(Some of the following was taken from an article in the La Mesa Patch and some which had already existed on the website of Post 282. It is combined here along with some editorial changes so that some military history of La Mesa and that of Post 282 can be in one place and to provide some references for further research.)
Historians generally recognize U.S. Memorial Day’s formal origins to commanding Union General John A. Logan’s 1868 proclamation honoring all Civil War dead. This was then often referred to as “Decoration Day” in remembrance of the fallen. Through the early 1900s, this special day of remembrance expanded from its northern roots to a nationally accepted holiday, now called Memorial Day.
La Mesa’s earliest record of special “Memorial Day” services dates to the 1890s. With the establishment of the first local church, La Mesa Congregational at the La Mesa Town-site (near today’s 70th and El Cajon Boulevard) in 1895, these early services usually featured special sermons for the last Sunday in May. In 1898 the Congregational Church sponsored a “union” service for all denominations featuring “a special sermon and extra singing in honor of Memorial Day.” The El Cajon Valley News and San Diego County Advertiser of 4 Jun 1898, reported a large crowd attending to honor the community’s Civil War veterans as well as those local lads who were likely to join in the recently declared Spanish-American War of 19 Apr 1898 and seemingly days later, the Philippine-American War which actually ended in 1914 though officialy 1902.
With local pioneering La Mesa civic leaders such as Civil War veterans Colonel James Randlett and Major Henry Roach, recognition of hometown veterans would expand beyond the annual church services. Starting in 1908, the first of the nearly 20-year-long tradition of annual Fourth of July parades would feature local veterans of these conflicts along with other military actions.
By 1916, La Mesa’s “Old Soldiers Fraternity” had grown. That year, veterans were featured in services at La Mesa’s Methodist, Congregational and Baptist churches. After a morning service, the “fraternity of old soldiers” marched for the first time east out to Lemon Avenue to the Evergreen Cemetery (at today’s Bancroft and Lemon). This special Memorial Day service featured music, song, Scripture and poem readings, decoration of soldiers’ graves, closing hymns and prayers.
The La Mesa Scout of 2 June 1916 reported the typical details of how locals Rev. Charles Hill, Rev. H.L. Glover, Rev. E. E. Marshall, Dr. Henry Porter and San Diego Cuyamaca & Eastern Railroad President Captain W.A. Waterman provided inspirational readings and talks, interspersed with a full choir, local band and color guard. These musical groups accompanied the crowd through their solemn ceremonies to honor “the comrades and comrades’ wives who have heard reveille and for whom taps have been sounded for the last time.”
(In 1899, due to the war conditions, benefits, etc., and treatment of the veterans needing medical care (non-existant), the Veterans of Foreign Wars was founded. In 1985, La Mesa’s Veterans of Foreign Wars O. K. Ingram Ship Post #1774 moved from San Diego to La Mesa and became its sole VFW Post. See www.vfwlamesa.org.)
After World War I, the focus on Memorial Day also grew. The American Legion was chartered by Congress in 1919 as a patriotic and mutual aid organization focusing on service to veterans (and has since evolved into one of the most influential Veterans nonprofit 501(c)(19) groups in the United States). In December 1919, San Diego Post 1 was organized and later became San Diego Post 6. Former service members from La Mesa and the surrounding area joined the San Diego Post because it was the only American Legion Post in the county. In 1921, El Cajon formed its own [Sequon] Post 303 (now El Cajon Post 303) and most of the Legion members from the La Mesa area transferred their membership to El Cajon.
The influx of ex-service personnel to this part of the county soon made it apparent that to best serve the needs of the veterans in this area, that a new Legion Post in La Mesa should be formed. So, in March 1923, LA MESA POST NO. 282 was organized and was chartered on 28 June 1923. It was led by its first elected Commander, Dr. Joseph A. Parks (who had relocated to La Mesa in 1905 and who had served as an Army doctor during the Great War (World War I) and who was later elected the first Commander of the San Diego County Council of the American Legion). His leadership was instrumental in the growth of the Post and to the American Legion’s continued presence in La Mesa and later in San Diego county.
The El Cajon and La Mesa Posts held joint Memorial Day services in 1924 for which the highlight was the screening of the WWI motion picture Flashes of Action at the new La Mesa Theater (now the Gypsy Treasures store). At that time, La Mesa’s Legion co-sponsored the show with the San Diego Veterans of Foreign Wars Post.
La Mesa’s Memorial Day event in 1925 included the traditional services plus a parade of “Legionnaires (WW I vets) along with veterans of the Spanish-American War, Philippine-American War, and of the Grand Army of the Republic (that included one La Mesa resident, 88-year-old Emory Hodgkins). The parade went down Lookout Avenue to the La Mesa Grammar School auditorium. Local Red Cross members, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and grammar school children joined in the parade.
In the first years of its existence the Post had no home of its own. Meetings were held in store rooms, offices, churches, schools, and private homes. The membership realized a permanent home was necessary if the Post was to survive and serve the community’s needs. The first step toward a permanent home was in 1925 with the purchase of the lot on which the La Mesa Baptist Church now stands. The Post’s membership and Auxiliary worked to raise the funds for construction of its first Legion Hall. After a two-year fundraising project, the American Legion broke ground on its first “Legion Memorial Building” on the southwest corner of Orange and Acacia avenues in March 1927. The 30x54-foot building was less than half the size originally envisioned but still included an auditorium with dance floor, kitchen and office. It was formally dedicated on May 6, 1927. This small building would be the home of La Mesa’s American Legion for nearly 20 years. During the 1936-1937 years, this first La Mesa Post 282 Legion Hall was enlarged by donated labor of the members.The years 1926 and 1927 became some of the Post’s most active years. In 1926, the corner lot next to the first lot was purchased. In the spring of 1926, the La Mesa Post 282 Auxiliary was organized under the leadership of Mrs. Rose Miller Parks (wife of Commander Dr. Joseph A. Parks) as its first President. This enlarged membership base thus provided an enhanced focus of the American Legion efforts to the community and its veterans for both veteran males and the wives of the veterans.
During the period following World War I there were many examples of the Post taking care of veterans while at the same time trying for their permanent home. During 1928 and 1929, the Post members built a home for a disabled veteran. This veteran was not a member of The American Legion but the membership, under the advice of the Service Officer and the Post’s officers realized a comrade was in need and they came to his aid. The merchants of La Mesa, hearing of this, came to the Legion’s assistance with finances for materials and a better home was built for the family of the veteran. The Legion also continued to be an important service institution by sponsoring beauty pageants, youth baseball, picnics, and Memorial Day events that included yearly parades up through the year 1937.On February 7, 1933, our first Post Commander Parks died. In 1934 the Post “unanimously” voted the name of the future war memorial building, the “Joseph A. Parks Memorial Hall.” (In Commander Parks’ memory, a bronze bust of him can be found above the current entrance to the main hall. It was created and presented to the Post by the sculptor, James T. Porter, on November 10, 1933.) Dr. Parks’ death and the Great Depression did not quench the resolve of the membership in its quest for a permanent home that is owned by the membership. Only World War II delayed it. During years of 1941-1945, La Mesa Post 282 joined with all other American Legion Posts and other patriotic organizations in assisting the United States in its efforts in the war. Volunteers from the Legion helped the draft board’s registrations for the draft and in any other way they could. Civilian defense was largely set up through the Legion’s efforts. Practically all other activities were discontinued for the duration of the war, so that all energy could be given in the war effort.
World War II and the Proposed Civic Auditorium and War Memorial Building
La Mesa’s home-front involvement in World War II resulted in wartime recognition of our military heroes as well as plans for a more permanent memorial. Starting in 1943, the City of La Mesa erected a billboard at the northwest corner of Spring Street and La Mesa Boulevard that listed La Mesa residents who were in military service. The billboard would be taken down in 1946. During the same time, it was clear to city officials that La Mesa and the region’s exponential population growth would require a similar expansion of civic government and facilities.
In early 1943, Mayor Ben Polak brought together a group of civic and business leaders, along with planning consultants, to create the “Greater La Mesa Committee.” After a year of planning, the committee identified the city’s No. 1 postwar priority as a new War Memorial Auditorium.
In August 1944, local architects Alberto Treganza and Sam Hamill produced a series of drawings depicting a new War Memorial Auditorium as part of a major civic center for La Mesa (filling the property of today’s Civic Center). However, the beautiful but grandiose plan - and its $250,000 price tag (most houses could be built for under $5,000 in 1944) - seemed out of reach. Shortly after the end of the war, the fewer than 10,000 La Mesa’ns and their civic leaders scaled back their vision.
By the summer of 1947, city leaders refocused on the smaller goal of a badly needed Youth Center and recreational facilities for Memorial Park (later renamed MacArthur Park, but still entered through Memorial Drive). In October 1947, the city revamped its Civic Committee and began to rethink its Civic Center plans. In doing so, the vision of a large war memorial auditorium would slip from the eventual development plans of the Civic Center in the 1950s.
American Legion Moves Forward With Its Own Plans
At the end of World War II, the American Legion took up the Legion program as it was before the war. With the change in the American Legion Constitution in regards to the acceptance of service men and women of World War II as eligible members of the American Legion, in early 1946, the La Mesa American Legion Post along with the civically active Women’s Auxiliary led by Mrs. Rose Miller Parks (Dr. Parks’ widow and the long-standing City treasurer) recognized that the Post membership of 325 members was about to swell with returning veterans. Thus, a committee was appointed to select a site for a new and larger building.
In February 1946, the Post agreed to purchase a parcel of municipal property north of University Avenue between Baltimore Drive and Date Avenue for $2,525 and to swap some land then owned by the Baptist church to build a new, and much larger, Legion Hall (the new American Legion building would have been directly across from the then proposed City War Memorial Auditorium). The Legion then began its estimated $50,000 fundraising campaign to ensure that an appropriate facility was in place to honor La Mesa’s veterans and Post members.
Construction of the new Legion building started in May 1947 but was still an estimated $9,000 short of funds to complete in September. In order to save money, the project leaders, including decorated World War I veteran Rube Levy, recruited volunteer labor, volunteers from the Post, and local contractor George Riha. The volunteers worked every spare minute they had to complete this, their first home. Some nights, workers were still sawing and hammering away at two o’clock in the morning. The thing that cheered the tired workers along was the Auxiliary serving midnight meals to all workers. The Auxiliary, as well as the La Mesa Post 282 members, worked this way for months. The building was completed in time for a 1947 New Year’s Eve dance event to christen the Hall.
On 21 Feb 1948, Post Commander Ira Durham led the formal dedication of the new Joseph A. Parks Memorial Building. Former Post commanders and Mrs. Parks herself were among the luminaries who spoke of the importance of the new Legion Hall to all those who had served their country in the military and to the sacrifices of their families back home.
Korea was a war, though then it was called a Police Action. The Vietnam War was supported in the beginning but through the incompetence of many politicians, the populous demanded an end to the hostilities. The Post membership continued to support the efforts of our service personnel in spite of the withering and demoralizing public sentiment. However, a bright spot in our past occurred in 1969 when a group of local high school students formed The Heartland Youth for Decency. Led by then-19 year old Denise Evers, these young people undertook the building of a Vietnam War Memorial, the first in the United States. Through their efforts, and partnering with the La Mesa Optimists Club and Junior Women’s Club, the group worked with the city to erect a memorial monument to those who gave their lives and served in Vietnam. The Memorial was completed and dedicated on 14 Jun 1970. On 14 Jun 2014, exactly 44 years later, a rededication ceremony was held, At the rededication, names of those killed and missing in action since the original dedication date were added. The memorial was transferred from the City of La Mesa to La Mesa Post 282 in 1997 where it is maintained and fully accessible to the public both day and night.
In 2011, the Veterans Memorial Parkway was dedicated as official, and additional, City of La Mesa recognition for La Mesa’s military members and their families. The City of La Mesa rededicated Fletcher Parkway as La Mesa’s official Veterans Memorial Parkway. In tribute to La Mesa veterans organizations, the City selected the Captain of O.K. Ingram Ship Post #1774, Jack Porath (who later also became the Commander of Post 282), to lead the event which was well attended by the public and members of Post 282, VFW Ship 1774, and AMVETS 1775 as well as many other veteran and private organizations in San Diego.
La Mesa Post 282 has now been in La Mesa for over 90 years. Since its founding in 1923, there have been fluctuations in membership as the veteran population and their interests change. But, the La Mesa Post is thriving, searching for new members, and helping both the community of La Mesa and the Legionnaires of La Mesa Post 282. On 20 Jan 2011, the Veterans of Foreign Wars O.K. Ingram Ship Post #1774 and American Veterans Post 1775 joined us in our facility due to permanent storm damage to their facility that they had been leasing. Some of our programs are now shared with these other veterans organizations resident in our facility, thus benefitting us all. Meal offerings are rotated among the organizations, allowing for increased participation.
La Mesa Post 282 will continue to take part in wide array of community betterment efforts and civic programs. There have been school awards to students of Grossmont High School and La Mesa Grammar Schools. Boys have been sent to Boys’ State in Sacramento, with all expenses paid. Numerous other youth programs have evolved over the years such as boy scouts and Junior ROTC. There are many other programs of benefit to the veterans and their families, both living and deceased.
For the facility, we have done much to update it so as to prepare it for future veterans, as those before us have done. But, much remains. Come join us, support us, and help us grow!