For more than 30 years, local military veterans have gathered the Saturday of the Fulton County Fair for a traditional bean dinner and a lot of fellowship and reminiscing.
The hugely successful event held by the Fulton County United Veterans attracted about 2,500 people last year. This year, however, the tradition is in danger of ending. The veterans that began and have annually held the dinner have become too old for the physical work involved, and no one from younger generations is stepping up.
“Everybody would hate to see it die out. It’s just been too much of a good thing for the community,” said Ken O’Neil, United Veterans commander.
Held in the veterans pavilion at the fairgrounds, the bean and ham hocks dinner is free to all veterans and their families. It’s served from 11 a.m. until the food is gone, and it gives fellow veterans the opportunity to sit back and talk and reminisce about their experiences.
This year’s dinner is scheduled Sept. 3. But O’Neill said that unless a younger group of organizers comes forward at the United Veterans’ meeting June 23 at 7:30 p.m. at Wauseon VFW Post 7424, the dinner won’t take place.
“It’s getting harder and harder for anybody to help. We need younger folks from the veterans organizations to step up,” he said.
The average age of the approximately 20 active members of United Veterans is 75 to 80 years old.
O’Neil, who served six years with the U.S. Army, and was a Green Beret at the time of his discharge in 1971, said he would hate to see the annual dinner end. “I don’t want to see it. And I’m going to use all my power not to see it,” he said.
Begun as a fundraiser by the Fulton County American Legion Council, the bean dinner was eventually broadened to include all Fulton County veterans organizations, and includes raffles and door prizes donated by area businesses and individuals. The dinner of beans, which includes salad and rolls, is a humorous nod to the ubiquitous bean meals soldiers have endured for decades.
Fulton County United Veterans is an umbrella veterans group supporting all veterans units in the county through fundraising and donations. O’Neil said anyone belonging to one of the county’s veterans units is considered a member.
He said the dinner offers respite for veterans, a place where they and their families can relax and catch up with other veterans during the county fair.
“We get some fantastic crowds up there. It is a major function of the fair,” O’Neil said. “Everybody just sort of gets together and reminisces and has a good time. We want to show the vets we appreciate them, and the best way to do that is through a meal.”
United Veterans has sent letters requesting help to all the veterans organizations in the county but have gotten no response. Both veterans and their families are welcome to attend the June meeting and become involved, and won’t be abandoned by current members, O’Neil said.
“We’ll be right there with you, but we just cannot do the physical labor anymore,” he said. “We want these guys to be in charge. If you’ve got a suggestion, we want to hear it. We’ll be available for anything they need.”
He understands there are legitimate reasons behind the lack of volunteerism.
“It’s part of today’s society,” O’Neil said. “Nobody’s making the kind of money they used to make, and it’s hurting a lot of people. They need to take time to care for their families. (And) we’re losing that mentality of, ‘Look, I’m giving back.’”
He said another barrier is the number of younger veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “(It’s) preventing a lot of them from joining organizations because they don’t want the reminder.”
Still, “We definitely need the younger guys to give us moral support. They have valid reasons for not joining up, but it’s something we’d like to see,” O’Neil said.
Ernie Gorey has been involved with the dinner since 1989. He said the veterans pavilion at the county fairgrounds was built in 1997 specifically for the gatherings.
“It’s important that the veterans communicate with one another so they can stick together. Veterans are comfortable talking with other veterans, and it’s a way of socializing,” he said.
Gorey said although volunteers are hard to find, “we’ll get somebody to step up.”
United Veterans does accept donations through any Fulton County veterans organization, O’Neil said.
David J. Coehrs can be reached at 419-335-2010.