NEW CUMBERLAND, W.Va. — There was one less man at the New Cumberland Last Man’s Club meeting on Friday.
The three surviving members of the World War II veterans club formed in 1955 paid tribute to their fallen comrade, Charles “Chuck” Byrne, at their annual Veterans Day meeting. Byrne died on Oct. 8 at the age of 88.
“I just saw him a few weeks ago at the Sparkle market,” said John Kuzio, 96, of New Cumberland. “He seemed to be all right.”
Byrne was stationed with the Army in Alaska during World War II and re-enlisted for a stint with the Navy in Korea.
“He was quiet. He never said much,” said Kenneth “Pat” Kessel, 88, of New Manchester. “He was a very nice guy.”
Kessel, the club chaplain, read Byrne’s name at the end of a long list of names that they read every year — the roll call of departed comrades. The last member to go was Chester “Chet” Spilecki, 83, of New Cumberland, who died in January 2009, about two months after attending his last Last Man’s Club meeting.
The Last Man’s Club was named for the idea that the last surviving member — literally the last man standing — would toast the memory of all those departed before him.
The club started because a lot of the men, all veterans of World War II, already knew each other from socializing at the VFW. The occasion of the first meeting, held at the Fort Pitt Inn, was the 1955 football game between West Virginia University and the University of Pittsburgh.
Since then, meetings have been held at venues in Weirton, Steubenville, East Liverpool and, more recently, at the Adam Poe VFW Post 3526 in New Cumberland. At one time, when the club was large, two to three cooks were needed to prepare the meal, and club dues covered the cost of meal preparation.
A photo believed to be taken a year after the club formed shows 45 members in a group pose, most of them wearing suits and ties. Kuzio, then 36, can be seen with a big grin on his face, kneeling in the front row and shaking the hand of Joe Hoder, the man next to him.
On Friday, the club’s faithful cook, Faith Buffington, prepared a meal of roasted pork loin, mashed potatoes, Cape Cod vegetables, homemade rolls, salad and, for dessert, pie and ice cream. Beverages included coffee and beer from the VFW bar.
The men moved from the bar to an upstairs room where a table was set with three place-settings and patriotic decorations. They socialized before the meeting proper.
As 2016 president, Don King, 90, of Toronto, Ohio, called Friday’s meeting to order. Kessel said the invocation and read the roll call of departed comrades.
Before the meal, the men drank a toast to Byrne and all those who have gone before them: “To us here, to our departed there, until we meet once more in fellowship.”
When there is only one member left, the last man standing is supposed to open a bottle of Cook’s Imperial American champagne that dates back to the club’s founding and offer one final toast.
Kuzio served in the Pacific theater as a staff sergeant with the Army Air Force Ordnance Corps, Kessel served on the U.S.S. General A.E. Anderson, a troop transport ship that operated in the Pacific in the waning days of World War II, and King served as a gunner’s mate, third class, in the Navy in the Pacific.
(Huba can be contacted at [email protected])