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Steve Ezell has a glass of tea in the bar room of the VFW Post in Athens.
Daily photo by Brennen Smith
Steve Ezell has a glass of tea in the bar room of the VFW Post in Athens.

hour at VFW

Alcohol sales a sore topic for some veterans, Athens officials

By Holly Hollman · 340-2445

ATHENS — VFW patrons weren’t all that happy at Friday night’s happy hour.

Huddled at a dimly lit bar, they sipped their beers, smoked their cigarettes and lamented their hurt feelings over what they called negative comments made about their organization.

The pool tables were silent, as was the big-screen TV playing in the corner. The veterans and their spouses wanted to talk about questions raised regarding the VFW’s alcohol sales.

“I’m retired Army and a Vietnam vet, and I’m disappointed in city officials and the negative press,” said Russell Barksdale. “I don’t understand why some people are against us.”

“I think the news going around has hurt our reputation,” said World War II and Korea veteran Bill Smith.

Other issues

“Awhile back, there were questions raised about whether our money was going to charity like it was supposed to from bingo proceeds, when we were losing money on that. Then we’ve been tied in to a shooting at the American Legion, which is across town from us, and now this stuff about alcohol.”

Barksdale and Smith, both members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4765 on Alabama 127 in Athens, referred to news that resulted from an Athens City Council meeting this month when city leaders tweaked the alcohol ordinance.

The two men also referred to comments made when the VFW applied for its alcohol license.

At a March public hearing regarding its license, Councilman Harold Wales raised concerns, including the 2005 shooting of Athens police Sgt. Brett Constable.

The shooting occurred at a party at the American Legion, a different organization from the VFW. The Legion had rented the building to a nonmember. VFW member Roy Coulter told the council the VFW does not rent to the public.

The recent news came earlier this month when the council changed its alcohol ordinance. Council members then discussed whether the VFW was selling to the public for monetary gain because it advertised happy hour, no cover charge and karaoke nights.

Under its “club one” classification, the VFW can sell beer and liquor. However, according to state law, only members and bona fide guests can buy alcohol at a club. State law defines a bona fide guest as someone who has a social, civic, business or charitable relationship with the host.

The law says a guest is not someone whose “primary purpose in attendance is for pecuniary benefit of the club.”

Barksdale said comments from that council meeting brought the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to the VFW last week.

“They didn’t find anything wrong other than we need to make sure to keep the sign-in roster a certain way, like we need to make sure the names are legible, and we must make sure we’re not advertising to the general public,” Barksdale said.

The bar area is behind the main part of the building. Those who enter must sign the roster legibly, and a VFW member must sponsor any guest. A guest can remain only while the sponsor is on site.

Smith said he has turned away people who were unknown to members.

As for the advertisement, a letter from the ABC Board to the VFW said state law does not prohibit advertisements. The VFW advertises in local newspapers and on a street sign on its property.

“The problem with the ad arises from the apparent appeal to the general public,” ABC Chief Roy H. Houlton Jr. wrote on Oct. 15. “The general public may, of course, be admitted onto the premises, but the private club license does not authorize the VFW Post to sell or serve alcoholic beverages to nonmembers.”

Bartender Karen Conn said the organization needs to advertise to its membership because “so many vets don’t know about this place.”

Smith said there are more than 700 members but only 15 are active. Nightly activities like karaoke, fish fries and dances are drawing only 15 to 20 people, even with the bar.

“We’re still struggling financially,” Smith said. “Our dues do not pay all the bills or support all our programs because most of the money goes to the national office.”

Out of the annual dues of $23 a person, the local post keeps $5.

The VFW no longer has bingo because the city ordinance prohibits gambling in the same building as alcohol sales, even if the bar area is separated by closed doors.

Member Lyle Sadler said competition from gaming machines elsewhere hurt bingo at the VFW, which led to its decision to sell alcohol.

Smith said it was not an easy decision because some members are against drinking.

“We had to do something to generate money to pay our bills and support our 19 programs,” he said.

Coulter said the national organization requires local posts to financially sponsor programs such as providing college scholarships, honoring local emergency responders and helping veterans’ hospitals.

Sadler said the club also gives veterans a place to socialize.

“We’ve gone through a lot that people who haven’t served can’t understand,” Sadler said. “We can come here and feel relaxed and talk about our experiences with others just like us.”

Smith said the VFW doesn’t want the public coming to the bar, not only because it’s against the law, but also because strangers would be hard to control.

“And we like to share old war stories amongst ourselves, and us older ones discuss our health, too,” said the 81-year-old Smith.

“The police have not had to come out here once. We will be more careful with our advertising, and I hope that the public will respect us again.”

VFW events that welcome the public

Although the public cannot patronize the bar at the VFW on Alabama 127 in Athens, there are events that the public can attend.

Here is a list of upcoming activities:

Each Saturday through Nov. 17 — Turkey shoot, 8 a.m., shells furnished, $3 a shot.

Nov. 10 — Veterans Day program, 11 a.m. Speaker will be Probate Judge Mike Davis. Chicken stew provided free, or carryout for $3 a quart.

Nov. 16 — Fish fry, 6 p.m., $6 for small plate or $8 for large.

Holly Hollman

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