The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Local News

September 17, 2009

Last Man's club carries on

Mankato area WWII vets first gathered in 1956

MANKATO — To kick off the 54th annual meeting of the World War II Last Man’s Club, each of the 23 men present drinks a small glass of white zinfandel and remembers the 269 camrades who’ve died over the decades.

When 33 more pass on, the final survivor will get the bottle of 1956 Kentucky Straight Bourbon that sits in the middle of the room.

Alcohol might not be the most pragmatic gift to the elderly, though.

“No sense in leaving it for the last man. They can’t drink when they get that age,” jokes Arlo Sandvig, one of the group.

On Dec. 5, 1956, 303 World War II veterans held the first banquet of the Mankato chapter of the Last Man’s Club. No one could join afterward, so the membership has dwindled from 303 to 34.

In early years, the drunken revelry didn’t wane until the early morning hours, remembers Dean Schwerr, whose June 27, 1927, birthday makes him the youngest surviving member. There were endless motions and amendments and storytelling.

Thursday evening’s banquet at the American Legion, however, is a little less lively. As salad is served a tape of mostly off-color jokes as told by a deceased member is played over the intercom. There are no more war stories to tell, and they’re ready to leave by 8 p.m. The perfunctory election of next year’s officers lasts only a few minutes, as Schwerr is elected president over his own lone dissenting vote.

Barely 10 percent of the original members remain, and the price of the meal is 10 times higher than the $1.50 roast turkey meal in 1956.

They’ve taken their aging in stride.

Mike Madsen, another 82-year-old, admits “there aren’t many of us left.”

Peter Menten, 97, is the oldest member. Born on a farm near Lake George with 18 siblings, he joined the Army in 1942 and spent most of the war in a Madison, Wis., clinic. He bought his North Mankato home new in 1950, and worked for the Postal Service, retiring in 1975. His wife died in 2004.

While poking at his steak, he mumbles that he should have ordered shrimp.

And the winner of that bottle of bourbon is anybody’s guess.

“You don’t know when you’re gonna die,” says Glenn Geary.

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