By Alan Sorensen
On Aug. 8, 1933, 40 charter members signed on with the Havre VFW Auxiliary Bear Paw VFW #497 during its inaugural meeting.
The auxiliary's second president, Gladys Cross, was sworn in just five months later in January 1934. Today, Cross, who resides in a Havre care center, is a living reminder of the auxiliary's formation nearly 20 years after the national organization was born. She is believed to be the only remaining charter member of the Havre Auxiliary still living in Havre.
During the intervening years, the VFW Auxiliary has seen an ebb and flow among its membership and now consists of 250 dues-paying members. The only auxiliary unit larger than Havre among District 2's 14 auxiliaries is Great Falls with about 400 members.
Membership is open to nearly any close relative of a veteran: wives, mothers, daughters, grandmothers, foster daughters, granddaughters, half-sisters, step-sisters, step-daughters, adopted daughters. It also is open to all women veterans who wish to hold dual membership.
The club's publicity chairman, Mildred Schneider, is concerned that the club doesn't get enough publicity. She said she wanted to remedy that as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, founded in 1899, enters its second 100 years.
"Combined, the two now have more than 2 million members speaking out for veterans, conducting stand-downs for homeless veterans and awarding scholarships to students," Schneider said.
There are four levels of VFW work: national, department (each of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia and Guam), district and local. The same bylaws, rituals, floor work and business protocol are used at each level.
The auxiliary of the VFW is much smaller than the VFW, with just 713,038 members in 6,459 auxiliaries. Montana has 66 auxiliaries with approximately 5,000 members.
Serving her third term as president of the Havre chapter is Marian Buell. Commander of Havre's VFW chapter is Bob Rice.
Over the years, the Havre chapter has had dozens of state officers. "Havre has been in the limelight a lot, in that way," Schneider said.
Five women have served as state president from Havre: Lucy Clark, 1945-46; Lavonne Albertson, 1949-50; Mildred Schneider, 1958-59; Alma Lodinoff, 1969-70; Bonnie Russell, 1989-90. (The local VFW Post has had two state commanders over the years, too: Robert Durkee, 1957-58, and Keith Abel, 1960-61, and has hosted the state VFW convention six times.
Buell has been appointed as a state color bearer six times and has served as district color bearer. She won the national award for being the outstanding historian in 1989-90. Schneider was presented with the state award for the outstanding state auxiliary of the year in 1996.
Though the membership meets regularly and has ties at the district, state and national levels, VFW Auxiliary is a lot more than meetings and conventions.
Each auxiliary has 14 programs within which it performs a variety of projects. Many of those projects overlap from one program to another.
"There are some we do more in than the others," Buell said. "And we donate money to the four different veterans medical centers in the state: Columbia Falls, Glendive, Miles City and Fort Harrison; and Sheridan VAMC in Wyoming.
The auxiliary's programs and chairwomen are: Americanism, Loretta Kirkedahl and Marian Seeley; Buddy Poppy, Cyndi Murphy and Wanda Osterberg; Cancer Aid and Research, Alta Matter; Community Service, Olive Watson; Hospital, Dorothy Molyneaux and Mildred Schneider; Rehabilitation, Dorothy Molyneaux; Safety, Wanda Osterberg; Youth, Wanda McKinney and Mildred Schneider; VFW National Home, Jane Gilmore.
Two members who have displayed their dedication to the auxiliary by serving in their respective capacities for countless years are Alta Matter as treasurer and Fran Minnick as conductress.
Some of the Havre auxiliary's projects in each program area are:
Americanism: Donate U.S. flags and flag etiquette booklets to anyone who asks, place flags at graves of its deceased members on Memorial Day, take cookies to teachers at all area schools and recognize law enforcement on Make A Difference Day, donate time and money to Red Ribbon Week, volunteer at Red Cross and hospital blood drawings, participate in plant a tree activities, contribute money to Girls State and The Salvation Army, plus money and food to Feed My Sheep Soup Kitchen, send flowers and cards to sick members, Operation Uplink in which ailing veterans are given calling cards to call anywhere, and participate in the Memorial Day and POW program.
Cancer aid and research: In the spring, VFW members sell Buddy Poppies. The auxiliary helps sell the poppies and uses left over Buddy Poppies for table decorations and for contests throughout the rest of the year. All of the proceeds go to veterans and their dependents. Also, part of each member's dues goes toward limited cancer insurance. Every member is eligible for up to two grants of $500 each to help with medical costs associated with cancer. More than 30 members of the Havre auxiliary have benefited from the program over the years, Schneider said. Funds are augmented by raffles held by state and local chapters.
Publicity: "We do not get enough publicity," Schneider said.
Safety: Support gun safety through the VFW's boys and girls gun clubs under the direction of Cal Burr. The auxiliary also participates in programs offering self-protection, home safety, recreational safety, 55 Alive for traffic safety, drug awareness, bicycle safety, fire safety, and recognizes firefighters and police for their safety efforts.
Community service: "We do a lot of funeral dinners, and we do blood drawings once or twice a year," Buell said. "We're providing food and workers on (March 6). We have three or four who always volunteer." The group also handled a dinner recently for about 300 at a scouting awards banquet for boys and donates money and time to the Girl Scouts. Members also volunteer at schools and libraries and other places they may be needed.
Legislative: Marlene Hannah is legislative officer for the Havre club. She keeps members apprised of all pertinent bills and benefits pertaining to veterans and encourages members to vote. The club also provides PAC money to a veterans' lobbyist.
VFW National Home: Located in Eaton Rapids, Mich., the home consists of 71 buildings, including 30 brick houses, on 620 acres. It is home to veterans' orphaned children and veterans' widows with children. "We donate to that all the time," Schneider said. "It's a very wonderful place."
Youth activities: "That is a broad program," Buell said. Two prominent competitions are American Creative Patriotic Art and Voice of Democracy. "We get very little response to those," Schneider said. "(Voice of Democracy) pays $20,000 for first place and, I believe, $5,000 for 15th place."
Buell and Schneider said there is proof that Hi-Line kids have just as a good a chance to win either of those competitions as anyone else. In 1980, the very first year the American Creative Patriotic Art competition was held, it was won by a Joplin student, Jeff Foster.
A 16-year-old sophomore at Joplin High, Foster was sponsored by the Chester VFW Auxiliary Post #3997. His painting, titled "E Pluribus Unum," ended up on the cover of the January, February 1980 issue of the national VFW Auxiliary Magazine.
Other youth programs include donations to the Florence Crittendon Home, HOPE Project and Ronald McDonald House. The club donates money for Christmas treats to each of the state hospitals and provides treats for bingo and other activities at Northern Montana Hospital.
The Havre chapter also donates regularly to the Junior Girls Scholarship fund that is administered by the Troy chapter. Girls 6 to 16 qualify.
"And we have our Gold Star mothers," Buell said. "Mothers who have lost a son in the service. We have two: Rose Cech and Betty Neiss. We honor these mothers on the last Sunday in September."
Molyneaux and Neiss make walker, wheel chair and ditty bags plus lap robes for hospital patients. They also make bibs out of bath towels for residents in the veterans homes.
Three times a year, the auxiliary also makes tray favors for the Havre hospital and care center.
They also make Christmas stockings for patients at the hospitals. "We must send about 100 a year to those different places and they in turn give them to their men and women," Buell said. The club does its best to make sure that each has enough magazines, coffee, books, cookies, cards and money during the year.
The members are enthusiastic about the VFW Auxiliary, Buell said, and want qualified women to know that they are welcome to join at any time.
The national organization's president makes one stop in each state per year. Last year, that stop was in Billings in September. The state convention will be held in Livingston June 14-17.
"It's a wonderful organization," Schneider said, "and I wish people took it more seriously than they do."