HIBBING — Barbara Hemenway, the president of the local American Legion Auxiliary, was born 75 years ago on Veterans Day.
Among her accomplishments, she’s the chair of the Veterans House Committee, secretary for the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1221 Auxiliary and also the VFW’s Eighth District, a member and fill-in secretary of the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 3, and a former board member and secretary of the state’s first nonprofit Veterans Community Thrift Store in Hibbing.
She also happens to be the first female ever to serve on the American Legion Color Guard.
Seated at a table inside the Veterans Quarters at the Hibbing Memorial Building, Hemenway smiled as she told the Hibbing Daily Tribune last week, “I enjoy seeing the parents teaching their children to put their hands over their hearts, the veterans saluting the flag...It’s a real honor to be involved with all the organizations and everything that I do to help. I don’t feel it’s about me. It’s about the veterans.”
It runs in the family
Hemenway first got involved with the American Legion Auxiliary as a junior member in Hibbing during her pre-teen years. Her father was a stateside U.S. Army veteran. Her mother, Eugene Sundberg, served as president of the Auxiliary, a title she held in 1969 when both Post 222 and the Auxiliary celebrated its 50 year anniversary.
Hemenway would attend Junior Auxiliary meetings in the evenings at the Memorial Building. She became the president of the juniors for several years and at age 13, she became an adult member.
In 1962, Hemenway graduated from Hibbing High School and then married Getty, a member of the U.S. Navy who served in the Vietnam War.
Together, they raised four children. In 1996, Getty died from cancer, which Hemenway said was a result of Agent Orange.
Hemenway, a cancer survivor, spent most of her life working in the restaurant business and even co-owned a drive-in for nearly a decade. She remained a member of the Auxiliary, and watched with pride as her two daughters joined.
In 2012, the then-president of the Auxiliary passed away. The group was in danger of losing its charter if it couldn’t find a replacement. It was then Hemenway decided to follow in her mother’s footsteps and take up the role, which she still holds today.
Celebrating 100 years
This year, the American Legion and the Auxiliary turns 100 years old, as does VFW Post 1221 and its Auxiliary.
The American Legion Auxiliary currently has 30 members, which include the wives of Post 222 members and family members of deceased veterans. New rules now allow husbands of servicewomen to join as well, though no men have joined the local Auxiliary yet.
The group meets the first Monday of every month. They provide assistance to veterans in need of necessities, like food or gas money, which comes from a relief fund. The fund is replenished through the American Legion Auxiliary Poppy Program. The red crepe paper poppies, meant to symbolize the sacrifice of veterans, have been handmade by veterans since the program’s inception in 1921 and are distributed on Memorial Day and Veterans Day for donations, which go directly back to assisting hospitalized or disabled veterans.
“The Auxiliary helped a vet a while back, and we gave $200 in gift certificates,” Hemenway said. “And all the organizations helped this person. Any time a veteran and their family needs help, we can help support them with family matters as far as their rent, their light bill, their house payment, etc.”
The Auxiliary is also involved in the Veteran House Committee, which puts on the local Memorial Day and Veterans Day services and dinners. The group is comprised of commanders and presidents of the local American Legion Post, VFW, DAV, those Post Auxiliaries and the Northeastern Minnesota Women Veterans Organization.
“After I went back and became active with the American Legion Auxiliary, I also became active with the House Committee,” Hemenway said. At the time, the chair for the Veterans House Committee resigned, Hemenway explained, and during a meeting, the current Auxiliary members and commanders encouraged her to take the reins. Though reluctant, she agreed. “They have been awesome as far as helping and being there to do things. The support has been wonderful,” she remarked.
Fifty years of hockey
In 2015, Hemenway made local history as she became the first female ever to serve as a member of the American Legion Color Guard in Hibbing. “I got into this position accidentally,” she recalled with a laugh. “We had a member of the Color Guard that was sick and couldn’t be there, so I asked, ‘Can I help?’ Well, it turned into five, six years of helping.”
The American Legion Color Guard, which typically consists of about three members, presents the American Flag for all varsity boys and girls hockey games.
As the National Anthem plays, they walk out onto the ice and stand at ease until called to attention. They hold out guns. Hemenway raises the flag. And when done, the flag and guns are lowered and they march off of the ice. It’s a tradition that has been taking place for the past 50 years.
“It’s an honor to be involved in what I’m involved in to help veterans and their families,” Hemenway said. “I am so proud of the organizations in what we do.”
Hemenway, who also plays piano, organ and accordion, was once a local performer who sang at many local events, like the Country Show that she used to help cook for and organize for 15 years. It was an event that traveled throughout the area. “It was fun,” she reflected. “I miss that because a lot of the people that were there were seniors and it was something for them to do.” She added, “It was a lot of work.”
The House Committee continues to put on the Veterans Day and Memorial Day celebrations. They recently hosted a “Spring Fling,” complete with a DJ and catered food. They also work well with the local senior organizations, like the Memorial Building Senior Center. And as much of an honor as it is to be a member of these groups, Hemenway said organizations like the American Legion and the Auxiliary are badly in need of new recruits. Young members are few and far between and the future of the charters hang in the balance if that doesn’t change.
As for Hemenway’s take on serving in veteran organizations all these years? “I love it,” she said. “It’s an honor. It’s not about me. It’s about our veterans. Freedom is not free.”