WILTON — Following the death of Wilton son James B. Whipple, who was killed in Belleau Aisne, France, on June 3, 1918, while trying to help wounded fellow marines, 15 veterans of World War I petitioned to create an American Legion post in Wilton. A permanent charter was granted on Oct. 1, 1920.

One hundred years later, members of James B. Whipple American Legion Post 86 gathered on Oct. 3 at the headquarters on Old Ridgefield Road to mark its centennial.

Approximately 50 invited guests joined post members in a celebration kept small due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among them was U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

“We live in a challenging time, just as the namesake of this post lived in 100 years ago,” he said. “He was the first Wilton resident to be killed in action. He earned two bronze stars and a purple heart. He was a hero. And the time that we live in now has also given us heroes … everybody who has reported for duty during this pandemic.”

Blumenthal mentioned how two of his sons have served — one in the Marine Corps, one in the Navy — “during the longest war in our nation’s history … fought by the smallest proportion of our population, less than 1 percent of Americans have fought in this 20-year-plus war and the American Legion has been there for them, as it has been for Americans who have fought in every conflict, in every war in our history.

“I’m proud to be a member of the American Legion and I’m proud particularly of this post, which has supported Homes for the Brave, Kick for Nick, Forgotten Female Soldiers, not just men but also the women who have served. I’m here to say thank you.”

Blumenthal then presented a certificate of special recognition from the U.S. Senate for Post 86 as well as a flag that has flown over the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Blumenthal characterized posts like Wilton’s as “the backbone of our veterans service system. They reach out to welcome veterans home and provide caring and comradeship that sustains many veterans through tough times.”

State Sen. Will Haskell, D-26, on behalf of himself and fellow legislators state Reps. Gail Lavielle, R-143, and Tom O’Dea, R-125, presented the post with a citation from the Connecticut General Assembly. Second Selectwoman Lori Bufano, who grew up in Wilton and said she “can’t remember a time the post wasn’t here,” read a proclamation from the town on behalf of First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice.

There were a number of American Legion officials from around the state who attended, including Legion Department Commander Dennis Beauregard, who attributed the post’s success to the “veterans, the Legionnaires and the full support of the community.”

Later, he said, “it’s a wonderful thing a post can be active for 100 years.” Post 86 is one of about 150 posts in the state.

“It’s a safe place to go, where your friends are … you always feel comfortable no matter where you go in the country,” he said.

The past

The early members of the post were active — reenacting a WWI battle in Orem’s Field and raising money to construct a building. In 1927 Robert W. Keeler sold the Old Ridgefield Road property to the post and architect Nelson S. Breed drew up plans for the building that would be paid for by money raised through raffles and card games. As war was raging once again in Europe, the building was dedicated on Dec. 20, 1939.

Post and auxiliary members spent the war years of the 1940s writing letters to service members overseas, selling war bonds, and collecting scrap metal for war production. Members manned aerial observation towers that watched for enemy air attacks. Boy Scout Troop 20 got its start through the post as did a group of Explorer Scouts.

In the 1950s, the post welcomed its first female veterans and instituted its Legion School Award to students at Wilton and Weston high schools and Middlebrook School, a tradition that continues today. The Post 86 High School Scholarship was begun in the 1980s, as were Legion baseball teams.

The 21st century saw the post’s first flag retirement ceremony, a tradition that continues every September. Post member Ken Dartley helped start Kick for Nick, a foundation named for Wilton High School graduate Nick Madaras, who was killed by an IED while serving in the army in Iraq. The foundation sends soccer balls to troops and others to give to children overseas. To date it has sent more than 57,000 soccer balls to more than 55 countries.

Post 86 also became a vocal supporter of the first home for homeless female veterans in the state. Shalini Madaras, Gold Star mother to Nick, was the major driving force behind the effort that resulted in the “PFC Nicholas A. Madaras Home for Female Veterans in Bridgeport.

Three times in 10 years, the post nominated someone for the state Legion’s highest award, the Americanism Award, given to a civilian. Mike Mastroni of the “Fallen Heroes Foundation,” Bill and Shalini Madaras of Kick for Nick and PFC Nicholas A. Madaras Home, and Dann Pompa, leader of Wilton High School’s Socks for Soldiers and Peervention club are the honorees.

At the state level, Sean McNeill was recognized as Sgt.-at-Arms of the Year, and Don Hazzard was named Legionnaire of the Year as well as Post Commander of the Year.

The future

During Saturday’s festivities, the post recognized one of its own, the late Navy veteran Vincent Von Zwehl, who died last year.

“His devotion to other veterans, his volunteerism, his stories and jokes, and his generosity will never be forgotten,” past Commander Don Hazzard said. His widow, Connie Von Zwehl, continues to support the post in many ways including catering its special events. To honor him, the post members dedicated their meeting hall in the name of Von Zwehl.

For the future, current Commander Bill Glass said the post will continue its legacy of support for veterans, youth and the community through the four pillars of the American Legion: veterans affairs and rehabilitation, national security, Americanism, and children and youth.

Earlier this year, the post established its Centurion Club in honor of its 100th anniversary. Anyone who contributes $100 by Dec. 31 will be recognized as a member of the club with a certificate and their name inscribed on a plaque at the post. Donations may be brought to the post at 112 Old Ridgefield Road or mailed to PO Box 75, Wilton, CT 06897-0075. Donations are not tax-deductible but will support ongoing programs and daily operations.

The post welcomes visitors whenever it is open.