Members of Chicago Local 134 gathered on Memorial Day this year, just as they have since 1935. It’s a different kind of Memorial Day gathering than anywhere else in the IBEW – or in the entire labor movement.
Michael D. Nugent, retired international representative, has been a member of American Legion Post 769 since 1969.
Local 134 has sponsored American Legion Post 769 since September 1934. Records are incomplete, but it is believed to be the only local in organized labor that currently does so.
And every year, members gather at Mount Emblem Cemetery with friends and family to read the names of Post 769 members who have passed away. All were members of Local 134. It’s a prerequisite to joining what they call the Electric Post.
“When I first started going there and they read the names, it seemed like a bunch of old people,” said Mike Rummery, a Vietnam War veteran and the Post’s commander for the last nine years. “Now, when we announce the deaths of members, it’s a lot of guys who I know and worked with. It’s a pretty sobering experience.”
Retired International Representative Michael D. Nugent was initiated into Local 134 in 1968, not long after being discharged from the U.S. Army. He joined the post soon after, served as commander in 1976 and has remained active in it even after being assigned to the International office in Washington, D.C., in 1978.
He returns every Memorial Day for the ceremony and remembers his father, John Ross Nugent, a Local 134 member who served in the Army Air Corps in World War II; and father-in-law, Jack Rogers, a 134 member who served in the Marines during World War II.
“Probably more than half the names they read now, I’m familiar with,” he said.
“We are still around and I would like us to stay around,” Nugent added. “I read the name of my father and father-in-law at this every year. One of the inducements to membership is you are not going to be forgotten. Someday, my name is going to be on there and read.”
Mount Emblem is the burial site of Charles R. Paulson, Post 769’s founder in September of 1934 and its first commander.
Paulson was a World War I veteran and the son of Charles M. Paulson, who served on the International Executive Council from 1930 until his death in 1957, including 23 years as chairman. The post was a place of support for Local 134’s large number of World War I veterans and the younger Paulson may have been given permission to start the post by his father, who often was out of town on IBEW business, Nugent said.
The headstone of Charles R. Paulson, the founder of American Legion Post 769, in Chicago’s Mount Emblem Cemetery. Paulson sometimes went by the name of Carl.
Business Manager Mike Boyle, whose dynamic leadership helped turned Local 134 into a dominant force on the Chicago labor scene in the early 20th century, also started several clubs within the local to see what members might be future leaders. He may have pushed for its formation as well, Nugent said.
“The American Legion was one of those paths toward recognition and approval,” he said.
The younger Paulson died not long afterwards at the age of 36. The post held its first Memorial Day service in 1935 and it has been an annual event ever since. Membership once stood at 400 members, but is now down to about 30, said Rummery.
The drop in membership is attributable to many factors, he said. With an all-volunteer military since the 1970s, the number of veterans who are members of Local 134 continues to decline. The ones who are veterans are spread out over a much larger geographic area and may have an American Legion post closer to their home.
Many of the most loyal members were World War II veterans, most of whom have passed away. Younger veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have more support groups to choose from than older veterans traditionally did.
The fall in membership isn’t unique to Post 769. It’s had an impact on American Legion posts all over the country. The New York Times reported in 2013, the last year for which public figures are available, that membership nationwide had fallen 11 percent to 2.3 million since 2000.
“There’s just so many other things to do,” Rummery said. “After World War II, the American Legion hall was where you went for $5 and you could dance with your wife and have a few beers. There wasn’t much other stuff going on.”
Rummery said Local 134 officers remain supportive. They’ve supplied everything he’s asked for during his time as commander and Post 769 holds its meetings inside Local 134’s executive conference room. They’ve supported attempts to reach out to younger veterans.
“I’ve gone through four business managers and all have been behind us 100 percent,” he said. “All of them have told me, ‘Whatever you need, just let me know.’“
Local 134 Business Manager Donald Finn was among those reading the list of names during this year’s ceremony.
“Post 769 is a big part of our history and remains a point of pride for all our members, including those who didn’t serve in the military,” Finn said. “They recognize the role veterans paid in protecting our freedom. We will continue to honor and support those who served and remember who made the ultimate sacrifice. It’s something that binds us from generation to generation.”