By Gary Herrity
Special to the Herald
Clinton’s American Legion was formed after World War I and was thriving in 1950. They were located in the 1898 Ellis Mansion, on Sixth Avenue South and called themselves the June Van Meter Post 190, after a fallen war hero.
Interestingly, the ex-Servicemen’s Club was founded in Lyons because the national organization wouldn’t allow two charters in one town. Bob Soesbe’s dad, Phillip, helped form the north end club, and their 100 members vowed that it would be in operation until they had all died. Actually, during the 1960s, when they were down to just four men (Phil Soesbe was one), the club disbanded and its assets were given to charity.
Thankfully, World War II ended successfully in 1945, and thousands of “our boys” returned to their beloved hometown of Clinton. The American Legion, with its liquor and slot machines was a “hot” servicemen’s club, as was the AMVETS. Those young men, whose lives had been “put on hold” for four incredibly long years, were anxious to live life to the fullest.
Bob Soesbe tells me that many of them were not old enough to drink, and when the folks in power at the AMVETS Club on Seventh Avenue South (in the W.J. Young Mansion) heard that, they stopped letting young fellows into the club. These were “men” who’d been drinking throughout the war. So, they all quit and started frequenting Clinton bars where they were accepted (albeit illegally). It’s said most were dating younger girls, and the Chick Inn on 14th Street drew many such couples.
Tommy Oakes was one of the key people at the American legion; “Red” Shanafelt, Paul Eastland, John Murphy and John Banker were among other leaders at the AMVETS. Discounting the liquor and gambling, these organizations provided much good direction for the young vets. The youthful men who were to be civic leaders needed socialization, good counsel, and a sense of purpose. Vets were enabled to access health care at the Veteran Administration in Iowa City and were introduced to various club charities — especially at Christmastime, when they and almost all service clubs delivered food baskets and gifts to the needy.
The crazy “night life” came to a crashing halt around the mid-1950s, when Iowa Attorney General Countryman decreed slot machines and alcoholic beverages verboten. Such clubs would suffer mightily, as Iowa dried up. A few years later, Iowa Gov. Harold Hughes, himself a recovering alcoholic, would ironically restore legalized drinking to Iowa. Some time later, the “silly” Iowa liquor stores would lose their state monopoly.
All the veterans’ clubs had softball teams in the 1950s. The DAV (Disabled American Veterans) had a Kandybowicz pitching for them. The AMVETS had a team too, and Hirsh was their fine “chucker.” Marty Koons and Les Prins were reputed to be two of the best pitchers in the league.
In order to complete the group, we must mention that the Veterans of Foreign War, or VFW, was upstairs from the Fish Bowl — next to Marcucci’s on Second Avenue South. The ex-Servicemen’s Club began in a back room of Joe Roode’s barbershop in Lyons, but eventually moved to the Disbrow Building…where McKinley Street Taverne is currently located. Later, the VFW would relocate to a small former church building, behind what today is Old Town Restaurant — the only business still operating in the middle of Clinton’s new Camanche Avenue corridor.
In the picture, you will see Nick Xidis in the back row. This tall and handsome Clintonian of Greek ancestry ran Candy Land for many years which was a noted restaurant and hang out for youth. Veterans return to Clinton quite often. It’s home to them and nostalgia runs deep. This weekend, the Clinton High class of 1947 is in town and one member, Ted Grayes, still fondly remembers his teen years in Clinton and relishes returning to reminisce.
Historically, there have always been veterans’ clubs, such as the G.A. R. (Grand Army of the Republic) after the Civil War. It was formed by Union soldiers in 1866 and was dissolved in 1956 with the death of its sole remaining member.
These organizations and clubs filled a void for many returning veterans who often found they needed assistance reintegrating themselves into civilian life. Now readjustment is needed by our Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans.
Vietnam and Korean veterans and all who served eventually gravitate to these clubs.
Gary Herrity is the Clinton Herald’s historical columnist. His column appears on page 5A on Fridays.