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‘A gentleman personified’

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Frank Stancil has served as a department commander and Alternate National Executive Committeeman. For nearly nine years, he's been adjutant of the Department of North Carolina.

But as far as Stancil is concerned, one memory stands above all others when it comes to his 28-year involvement in The American Legion: the year he served as aide to National Commander Ray Smith from 2000-2001. Smith passed away Wednesday morning at the age of 78.

"It was a year of a lifetime," Stancil said, thinking back to his time as Smith's aide. "It really was an honor to work with him that year. There was nothing pretentious about him. He was just a genuine, good man, and he had the ability to inspire others to do much better than they thought they were capable. He was positive - he said he didn't like negative people - and I think that we had a very positive year together."

It was a year that Smith, at one time, thought wasn't going to happen. Department of New York Adjutant Richard Pedro remembers Smith worrying about his age, 67 when he was elected national commander. "I told him just to hang in there and that he was going to do fine, and he certainly did," Pedro said. "He was a very good commander, and he was a great person. He was a real gentleman in every sense of the word."

Past National Commander Jake Comer, who will deliver the eulogy at Smith's funeral on Sunday, said he's received dozens of emails from friends about Smith. "The one word used to describe Ray in every email is gentleman," Comer said. "He was a gentleman personified.

"When I'd travel to Florida, he lived right off of I-95, and I'd always stop off and get coffee with he and his wife, Helen. One year I didn't get a chance to stop on the way down, so I stopped on the way back. It happened to be Easter Sunday, and when I knocked on his door, Ray was there with his entire family. He told me, ‘Jake, come in here. We're just getting ready to have dessert.'"

During his tenure as national commander, Smith - a lifetime member of Banner Post 109 in Benson, N.C. - strongly advocated for a constitutional amendment prohibiting flag desecration. He also fought to allow concurrent receipt of DoD pensions and VA disability compensation and end the so-called "disabled veterans tax." He called for legislation to ensure that military absentee ballots were handled uniformly and accurately across the nation.

But perhaps the biggest impact Smith made was on Legion membership. The organization's numbers were sliding when Smith stepped into office. Following his election, Smith pledged to end that. "The membership slide is over," Smith said. "It's time to make recruiting members fun."

He was true to his word. Under Smith's leadership, membership grew to 2.7 million members. Four departments had all-time highs in membership; another 19 hit 100 percent of their membership goal.

"People just responded well to Ray, and he was really able to rally the Legion, at all levels, around his membership plan," Comer said. "We knew he would represent the organization very well, but he really went above and beyond. He was one of our great commanders, in my estimation."

Kristine West served as the American Legion Auxiliary's national president while Smith was national commander. Smith made an impact on her. "It was an extreme pleasure, and I was very, very honored to serve with him," West said. "He was a very kind man, and he always gave me the ultimate respect, as I did him. And he would always speak on behalf of the Auxiliary and the importance of the Legion family."

For 26 years, Smith owned and operated Benson Electric Company, capitalizing on the skills he learned while serving four years in the Air Force during the Korean War. He also worked more than 20 years for the U.S. Postal Service, a bond he shared with longtime Department of North Carolina Executive Committeeman Jerry Hedrick, also a USPS retiree.

Hedrick said that Smith provided him with much-needed guidance when Hedrick joined the NEC in 1992. North Carolina's previous NECman had died in office, and Hedrick, in his own words, "didn't have any idea what I was doing. But Ray helped me immensely."

Sharing the views of others, Hedrick said Smith went about his business quietly. "He wasn't flashy," Hedrick said. "What you saw was what you got. But when he spoke, people listened because they also knew Ray was going to speak the truth. And it was never self-serving. It was always for the good of his family, for The American Legion or for America's veterans."

Smith's service toward his community and veterans didn't start and stop with The American Legion. He'd spent the previous 10 years serving as chairman of the North Carolina Veterans Affairs Commission and also was involved in several youth programs, in addition to serving for years as chairman of the Legion's Americanism Commission. He was named
U. S. Postal Service Citizen of the Year in 1983 and Benson Citizen of the Year in 1988. He also served as town commissioner from 1995 until he was unable to continue due to illness.

After his year as national commander, Smith went back to Post 109 and did what he always had done - went to work recruiting new Legionnaires. A previous post commander and 20-year post adjutant, he became 109's membership chairman. "Not many people have the passion for The American Legion that Ray Smith had," Stancil said. "He kept us on the straight and narrow here. Everyone listened when Ray spoke."

While Smith did a good job of mentoring those who followed him, Hedrick said a hole will now remain in the Department of North Carolina.

"You cannot replace a man of Ray Smith's stature," he said. "There's a void there, even if Ray did do a good job of mentoring people. When you lose someone like that, all you can do is try to go on. But he will be missed - both in this state and in this nation."

Condolences can be sent to Helen Smith, 322 W. Main St., Benson, NC 27504. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to American Legion Auxiliary Unit 109, c/o Betty Jo Young, 2550 NC Hwy 242, South, Benson, NC, 27504, or to Smyrna OFWB Church, c/o Doris Godwin, 200 Eldridge Street, Dunn, NC, 28334.


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Students share Legion knowledge

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Five small working groups gathered Wednesday for the fourth day of American Legion National College in Indianapolis.

Each small group, representing a fictional American Legion post, gave a 20-minute presentation covering an aspect on or program of the American Legion. The fictional posts were located in rural, suburban or inner city areas. A cyber and active duty post were also included.

Topics covered in the presentations included organizing and running an Oratorical program; providing American Legion service officers with training to best serve women veterans and their issues; developing a program to assist in the development and revitalization of a post; and creating a module for a new member orientation.

National staff leadership, as well as Past National Commander Butch Miller, critiqued each group following their presentation.

"It is apparent that you all have been doing your homework," Miller said. "If you go back home and practice what you have learned here, then the future of The American Legion is in good hands."

Additionally, National Commander Fang A. Wong and National Adjutant Daniel Wheeler thanked the students for their participation in Legion College and answered questions the Legionnaires had.

The 52 students will graduate tomorrow from Legion College.

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Blue Star Salute: ‘A real passion’

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Legionnaire Ralph "Zoc" Zoccolillo thought back to 2006, the Indiana Blue Star Salute's first year. At that time, members of Post 145 in Avon, Ind., had only passing knowledge about the flag that honors families with loved ones at war and what Legionnaires were supposed to do about it.

Once Zoccolillo got his hands on an American Legion Public Relations Division Blue Star Salute event planning guide and followed the steps, it all became clear. "This guide brought us where we are today," Zoccolillo said. "It made it easy."

The post had its first local event to honor families of U.S. servicemembers that year. It was held at a local park and drew 55 families from the community.

The following year, neighboring posts got involved, and the Indiana Blue Star Salute reached out to a multi-county region. Today, the June event at Stout Field in Indianapolis attracts hundreds of military families from Indiana and beyond.

"It's something we can really be proud of," Zoccolillo told participants of Legion College Wednesday. "Once we saw how successful the salute was in one town, we realized how many military families there are around the state."

Six central Indiana American Legion posts and their American Legion Riders chapters work together to raise funds from corporate sponsors to help military families throughout Indiana and nearby states. In addition to Post 145, "we have Danville Post 118, Pittsboro Post 426, Brownsburg Post 331, Speedway Post 500 and 329 in Plainfield," Zocolillo said. Members of those posts, their Legion Riders chapters, Auxiliary units and Sons of The American Legion squadrons serve on the Indiana Blue Star program committee. The Indiana American Legion Riders state program also contributes to the program.

"It's year-round now - not just one event," Zoccolillo says. And each year, the event has generated no less than $10,000 for The American Legion Legacy Scholarship Fund, which provides college assistance for the children of military personnel who lost their lives on duty since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Surrounded by Legionnaires and Legion Riders from participating Blue Star Salute posts, Zoccolillo presented a check for $11,000 to American Legion National Commander Fang A. Wong in the National Executive Committee room at National Headquarters in Indianapolis on Wednesday.

"I wish we could put this in a can, mass produce it, and send it to all departments," Wong said during the presentation. "If we could get every community to have a Blue Star Salute, that would not be bad."

Zoccolillo said teamwork among posts is critical to the success of the event. One of the most committed participants in the event is retired U.S. Army Reserve Brig. Gen. Chet Wright, a combat veteran of World War II. "The fact that we're honoring the families of the people who are serving - that's what matters to me," he said following the presentation.

At 93, Wright still attends most of the organizing meetings for the Blue Star Salute, which features music, children's activities, demonstrations, parachuting, a Legion Riders convoy (usually led by a Vietnam-vintage Huey), speeches and Blue Star Banners for military families. Wright says community support for military families at the Blue Star Salute is reminiscent of the World War II days. "This is a complete resurrection of that," he said.

The next Indiana Blue Star Salute is scheduled for June 16, 2012, at Stout Field in Indianapolis. Information about the event - including how military families can register - is available online. The Indiana Blue Star Salute is a tax-deductible 501c3 non-profit organization.

"This is has become a real passion," Zocolillo said. "Every day, every month, we are working on a different project to help military families. So many of our local posts have come together. The goal is to keep making it bigger and bigger."


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New IDVA Veterans’ Service Officer in Carlinville and Taylorville locations

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SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs (IDVA) is announcing Kellie Cravens as the new Veterans Service Officer (VSO) for the agency’s Veterans Service Offices in Carlinville and Taylorville.

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PNC Ray Smith passes away

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Past National Commander Ray Smith, who led The American Legion in 2000 and 2001, passed away at his home Wednesday after a lengthy illness. He was 78 years old.

A resident of Benson, N.C., Smith was a life member of Banner Post 109. He joined The American Legion on Sept. 7, 1955, a day after he left the Air Force. Forty-five years later, on Sept. 7, 2000, Legionnaires elected him national commander at the 82nd National Convention in Milwaukee.

A Korean War veteran, Smith served The American Legion in a number of other leadership positions, including national vice commander, department commander, post commander and chairman of several department commissions. He also served as post adjutant for 20 years.

Smith owned and operated Benson Electrical Co. for 26 years. He retired from the U.S. Postal Service in 1995.

He is survived by his wife, Helen. They have three children, Anita Norris, Gordon Smith and Amy Creed, and five grandchildren.

Condolences can be sent to Helen at 322 W. Main St., Benson, NC 27504.

A more in-depth article about Smith, including comments from his Legion colleagues and friends, will appear online this week.

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