When you think of the face of Akron’s North Hill these days, your first thought may be of the Bhutanese immigrant community that now calls it home. But one of the vestiges from a previous wave of immigration can still be seen in the form of the Polish Legion of American Veterans. While the Polish community there is not what it once was, two brothers are doing their best to keep Pulaski Post 32 going. Their story is featured in the new edition of the Devil Strip.
What drew The Devil Strip's editor-in-chief Rosalie Murphy to the story? “The brothers actually reached out to me,” Murphy said.
She said Mike Cervellino, the post's 2nd Vice President, sent a message to The Devil Strip's Facebook page that he and his brother Vinny had just been elected to the North Hill post.
“They invited me down for a drink and naturally, I accepted,” she said. “When I got there, what I found was this building on the corner of Glenwood and Dayton street in North Hill -- it’s most notable for a having an old cannon out front. If you grew up in Akron, you may be familiar with it.”
Not unlike other veterans' clubs
Murphy said the post is comparable to a VFW or American Legion post. “Like those organizations, the Polish Legion of American Veterans (PLAV) has seen declining membership over the last 30 years,” she said.
The numbers have declined nationally, not just in Akron. Murphy said the PLAV membership rules changed in 1992 to no longer require Polish ancestry to join. She said she has been to a few other VFW halls and American Legion posts, and said the community at PLAV is noticeably close.
“It’s a very small community and very tight-knit,” she said. ‘Everyone I met there…told me ‘I’ve been a member of this post for decades,’ in some cases 30 years, and ‘I come here four days a week, five days a week; this is my family.’”
Murphy added that the closeness of the group is also one of the legion’s challenges.
“As the community grows so close, fewer and fewer people have been joining as new members,” she said.
Why North Hill?
Murphy said there was a large Polish community in North Hill when the legion was founded in 1933.
“Especially around the time of World Wars I and II…there were dozens of Polish families,” she said.
Murphy said the Cervellinos are working to offset the decrease in memberships in the legion.
“What Mike and Vinny have decided that they need to do…is that they need to recruit a new generation of members,” she said. “So that would be targeting veterans who’ve served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Vinny served in the Gulf War and has even reached out to some of his peers.”
She said they have also had Marine recruiters host trainings at the post, which brought five new members, and invited University of Akron vets to spend time there as well.
“When I talk to these men who have been members of the post for 30 years, the question becomes...if the thing you love about this place is that it is so close-knit, are you worried about a new influx of people?” she said. “I think the answer is a bit yes and no.”
She added that most members understand the need for new members to keep the post “afloat,” but “with that, naturally, comes a change in the culture of the place.”
A generational challenge
Murphy said the concept of a private club like the PLAV is a bit unfamiliar to those in her generation.
“I had one conversation with a 23-year-old woman, Sarah, who is a member, and she joined because she grew up there -- her grandfather was a long-time member,” she said. “She said, ‘when I spend time here, as opposed to another bar, I can leave my wallet on the table and step out onto the patio and come back and trust that’ll be there. I know everybody here.”
In the quest for new membership, Murphy said providing veterans with services and a community is still the first priority for the Cervellino brothers.
“Both told me that when they returned from service…they didn’t really have a place where they could go spend time with other veterans,” “Their goal is still to make sure that this is still a place where veterans can come and have a community and empathize with each other and empathize and connect to resources.”
The story, “North Hill’s Polish veterans club seeks a new generation of members,” appears in the new issue of the magazine, which you can find here.