TOMS RIVER – Toms River American Legion Auxiliary Unit 129 commemorated its centennial anniversary at the start of the month with a special celebration.
Unit 129 boasts 546 members and stands out as either the largest or second-largest American Legion Auxiliary in the state of New Jersey.
Numerous plaques and albums filled with historical memorabilia sat on display for guests to peruse as they entered the gathering held at the Post on Church Road.
“The books represent all the information we were able to collect throughout the years,” shared Catherine Galioto, Legion historian. “These here date back to 1996 and cover a great deal of our history.”
According to the organization’s history, Post 129 itself formed in October 1919 when Judge William Howard Jeffrey called for a meeting among World War I veterans to form a post.
The group decided to honor George P. Vanderveer by naming the post in his memory. Vanderveer of Bayville died in the United States. However, his death was attributed to the effects of gas and shell shock injuries he suffered when away at war in France. Vanderveer was the first serviceman from Ocean County to lose his life in the war.
Nationally, American Legion auxiliaries were initially formed to handle tasks traditionally performed by women during that time in history. A century later, men and women can participate in various aspects of legion activities – from regular membership to Auxiliary to sons or daughters of the legion.
Of the 1,300 auxiliary units that began in the same year Post 129 started, Unit 129 was not among them. As legend has it, there was a problem with the mail, and the local charter wasn’t authorized until March 21, 1922.
Before settling in its current Church Road home, Post 129 and Unit 129 started in multiple historic downtown locations. While the present building was under construction, American Legion and auxiliary members held meetings at the Toms River Elks for four years.
“Many of our members became Elks members as a result,” Galioto said. “The George P. Vanderveer Post 129 officially moved to 2025 Church Street on November 27, 2007.”
Lisa Mayer has been president of Unit 129 since 2019 and called it an honor to be part of the organization’s first 100 years and the start of the next 100. Mayer will move to serve as Auxiliary chaplain when Pam Bowen assumes the role as unit president.
“In addition to our members serving our unit, many of our members have worked at other levels,” said Mayer. “We have three who have not only served as our president but also as county presidents. Another three have not been unit presidents but have been county presidents.”
“We have some, including myself, who have become involved at the corporate level,” Mayer continued. “We are very focused on veterans and the military and the community service we do with a focus on all three.”
Bowen said that she became active in the Auxiliary when her son was in the Navy and literally called into service on September 11, 2001. These were difficult times for Bowen, who admitted her contact was limited with her son depending on where he was deployed.
Bowen has served the group in a number of capacities, including two past terms as president. She currently acts as Unit 129’s Poppy Chairman.
“We were just downtown and presented with a Poppy Proclamation by Mayor Hill and the rest of the governing body from Toms River,” said Bowen. “The poppies are a big part of what we do on behalf of our veterans.”
The distribution of poppies by the American Legion in paper form acts to memorialize soldiers who have fought and died in the war. People traditionally offer donations in exchange for accepting the remembrance token.
Auxiliary member Verna Smith held a unique distinction in attending the 100-year anniversary gala. She joined the organization 68 years ago and was around for the group’s 50-year observance as well.
Smith served as the unit’s president on multiple occasions and also held other positions within the organization. While Smith said some of the activities have changed over the years, the mission has remained the same.
“I joined (the Auxiliary) because my husband served in the Army and the importance of showing our veterans our love and support for them,” said Smith. “God bless all of our veterans and the members from Post 129.”
A number of dignitaries attended Unit 129’s 100th Anniversary Celebration, including a representative from Congressman Andy Kim’s office. Jerome Townsend, who serves as a constituents’ advocate, read from a portion of the congressional record.
“This unit has led meaningful community outreach programs, such as scholarships for local high school students, school supply drives, and visits to veterans residing in nursing homes,” Townsend read. “They also carry out their mission of service by speaking out on military and veterans’ issues. Most notably, they’ve been involved in advocating for the 1944 GI bill that provided education and housing benefits for service members returning from World War II.”
Mayor Maurice “Mo” Hill, a Navy veteran, also offered his congratulations and expressed his appreciation for the unit’s work. He spoke to the group concerning a request made regarding the construction of the new veterans outpatient clinic in Toms River.
Hill said that the council passed a resolution asking that the building be named in honor of Lieutenant Bud Lomell, calling him one of the humblest men or women he’d ever met in his life.
“The unit here does phenomenal work,” said American Legion State Commander Daniel Dunn. “The post here does phenomenal work, and the Sons as well. It’s all part of working as a family and getting things done.”