Still a young, rosy-faced teenager, Stoughton’s Otis Sampson’s brief life ended in the muddy, shell-pocked battlefields around Verdun, France, in the fall of 1918, during the bloody climax of World War I.
More than 100 years later, he remains forever young – frozen in time in his olive drab Army uniform, bearing a confident grin – as he welcomes visitors to “his” American Legion Post in Stoughton.
And so it has been for 100 years, as next week, the proud post that bears Sampson’s name plans to celebrate in his honor, and that of the hundreds of servicemen and women of the area who also have served their country. The event is set for 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, at the post, 803 Page St., with an honor guard presenting the flags, a proclamation by Stoughton Mayor Tim Swadley and presentations on the post’s history by Steve Grady and vice-commander Larry Johnson, including a selection of photos from through the years.
Post 59 past commander Mary Lloyd said the post has invited more than 150 businesses, organizations and people who have supported the American Legion over the years.
She said the group is “trying to get the word out” to include as many people from the community as possible to join in the celebration. The plan is to arrange it in a “mini-museum setup” where people can look at various displays and photos that will be arranged around the building.
“We would like everybody to come out and see kind of what we do behind the scenes,” Lloyd told the Hub last week. “Maybe people don’t know about the honor guard service we provide, or other services for veterans in the community, so they’ll have an opportunity to learn about all those things we do that nobody knows about.”
Grady, who serves as the post’s historian, said while there wasn’t a lot of collected information to look through from the post’s 100 years, it was interesting to gather things together in preparation for next week’s celebration.
He said other than a book project a few years ago cataloging past commanders, the post doesn’t have much in the way of an archived history.
“This was really the first time we’ve done anything (like this),” he told the Hub last week.
When the post was first chartered in 1919 – a year after the end of World War I – it had no permanent home and a membership of 72. Today, there are around 375 members.
After several temporary homes, the post’s first official building was established in 1945, in the stately brick former church at 401 Fifth St. (corner of Jefferson Street) that now houses Smith Photographics.
“It was called the soldiers’ center, that’s how it started out,” Grady said.
The post eventually sold the building to Smith and moved to a few more temporary places while they sought a more permanent home. Grady said the post had even purchased a parcel of land at the corner of U.S. Hwy. 51 and County Hwy. N before they ended up moving into the current location on Page Street in 2008.
Serving vets, communityWhile the physical location has changed through the century, Grady said what hasn’t changed is the post’s mission to serve veterans and the community.
“I can’t talk a lot about 1919, because I’m not that old, but it’s pretty much stayed the same,” he said. “We do things for the high school kids, give scholarships, and send care packages (to service members) all the time. Even if there’s not a war on, we’ll still send those to vets.”
Grady said the post is important, as it serves as a “museum of Stoughton people.” He compared it to the Stoughton Area Veterans Memorial Park, which was dedicated in 2017, culminating many years of planning and more than $1 million in fundraising between the Legion and VFW Post 328.
Among its prized possessions are a book and DVD section, a Purple Heart section honoring veterans with photos and plaques and a uniform area.
“I just got a Marine uniform I put in there, with a ‘sharpshooter’ medal,” he said. “There’s a lot of history in the building itself.”
And there’s a lot more that goes on at the post and around the Stoughton Area as a result of the national organization.
Incorporated by Congress in 1919 as a patriotic veterans organization devoted to “mutual helpfulness,” the Legion is “committed to mentoring youth and sponsorship of wholesome programs in our communities, advocating patriotism and honor, promoting strong national security, and continued devotion to our fellow service members and veterans,” according to its website.
From sponsoring American Legion Baseball to “Operation Comfort Warriors,” which supports recovering wounded service members and their families, the Legion donates millions of dollars each year at the local, state and national levels to help veterans and their families during times of need and to provide college scholarships.