SHIRLEY -- The town's war veterans were called into service via email, word of mouth, even a lengthy announcement on public access cable TV, which asked them to come to Monday night's Board of Selectmen meeting, preferably wearing symbols of their service, such as hats. But as it turned out, the hot topic wasn't aired in the way most of them probably expected it would be.

Veterans showed up in numbers on a cold night, with a slick of snow and ice on the roads, presumably to show support when the War Memorial Building Board of Trustees and American Legion Post #83 Commander Charles Church made a case for the town to help the legion pay the building's heating oil bill, which has been as high as $6,000 annually, according to a Sentinel & Enterprise story last week.

But the anticipated appeal didn't come. Instead, the selectmen and the assembled crowd got a brief look at the building's history from longtime legion member and former selectman Norman Albert, who mentioned cost of upkeep and the town's duty to share it. Church made a short, noncommittal statement and Trustee Chairwoman Theresa Richards obliquely referred to a future request. Basically, she said the trustees would be back.

"We haven't requested an audience (with the selectmen) for over two years, but you'll see more of us in coming months," she said. Presumably, their pitch for financial assistance, if any, will come later.


The trustees' view of their duty has been "evolving," she said, as they familiarize themselves with the needs of the town-owned building, whose history they are learning about with the help of local residents.

Church thanked the veterans who came and the selectmen for granting time on their agenda.

"At lot of time and effort" went into gathering information for tonight's presentation, he said, citing research of old Public Spirit newspapers at the Ayer library dating to 1922 and Shirley annual town reports going back as far. All the source material is available to the public, he said. "It's fascinating reading."

Albert, an active member for 55 years of the Shirley American Legion post housed in the War Memorial Building, sketched its history. Originally, a church stood on the site and when the congregation left, the legion bought it. It was destroyed by fire in 1935.

The same year, with the town "in dire need" of a function hall, a new building was erected on the site as part of Works Project Administration projects. But the town could only get "matching funds," so the legion offered its insurance money as well as the property, Albert said.

The gift was contingent on the legion continuing to be housed in the building and for town veterans to be given first priority for its use, per a state law that he cited. In addition, the deal called for the trustees to ask the town for funding, he said.

Not including the value of the land, the gift of $12,000 in insurance money would translate to over $100,000 today, Albert said.

With World War II looming, the federal government took over the building as a USO, expanding and remodeling it for the purpose, but the legion "never lost its vested interest," Albert said. After a year of legion ownership, the building was returned to the town in 1946.

The 1948 Annual Town Report shows the "heavy share" the legion had taken on for the building's upkeep and expenses, he said, and also stated that the town should provide "a sufficient appropriation" to help care for "this monument to the town's veterans.

In conclusion, Albert noted that the War Memorial Building is more than a home for the legion. It is also a town treasure, registered on both the state and federal historic registers.

"Few people know its history and meaning as a monument," he said.

Acting Selectmen Chairman David Swain thanked Albert for enlightening the board.

He also indicated there might be a way to help with the heating bill, even though no formal request was made.

The building was one of the municipal buildings recently assessed for energy efficiency as part of a Green Communities grant overseen by the Energy Advisory Committee.

Albert said the evaluation had been done but he didn't know the outcome. 

Swain said he'd spoken to an EAC member before the meeting. "They're still running the numbers," he said. "We may be able to assist" via the state energy grant, he said.