GREENFIELD — He climbed onto the raised platform, placed a hat on his head and talked to the crowd in a funny voice.
As he reached the punchline of his joke — something about a farmer in Minnesota — his audience roared with laughter, some clapping their hands together, others slapping their knees.
But the laughter quieted a moment later as Butch Miller continued, his tone turning from humorous to sentimental as he welcomed a crowd to the newly reopened and remodeled Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2693 in Greenfield Saturday afternoon.
Leaders of the organization recently invested about $300,000 in renovations to the hall at Apple and East Sixth streets, giving the building an up-to-date look complete with all the technology and entertainment of a modern bar in hopes of attracting new, younger members.
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This place, said Miller, a local veteran and former leader in the state’s VFW organization, as he gestured around the room, serves an important purpose. It’s the place where men and women of Greenfield who share one unforgettable experience — a time overseas with boots on the ground in a foreign war — can come together to tell jokes, swap stories and share a laugh.
“But this building, as beautiful as it is, is not the VFW,” Miller said. “The VFW lives in the hearts of everyone seated here today.”
“Enjoy the future, folks,” he added. “This is your post.”
The post first opened in the 1940s after volunteers renovated an old church into a club, members said. In the years since, the place has undergone occasional remodeling and updates; but it’s never received the full facelift it’s undergone in the last four months.
VFW leaders used the organization’s savings to cover the $300,000 renovation that gave their building a sleeker, more contemporary look.
The old wood-panel walls were removed and replaced with beige-painted drywall. WiFi routers and big-screen televisions were installed, and outlets for laptops and phone chargers were placed along the new bar. Several arcade games were set up, and a Web-powered jukebox was placed by the front door, giving visitors access to any song on the internet.
Saturday, the VFW’s leaders threw the doors of the building open to the public to celebrate their hard work. More than 100 people came to the club for a formal flag-raising ceremony, ribbon cutting and party.
But the true goal of the event was to catch the eye of young warriors looking for the camaraderie the club provides, organizers said.
It can take veterans some time to warm up to the idea of joining an organization like the VFW, Bob Workman, the county’s veterans service officer.
Most of the VFW’s current membership — about 180 strong — are 50 or older, but the club and others like it have had a tough time recruiting members in their 20s and 30s, leaders say.
The same struggle had led some posts to shutter their doors: Saturday, Greenfield VFW leaders welcomed about 40 Knightstown residents into their fold, announcing the Knightstown post had closed.
Workman remembers that he waited some 20 years to finally sign up for the organization after he left the military, though he now works every day to convince young veterans, particularly those returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to put off the chance to join a group of people who understand them the way others might not.
Workman and his fellow VFW members see the remodel as an investment in the organization’s future, he said. They are hoping the updated club is the thing they need to attract new members, he said.
The improvements inside the VFW will soon be reflected outside the building as well, Greenfield Mayor Chuck Fewell said. The city has designed plans to rebuild East Sixth Street and put in sidewalks near the facility that should make the area even more attractive.
That construction should begin soon, he said, putting the cherry on top of months of hard work and improvements.
“Phenomenal changes have been made,” Fewell said when speaking to the crowd Saturday. “I appreciate everything our vets do for the community.”