Mention of a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall might conjure up images of war-weathered old men chomping cigars and draining beers in a smoky barroom.
To a point, the cliché holds up. Brick-and-mortar VFW halls were opened to give American soldiers returning from World War II a spot to meet fellow comrades – many of whom returned rattled by overseas combat.
“They needed a battle-buddy safe place where they could unload their troubles on one another,” said Lynn Rolf, a 42-year-old Iraq War veteran programs director with the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States in Kansas City, Missouri. “But people automatically connect the negative connotations of drinking with troubled veterans.”
In McHenry, the multimillion-dollar Queen of Hearts spectacle at VFW Post 4600 has shined a spotlight on the decades-old hall and raised some questions: What is the role of the VFW in the community? Is it more than a beer hall?
Post 4600: An origin story
It was Sept. 25, 1945, three weeks after the end of World War II.
A group of McHenry County veterans met in the basement of St. Mary’s School and created Fox River Valley Post 4600. Three weeks later, the National Veterans of Foreign Wars headquarters issued the group a charter, and it formally became established.
The men behind Post 4600 spent most of 1946 recruiting members. They marched in parades. They raised cash through fundraising dances.
In 1947, Post 4600 hosted its first carnival and raised enough money to buy a 13.7-acre parcel known as the Conway Woods (now at 3002 Route 120) for $5,000. Concrete was poured, and Post 4600 finished its home by Dec. 7, 1948.
Several expansions followed: a dance hall in 1950 for fundraisers, dances and bingo nights and a bigger barroom on New Year’s Eve 1960.
When Post 4600 celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1995, more than 350 veterans had joined. That number now is more than 400.
Gary Snell played his first Little League game on the ball diamonds dotting Post 4600’s property.
It was 1955. The 72-year-old McHenry man was only a boy.
“The farthest thing from a 9- or 10-year-old’s mind is the thought that
10 years later you would be drafted to go to Korea or Vietnam,” Snell said.
A graduate of McHenry East High School, Snell was drafted and sent to Korea. It was 1965, and he wouldn’t return to McHenry until 1968. That’s when he joined Post 4600, and he’s been a member ever since.
“I’ve seen more than my share of parades,” Snell said.
A lot has changed since Snell joined.
The baseball diamonds now are maintained by the McHenry Baseball Association, the hall has expanded twice, and people from across the U.S. know about the Queen of Hearts raffle bringing the post millions of dollars.
The other day, Snell talked to someone in Portland, Oregon, who had heard about Post 4600. Snell sold tickets to someone all the way from Tinley Park.
“If they were giving away money in Tinley Park, I wouldn’t drive down there to get it,” Snell said, laughing.
To guys like Snell, a witness to the VFW’s growth over the years, Post 4600 is more than a bar. It’s a family.
“We do whatever we can to help veterans,” Snell said. “It’s not always easy. No matter what you do, it takes money.”
VFW halls such as Post 4600 have what’s called a relief fund.
It’s a reserve of money available to veterans who might need help to buy a tank of gas to get to work, or a month’s rent to keep a roof over their head.
“We can’t answer every phone call,” Snell said, “but we try to help.”
The VFW’s board has not yet determined what percentage of Queen of Hearts dollars will go into the fund, VFW Cmdr. Dwane Lungren said.
Lungren took over the post in
August 2017. He said Post 4600 offers scholarships to the high school and elementary schoolchildren of veterans that range from $250 to $1,000.
But Lungren’s vision now is focused on in-house improvements to make
Post 4600 known for its food. Since the Queen of Hearts raffle has brought crowds to McHenry, the kitchen has been churning out hundreds of pizzas to feed visitors.
The kitchen soon could be expanded with a stone oven to make homemade pizza dough. Plans to build a beer garden have been approved. The post now has a new outdoor cooler and freezer.
The expansion, Lungren said, will make Post 4600 a bigger draw in the community.
“It used be the image of old men sitting around smoking cigars and drinking beers,” Lungren said. “Things have changed.”