By Wendy Nugent, Newton Now
Both the local American Legion and one of its members celebrated a century of existence this year.
This past weekend, the Newton Wayne G. Austin American Legion Post No. 2 celebrated its 100th birthday of receiving its first temporary charter on June 16, 1919, and longtime member Byron Brittain of Newton, who recently turned 100, was honored as having the longest membership with the post at 72 years.
“We had a birthday party—celebrated 100 years,” said Paul Sanford, adjunct finance officer with the local Legion and past national vice commander and past state commander. “Byron said he’s one month older than the post. We gave him next year’s membership. That’s the least we can do for the time he’s been here.”
Sanford said the story is the local Legion was the first in the state to put in for a temporary charter, but the Newton Legion was designated the No. 2 position because they wanted the state capital of Topeka to be No. 1. Other posts in the state, like Winfield Legion Post No. 10, also are making the claim of being the first.
“We were originally the first post in Kansas,” Sanford said.
The post is named after a man who fought during World War I.
“The Newton post was named for Wayne G. Austin, who was born July 19, 1897, and was killed on June 6, 1918, in the battle of Ballena Woods,” according to a Legion news release. “He is buried in an American cemetery in Aisne River, Torey, France.”
The first local Legion commander was a judge, Sanford said, who served in 1919, 1920 and 1926.
Newton Legion member Larson Woelk said when he joined the Legion in the ’50s, the Legion met in a building that was in the parking lot across from Midland Bank right across from Druber’s.
“It was a big, two-story building right in the alley,” he said.
He said that in the 1960s, they then moved to East Fifth across from from the train depot, and then moved to their current location at 400 S. Spencer Road in 1988.
Sanford said that back in the 1970s and ’80s, there were 60,000 to 70,000 Legion members in the state, but now membership has fallen to around 24,000.
“Every crisis we have like 9-11, every time we get something where the whole country bonds together, and people, they get more patriotic, we get more people join,” Sanford said, adding they now are getting younger people joining.
Sanford likes being in the organization for several reasons.
“The camaraderie, knowing you’re helping other veterans,” he said. “This has become part of my life making sure we’re doing things to make sure veterans are being taken care of.”
That goes along with another title Sanford has with the local Legion, that of service officer. He said he helps veterans who visit the local post saying they need hearing aids and other help, and they don’t know what to do. Sanford said he refers them to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Wichita, which has two full-time American Legion service officers to serve veterans. The American Legion pays the service officers. The Legion also has service officers in Topeka and Leavenworth.
“All they do is take care of veterans and see they get their benefits,” Sanford said. “It’s amazing the Vietnam vets that are healthy and don’t have any issues, they don’t know they have benefits. We’re basically veterans taking care of veterans, and we serve each other. We look after each other.”
Sanford also enjoys the connections at the Legion, saying every veteran who’s there understands what each has been through and has been through the same things.
“We’re the largest wartime organization in the world,” Sanford said about the American Legion as a whole.
Although it’s a wartime organization, members don’t have to have served overseas. Sanford also said they welcome all branches of the military, including the Coast Guard.
The Newton post has around 300 members, as well as a Ladies Auxiliary, Sons of the American Legion Squadron and Legion Riders Chapter.
“All are very active,” Sanford said. “We support all the youth programs. This year, we had three boys go to Boys State.”
He said they’ve sent three to four boys to Boys State every year and usually ask them to speak during their Veterans Day supper.
The Legion has Boys State, Cadet Law, Girls State on the Auxiliary side and an oratorical contest every year. Sanford said the organization also gives out scholarships every year with some requiring a parent needing to be a Legion member and some not, or another scholarship is given to people who play Legion baseball for a year.
Veterans wishing to join the Legion can contact Sanford at 620-353-3708.