After over 100 years of serving the community of Kennett Square, the American Legion looks to the future under the leadership of its new female commander.
Over 100 years ago, local veterans cast a vision for an American Legion post in Kennett Square—and the organization has maintained a community focus ever since. The William W. Fahey Post No. 491 building, at the corner of East State and South Broad Streets, was designed to accomplish three goals—to serve as a memorial to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, to be a community gathering space, and to provide a permanent home for the Post. “It was built as the biggest hall where the community could meet,” says lifelong Kennett resident, longtime business owner, and Post No. 491 1st Vice-Commander Bill Taylor.
Like the hard-won freedoms we sometimes take for granted, the American Legion has been a quiet, unassuming cornerstone of the community for many decades. In fact, many residents and visitors walk or drive daily by one of the Borough’s largest buildings without realizing it. In addition to Legion meeting rooms, offices, and the large community hall, the building is also home to the Volko Insurance office and has become a hub for arts and culture. The building houses Square Pear Art Gallery and the Kennett Symphony headquarters as well as the studios of Robert Jackson, Trover Nine, and Rusty Nelson. The Kennett Amateur Theatrical Society (KATS) also has its prop, costume, and rehearsal space in the Legion.
The building’s large hall is available for rentals and regularly hosts quinceañeras and other parties as well as Casa Guanajuato’s annual Day of the Dead celebration, the Student Art on the Square show and, more recently, Borough Council meetings and community gatherings like Kennett Collaborative’s State of the Square event. The annual KATS annual British pantomime, “Mother Goose and the Rent Collector,” will also be staged at the Legion in January 2022.
Although the fifteen ex-servicemen who signed the Post’s charter in 1920 could hardly have imagined the kinds of changes a century would bring, or the diverse community Kennett would become, the fact that the building hosts this kind of cultural variety and nurtures community vitality honors their hopes for this space. The Post’s membership, like that of many other service organizations across the country, has dwindled over the decades from its peak of around 800 to about 130. But the core membership is loyal and welcoming and looking forward to a new chapter in its history with Cindy Abbadini as the Post’s next Commander.
Post No. 491 members have served in different branches of the armed services in a variety of conflicts and contexts, many of them in Vietnam or earlier, but members of all generations connect, share resources, and offer a support system that’s unique. “There’s instant connection and comradery—an immediate bond and shared experience that’s hard for those who haven’t served to understand,” Abbadini says. She laughs. “Sometimes we talk a different language that our well-meaning civilian friends don’t get.”
Those intergenerational connections are exemplified in the leadership of Abbadini as Commander, Taylor as 1st Vice-Commander, and John DiMatteo as 2nd Vice-Commander. DiMatteo, a former US Marine, is also active in the Marine Corps League and other community organizations and is the president and chief compliance officer for DiMatteo Financial Group. All three American Legion leaders grew up in Kennett Square and share a love for this place and its people, a sense of reverence for its history, and hope for its future.
A New Commander and a New Chapter
Commander Cindy Abbadini may be new to the American Legion, but she’s no stranger to Kennett Square. She’s a proud graduate of Kennett High School and is eager to reconnect with her hometown and its people. She’s been amazed by the revitalized downtown she’s seen come back to life over the years. “The first time I attended a Memorial Day Parade on one of my visits home, I thought, ‘Wow! This is my hometown!’” she says with a smile. “Kennett was a great place to grow up. I was well prepared and received a great education in Kennett schools. I always knew it was great, and I’m glad to see the district receiving the recognition for excellence it deserves.” The teachers and administration all took a personal interest in students, she says, and she remembers the legendary athletic director and World War II veteran Nate Kendig, who lost an eye in the war, with particular fondness. “Everyone loved him,” she says.
As the daughter of a Marine Corps vet, Abbadini knew the Army would give her excellent training. After earning a nursing degree at Penn State, she signed on with a direct commission. She enjoyed it, earned a graduate degree, and stayed on after her educational commitment was up. Her several deployments included a posting in Germany and being part of a peacekeeping force in Bosnia. She also served as a Chief Nurse of a Combat Support Hospital in Iraq, after the surge, in 2010–11.
“The leadership training in the service is phenomenal,” she says, and she rose to the challenges of thinking on her feet in austere conditions. When there are no bells and whistles and decisions need to be made, she says, “You have no time to think about fear. And you can’t be awake 24/7, so you figure out quickly who the core leaders are. I can’t say enough about the top-notch folks serving under me.”
Abbadini describes her time as the supervisor of the surgical section at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, which included Ward 57, as “exhausting, and heart-breaking, yet inspiring as well.” Because the patients were there for so long—often through multiple surgeries and stages of recovery—she got to know them and their families and was able to support them through intense times. “It’s hard to put into words,” she says.
As she renewed her commitment over the years, Abbadini sometimes wondered how she’d know when to retire. But as someone once told her she would, she did know when it was time for her to do something different. After working for the VA for several years, she came home to be with her mother and consider her next chapter. It was when she was invited to speak at the Veteran’s Day lunch at the Kennett Area Senior Center in 2019 that she connected with some of the Legion members. She appreciated their warm welcome and eventually agreed to take over as Commander earlier this year.
During the pandemic, Abbadini had the opportunity to serve at COVID vaccine clinics with the County’s Medical Reserve Corps. She’s also been enjoying being able to volunteer with the Mainline Animal Rescue. “It’s a fantastic organization. I loved spending time at my grandparents’ farm in Downingtown growing up, and working with animals is something I’ve always wanted to do,” she says.
Coming out of COVID, one of the goals Abbadini shares with fellow Legion members including fellow female member Vicki Dash-Slesinski, who runs the Legion’s youth program and has been an active member at the heart of the community for 25 years, is to engage new members, re-establish its nonprofit status, and re-energize the Post. Membership is open to any veteran or active service member in good standing for a nominal annual fee.
The Post, under Bill Taylor’s leadership, has organized the legendary Kennett Square Memorial Day Parade and commemorations for decades. The parade, which has grown to be one of the region’s largest, most vibrant, and best attended parades, not only honors veterans and teaches younger generations the value of patriotism, Taylor says. It’s also an important part of the sustainability of the Legion. “The more active you are, the more members you have,” he says. Although it no longer has its own drum and bugle corps, the Post offers a color and honor guard for funerals, places flags on the graves of service members, and visits veterans homes. The Legion erected the World War I memorial at Mary D. Lang in 1940 and lays wreaths at the site on Memorial Day.
Growing Up in Kennett Square During World War II
When he was eighteen, Taylor joined the Army with an eight-year commitment that included six months of active service and seven and a half years of active reserve. This arrangement worked well for Taylor, who left in March 1957 and was able to come home in September of that year to help his father with Taylor Oil—which is celebrating its seventieth year in business in 2021—and to marry his high-school sweetheart that November.
About thirty years ago, Taylor says, he began attending the Monday night volleyball league at the Legion and the social time afterward and was invited by Commander “Lum” Stansberry and others to join. But Taylor’s deep sense of patriotism, and of the importance of the Legion as an organization, extends back to his childhood during World War II. He’s always admired the soldiers who served in World War II and has honored many of them over the years as parade grand marshals and as speakers at Legion events. Taylor knows how important it is for them to be able to tell their stories—and for those stories to be heard.
The kinds of sacrifice and scarcity that are difficult to fathom today were part of life in those years, in Kennett Square as in the rest of the country. “We had ration coupons for nearly everything. I remember my mom saying there wasn’t any sugar or butter, not much meat,” Taylor says. “As a kid I collected newspapers, scrap iron, anything that was valuable. At school we sold savings bond stamps for 10 cents each. On Sundays, I went out with my father to collect cattails in burlap bags, and they were sent to the American Legion to make parachutes because silk was scarce. I knew that the Legion was important. There were black-outs in town during air raids, and Legion volunteers would take different sections of town to make sure the lights were all out. And the Legion was equipped with medical supplies in case of emergencies.”
He also vividly recalls how “the town went crazy” the day the war was over. Standing at the corner of Cypress and Willow, he says, “Church bells were ringing, sirens were going off, people were in the streets greeting each other, beating pots and pans, sounding car horns. Everyone was elated.” Part of this elation, Taylor notes, stemmed from the fact that everyone had done their part and sacrificed together. “There’s been nothing like it since,” he says. “Not a tenth of the sacrifice.”
What It Took To Build Back Then
Sacrifice, hard work, and community support were all key ingredients in the project to build a home for the Kennett Square Legion. People came together to support this organization that’s “national, non-sectional, non-partisan, non-political, and non-sectarian.” Bonds were sold to finance the $18,000 purchase price of the land, and the building costs of approximately $60,000 were raised with the help and enthusiastic hard work of many community members.
While Abbadini is only the second female Commander at the Post, many other women have paved the way—both as members and as supporters. Like many organizations that once reflected the gender distinctions of their affiliations, the Post owes its strong foundations to women who worked tirelessly behind the scenes. The Women’s Auxiliary Unit of the William W. Fahey Post No. 491 was organized in February 1921, and its members immediately set to baking, stitching, and organizing strawberry festivals and other events to raise funds for the building and for the ongoing community work of the Post. After the building was complete, countless banquets were prepared in the large kitchen to bring in an important source of income for the Post and to support local Boy and Girl Scout troops and sports teams, and to provide scholarships and meet other community needs.
The Legion Pageants, which were presented at Longwood Gardens and championed by Pierre S. du Pont, an enthusiastic early supporter of the Legion, also raised major funds for the building, for families of veterans, and for veterans hospitals and a Kennett junior baseball team over the years. As many as 75,000 people attended these pageants annually during the 1930s, with an average attendance of over 1,800 at each performance on the outdoor stage at Longwood. Shows included The Wizard of Oz, Prunella, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and many others. An early newspaper account also noted that the pageants provided “excellent advertisement for Kennett Square.”
Today, this building built by and for the community stands as a testament to the history, perseverance, and ongoing vitality of the town and its people.
To find out more about American Legion membership or to inquire about hall rental, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 610-444-3004.