Around the Nation
by Tom Van Dusen
Several weeks after it was confirmed with an oversized ceremonial cheque, Walter Hobden, past president of Eganville Branch 353, still has trouble believing the level of community support directed towards the local Legion after word got out it was in dire financial straits.
Like so many other Eastern Ontario Legions, Branch 353 was crippled by the repercussions of COVID-19, most of its events and usual sources of income cancelled. Meanwhile, monthly expenses continued to pile up. The Legion had been hosting fundraising barbecues to stay afloat.
Hobden recently showed a visitor around Eganville’s spacious Legion hall, still dark most of the time but no longer having to worry about closing the doors permanently. The amount on the cheque was for $83,000.
“I thought we might get $5,000,” said the retired high school teacher and Legion Deputy Zone Commander in reference to the “Operation: Save Our Legion” campaign… a title which had both a military and an urgent ring to it.
But Hobden and others underestimated the importance in the community of the local institution — celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2020 — a place where most area residents in non-COVID times gather several times a year.
Hobden glows with pride when he considers that importance. Like other rural Legion branches, the one in Eganville is essential to community life. With that in mind, it’s being spruced up during the slow times, its impressive hardwood floor scheduled for refinishing thanks to a grant independent of the $83,000.
“You can see where our dance floor is,” he chuckles, pointing out a section in front of the stage much more discoloured then the rest of the surface. Yes, a lot of heels have been kicked up here over a lot of years, partly at events where the Legion helped raise thousands of dollars for other organizations.
In a situation not unusual in rural communities, the campaign took on a life few had anticipated after local newspaperman Gerald Tracey got hold of the story and ran with it, going beyond covering the news to making the news.
Tracey is veteran publisher/owner of the independent Eganville Leader, Renfrew County’s largest paid circulation community newspaper, an ardent Eganville booster, and a former student of Hobden’s at Opeongo High School.
When Tracey was told of the financial plight, he knew it would take more than a story to save the Legion. He decided to kick start a committee made up of himself, Hobden and Claude Jeannotte of the Legion, Rotarians Dave Clark and Wayne Gorman, and former Bonnechere Valley Mayor Zig Mantha. The initial goal was $20,000-$30,000.
Not only did Eganville and area residents respond in droves over six weeks, so did former residents and family of deceased Legion members from far and wide. It soon became obvious that everybody loves their Legion, Tracey said, and hold it in high esteem. Not only will money collected help get Branch 353 through C-19, but it’ll help ensure future sustainability.
Tracey suggested that 2020 will go down in history, not only as the year of COVID, but as the year the community came to the aid of the Legion after the Legion came to the aid of the community for 75 years.
As Deputy Zone Commander, Hobden visits branches across the region, and he said few have given to the community to the extent of Branch 353, a record to be proud of: “Suddenly, we had no more money to give… and that really hurt.”
The money given back will help cover many monthly expenses, with a head start already made on fuel costs: McCarthy Fuels of nearby Killaloe donated 1,000 litres of propane to the branch.
The campaign should be inspirational to other struggling rural Legion branches which wonder how supporters might greet fundraising campaigns in their own jurisdictions.