "Facebook is tremendous for local organizations…Facebook is a great way to promote events, post pictures of your event and generate activity."

Several attendees offered tips and comments about their own experiences.

Peter Hurd from Erie County and Orchard Park Post 567 spoke of developing a county-level PR committee. "You can have a lot of fun with this (PR Toolkit); you can have a lot of fun creating newsletters together and creating videos together. You will learn how to give a speech and how to stay on point."

Elijah Henderson Jr. of Monticello Post 73 spoke of how his post got involved with a VFW Post that needed a new roof. "We turned it into a community service effort. We sought grants." A local building supply company came on board, providing material and even volunteer labor. They also put a food pantry in the basement for veterans and families. "The food pantry opened in June with three patrons." At Christmas they helped 20 families. "We expect to top off at about 70 families" who need help.

Stephen Plumb of Watertown Post 61 said his post has been doing press releases only recently and has been able to generate some positive publicity, such as when they bought sneakers for needy children.

Lynda Pixley of O. Leo Curtiss Post 830 in Ransomville discussed how she worked with a woman that wanted to do a project to thank veterans. So they built 50 snowmen, invited children to decorate them, and had clergy offer prayers for deceased veterans. "The media loved covering it," she said.

Nassau County Legion Finance Officer Angelo Grande mentioned that as part of his reaching out to media, he occasionally sends them a fruit basket so show appreciation for a job well done in covering Legion events. It's paid off, he believes, in building rapport.

Legion Riders Growing

Outside the concurrent sessions, a number of Legion-related organizations had booths and displays, such as Legion Riders.

A group from Oneonta Post 259 was proud of the fact that "we were the first Legion Rider chapter in New York State, and we grew from there," noted Emerson Horth, who was there with wife Valerie, Wayne Gregory, Jim and Beth Spence, and Tim O'Donnell. They now have 127 members and the number of chapters in the state has grown to some 70.

They said they were looking forward to participating in the National Legacy Scholarship Run, escorting National Commander Fang Wong from Niagara Falls to the national convention in Indiana at the end of August. Horth said the chapter did a run in Oneonta, raising $8,000 and splitting it between the legacy scholarship and flood relief in the Southern Tier.

The next booth over were John Post and Walter Weirich of Southern Tier Legion Riders, associated with Orchard Park Post 567. "We have 116 members and we're still growing," Weirich said. Also looking forward to the National Legacy Run, they are active locally, visiting elderly veterans (including bringing 350 Christmas gift bags to four nursing homes), sponsoring a bike ride to raise money for wounded warriors and for Operation Purple for families of deployed military, and a fun ride in August to raise dollars for the activities fund at the state veterans home in Batavia.

"Everything we do is for veterans and their families."

Pirates Can Be Very Hospitable

As the afternoon wore on, various county hospitality suites offered refreshments and camaraderie, and Queens County Legion was attracting a crowd with its pirates theme. The guys were dressed as pirates and the ladies as their "wenches," noted Auxiliary member Irene Valentin as she sided up to her pirate husband, Dave, a Queens County vice commander.

Queens has been doing themed hospitality since 1995, when they were a MASH unit storing ice in bed pans and serving liquid refreshment out of IV bags. "We've had a different theme every year," noted coordinator and Auxiliary member Paulette Casey. "We only missed 2006, when my husband (Jim Casey) became department commander and we had to run his hospitality suite."

Saturday evening featured a patriotic band concert leading up to the banquet, where, Jim Koutz, leading candidate for national commander, was the main speaker. He thanked attendees for their participation in Legion programs and reminded everyone in some depth about the comprehensive four pillars of the American Legion -- Americanism, Children & Youth, National Security & Foreign Relations, and Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation.

Sunday General Session

Commander W. Michael Bowen kicked off the closing general session Sunday morning with a succinct, straightforward message:

"We're here to serve our veterans… Each and every one of you can make a difference."

After comments by conference chair Donald Duncan and an appeal to posts to send members to New York's American Legion College by Dean Michael Hannan, the featured speaker, Watervliet Arsenal Commander Col. Mark Migaleddi, spoke of mutual interests and praised the Legion for its clout.

"You people are the ones who can effect change," he said.

Operating for 198 years, initially supplying ammunition and then transitioning to manufacturing cannons for such weapons as tanks and howitzers, the arsenal employed 9,000 people at his peak. Employment eventually dropped to 500, and today is at just over 600.

Watervliet Arsenal doesn't make tanks or howitzers, Colonel Migaleddi noted, "but we make them lethal."

He said he was concerned about the long-term viability of the arsenal, especially as the Department of Defense faces cuts in manpower, equipment and budgets. With the military winding down from a conflict, such as the withdrawal from Iraq and the eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan, "sometimes our country over-compensates" in slashing its defense resources.
"I'm also concerned about our veterans -- the physical and emotional scars… and I'm concerned about our families."

Offering an open line of communication with the Legion, he said: "Our concerns are mutual."

Never missing an opportunity to sign up a new member, Bowen asked Colonel Migaleddi whether he was a member of the Legion.

"Yes…" he answered.

A little earlier, National Executive Committeeman Charles Herschlag sounded a similar tone about national defense when he reported on the National Convention and pointed out National Commander Fang Wong's disappointment at the way Congress and the Administration are approaching the defense budget. Quoting Wang, he said: "America should never put our servicemen in harm's way without giving them the resources they need."

The assembly erupted into a standing ovation as Department Auxiliary President Ann Geer entered the room.

"The American Legion Auxiliary is very proud to serve alongside the American Legion," she declared. She said it has been "very touching to meet so many people" in her travels across the state with Commander Bowen and to see his membership-building focus.

"My message is to welcome everyone who is eligible…Each one of us, despite our own individuality, is here to serve our veterans."

Before leaving, she presented a check for $1,000 for Commander Bowen's projects (legacy scholarship and emergency fund).

Past Department Commander and finance officer Robert Morrill announced a "New York Homecoming Celebration" for National Commander Wong on May 11 and 12 at the Desmond in Albany. Describing it as a chance to thank Wong for all his accomplishments, Morrill said he hoped "to have over 600 people in this room" for the dinner, which will follow a number of tours and sight-seeing opportunities in the region. A mailing has gone out about the event, he said, noting: "Return the forms as soon as possible, and definitely before April 1. Please spread the word to all members of your posts."

Donations and Awards

"Back to God" Committee Chair Robert Conway presented $300 collected at the ecumenical service to Commander Bowen for the national emergency fund, and a delegation from Kimlau Chinese Memorial Post 1291 in New York City donated $1,000, with half going to the legacy scholarship and half going to the emergency fund.

Department Historian Raphael "Buzz" Blevins made a special presentation of history book first place awards to New Hartford Post 1371 historian Larry Winfield and Oneida County Legion historian Frank Carletta. The New Hartford book, he noted, went on to national competition. Membership Chair Dave Riley accepted on behalf of both. Blevins then presented Immediate Past Department Commander James Troila with history/memory books of his term in office, which filled two large bags.

Several Legion Rider chapters received awards, recognizing their Legacy Run efforts. They included Chapter 442, Chapter 259, Chapter 248 and Chapter 1757. Webster Post 942 also received a plaque for its support of the Legacy Run Scholarship.

Press Association

Following the close of the general session, some 31 Legionnaires, Auxiliarists and Sons showed up for a meeting of the New York American Legion Press Association.

With President Ann Harrington presiding, several officers gave reports. Treasurer Michael Duggan appealed to members to sell the scholarship raffle tickets. Secretary Kevin Harrington said the NYALPA website could have a membership form that can accept payments for new and renewing members. After some discussion, the group voted to approve implementing such a form. Vice President Patrick Rourk reported that he is Area 1 vice president for the National Press Association and that New York member Lynda Pixley is the Area 1 representative on the national association's executive board. In addition, several New York members serve in appointed national positions: Joe Porempski, finance; Charles Mills, judge advocate; Michael Hannan, Sgt.-at-Arms; and Pat Rourk, newsletter editor.


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Dave and Irene Valentine were part of the pirate-themed hospitality offered by Queens County Legion.